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The Issues Behind Filegate; It’s Not Just a “Bureaucratic Snafu”

If illegal use of confidential FBI files is proven, Filegate will most resemble that part of Watergate wherein White House zeal to dig up dirt on others led to dirty practices–and genuine scandal. No one familiar with the White House pass system could believe that “Project Update” was merely concerned with reviewing 407 FBI files of former presidents’ aides to see if they still merited passes. That transparently false explanation is even more suggestive of a cover-up than the reluctance of the White House to provide Congress with evidence of the affair.

Who among former employees ordinarily would be entitled to a White House pass? The answer is simple: no one. As a Deputy Assistant to President Reagan in the mid-’80’s I knew very well that the day after I left the payroll I would merit clearance only on a visit-by-visit basis, and only then with a current pass holding staffer to vouch for me. It did not matter if I still knew the Secret Service guards or they remembered me. It didn’t matter if I was still in the same Administration, serving in a departmental position. I had no right to a White House pass. If there were a few exceptions to this rule, they were close family members and personal advisers of the incumbent president.

So how could Craig Livingstone, director of security for President Clinton, pretend that he wanted to check the FBI files of employees of former Administrations to see which ones should be given passes? Again the answer is simple, he couldn’t. His explanation is bogus. (Can’t you just see old Reagan and Bush aides given free rein to roam the West Wing, parking their wingtips in the Roosevelt Room and schmoozing George Stephanopolous in the Mess?) Coming from a security chief who at the time had given passes to many of his own White House colleagues without ever putting them through an FBI clearance–a record of delay and laxity unmatched by any previous Administration–the whole story is offensive as well as ridiculous.

It is far more plausible that the former employees whose private files were ordered from the FBI were improper targets of White House opposition research. Out of curiosity, I sent for a copy of the list to see if I was on it. I wasn’t. But there was the name of my deputy in the White House, Tony Blankley. Why would the file of the deputy director of the Office of Planning and Evaluation be sought and not his superior’s? Could it possibly be because Mr. Blankley had become Press Secretary to Newt Gingrich, an Administration critic? Other people on the list are now leaders of Congressional staffs with direct oversight on White House activities.

Many of the names on the list, it is true, are hard to assign any obvious purpose. Former Chief of Staff (and later Secretary of State) Jim Baker is often cited as such a case. Yet, think: in 1993, when the list was first collected, Baker’s name was a lot more interesting, for at that time he was talking about running for President in 1996.

So the White House assertion that the file acquisitions was just a “bureaucratic snafu” does not meet the laugh test.

The next line of defense for Administration apologists is, “So what?” After all, why should former officials worry about their past being known unless they have something to hide?

In truth, they have a lot to worry about, starting with the danger of anonymous and false accusations being promoted by people in official positions. In most arenas of life, malicious rumors can be confronted in the public forum. We see it all the time in lawsuits and political campaigns. But compilation of an FBI file does not take place in the open.

An FBI background security check routinely is ordered for people under consideration for service in the White House or for appointment to a department post that requires confirmation by the Senate. Some lesser positions also require FBI checks. By law, the information collected in the resulting FBI file is confidential and meant only for review by the President, his personnel staff and, in the case of a Senate confirmation, a few relevant senators and their top committee aides.

However, it is a popular misconception that FBI files necessarily are objective and represent the FBI’s own considered judgment. FBI agents seek out opinions as well as facts, and often more from one’s critics than from one’s friends. If someone accuses you of something, you don’t have the right to know his name, or, as a practical matter, the nature of the accusation. The agents roll the whole pile–fact and possible fiction–into something that is meant to be evaluated by the authorities making (or confirming) the appointment. These authorities almost always behave with responsibility and common sense.

Even so, misuse of FBI files occurs. From 1959, when President Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Admiral Lewis Strauss, was defeated on trumped up charges, through every administration since, we have seen instances where something that sounds like a conclusive evaluation, but isn’t–“an FBI file”–is leaked, and a nominee or office-holder is smeared.

Imagine that you were under consideration for a presidential appointment and you knew that your views might incite foes to say false or distorted things about you to the FBI, and that you ran at least a small risk that your file might be misued by persons unknown to prevent your appointment. It would be a disincentive to serve, wouldn’t it?

Grim as that prospect looms, now imagine you also learned that years later, staffers in some future White House could get a hold of your unprocessed FBI file and make whatever public or private use of it they wanted–without your approval or knowledge and without connection to any legitimate official purpose. That suggests why so-called “Project Update” was such a stark perversion of security procedures.

There are, indeed, “bureaucratic snafus” that mitigate government “mistakes.” This doesn’t seem to be one of them. It looks more like an assault on privacy and due process, and more broadly, on the trust that supports representative democracy. It fully warrants the investigation it is getting.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.