A QUESTION OF IGNORANCE?
October 23, 1997
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KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson opened today's session expressing a weariness with White House officials that's become familiar in these hearings.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Everybody knows this committee has a cut-off date. And I have accused the White House of slow walking and foot dragging. And I stand by that accusation. It is a remarkable performance.
KWAME HOLMAN: The latest example, according to Thompson, is the sudden release of videotapes of presidential coffees attended by major donors to the 1996 Clinton campaign months after such material was requested of White House counsel Charles Roth.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Back in April we requested certain information, including videotapes, including videotapes, sent it over to Mr. Ruff's office. Mr. Ruff, in turn, sent out a directive to all the offices in the White House. Second page of the Ruff directive referred to coffees and fund-raisers. But it did not refer to videotapes. One of the offices it sent to is the White House military office; that is the office you may say is over these gentlemen here that we have here today from WHCA. The only problem is when WHCA got it, apparently it didn't have that second page in it. Had the first page, third page, the fourth page, but missing the only page that mentions coffees and fund-raisers. So now not only do we not have any reference to videotapes. Now we do not have any reference to coffees or fund-raisers. In other words, the only place where the videotapes were is the only place that we know of that did not have the page that might have directed them to videotapes. And we don't really know much about that because apparently WHCA cannot locate the memo missing the second page now. So it is an unbelievable scenario.
KWAME HOLMAN: Stephen Smith is chief of operations for the military unit know as the WHCA, the White House Communications Agency, which records presidential events. He was asked to read from his earlier deposition to committee lawyers.
STEPHEN SMITH, White House Communications Agency: "I really think a lot has happened purely due to ignorance. I honestly believe if somebody wanted the White House Communications Agency to look for the tapes, audiotapes, videotapes, that's what they should have asked for--you know video or audiotapes." If I may just for a moment, just elaborate on my comments that I made when I said ignorance . I believe it was ignorance, as I stated at my testimony, that the White House Communications Agency was not asked specifically for video or audiotapes. And I also was referring but I did not elaborate at the time that it was also, I believe, ignorance on part of the White House Counsel's office, and I say that referring to my conversations with Mr. Umbrosio. It was very clear to me that he did not understand that the White House Communications Agency did video and audio taping.
KWAME HOLMAN: Smith testified the missing page from the memo describing what to search for probably got lost. He said it might not have helped even if he had seen it.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Looking back, I want it as best you can, Mr. Smith, the so-called second page that referred to all documents, including White House coffees and fund-raisers and so forth, if you had had that, without mentioning videotapes, would that have--would that have caused you to go to your videotape database to run checks, or would have thought of documents in the traditional sense that most of us think of documents, that is, pieces of paper.
STEPHEN SMITH: Where I sit in the organization and where--at the time of this request--I would have not have thought of videotapes, even if I had seen the word "coffee."
KWAME HOLMAN: Chief Petty Officer Charles McGrath testified when a member of the White House Counsel's staff realized last month the WHCA had videotapes of the presidential coffees he was surprised.
KEVIN SIMPSON, Democratic Counsel: Did he express his surprise or shock in any other way you care to share with this committee?
CHIEF PETTY OFFICER CHARLES McGRATH, White House Communications Agency: He said, oh--expletive--and the word begins with an "s."
KEVIN SIMPSON: Would you say he was unaware prior to that time of the existence of videotapes of coffee events?
CHIEF PETTY OFFICER CHARLES McGRATH: Yes. I'm confident of that.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) Maine: I must say I do find that a bit perplexing, and maybe it's because our world is so focused on these investigations but they--the coffees have been in the press a long time. You're aware of the committee's investigation. It just didn't occur to you when you got this request for information for the committee that the videotapes would be relevant and important to us, Mr. Smith?
STEPHEN SMITH: I never thought of it in that light, that the videotapes would have been important to you. And I really haven't been tracking all this in the media. I've really gotten involved in it here in the last two weeks. And, quite frankly, in the position that I'm in, I mean, I'm part of the Department of Defense, and I try to stay as far away as possible that I can from this.
KWAME HOLMAN: When it reconvenes next week, the committee is expected to ask officials of the White House Counsel's Office why they didn't find the tapes sooner.