Are the Clintons' fingerprints all over "Filegate"?

Investigative reporter paints a damaging portrait of a scheming First Couple

Published June 27, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

A Walter Mittyesque figure, Craig Livingstone, took the fall yesterday for the "Filegate" scandal, tearily resigning as head of the White House personnel security office. His sidekick, Anthony Marceca, a civilian Army employee who set the scandal in motion when he called for the FBI files on hundreds of Republicans, also won't be seen around the White House anymore. Curiously, the GOP-controlled congressional committee that held hearings on the affair yesterday, seemed content to merely lambaste the hapless pair.

So far, the consensus among reporters covering the story is that, at most, this was a "rogue operation," conducted by two low-level operatives whose sense of self-importance had been pumped up by watching too many episodes of "Mission Impossible." Another example of an earlier out-of-control White House, reckless, arrogant and stupid, but not criminal.

But there is a sense of unease about this latest Clinton embarrassment. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, published today, shows a whopping majority of Americans believe, at least at this stage, that the FBI files were gathered in order to find damaging information on political opponents. While Clinton is still comfortably ahead in the polls, Wall Street Journal pundit Al Hunt, normally a stalwart defender of the current regime, wrote that the affair could "bring down the whole deck of cards."

Is Filegate just a case of bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude by a politically ambitious "beefy former bar bouncer," as Livingstone has been described? Or does this scandal carry the fingerprints of Bill and Hillary Clinton? We talked with Ronald Kessler, a former reporter with the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, and author of several investigative books on government agencies, including, "The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency," and "Inside the White House: The Hidden Lives of the Modern Presidents and the Secrets of the
World's Most Powerful Institution." His latest book is "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded" (Warner Books).

First off, what kind of information is in these FBI files? Why would anyone in the White House want to read them?

Some of the most sacrosanct information on the federal government is held by the FBI. Both its criminal and straightforward background investigations can turn up any conceivably embarrassing information -- extramarital affairs, unusual sexual practices, financial problems, confidential information from the IRS, as well as possible criminal activity. Sometimes this information is in the form of allegations which may turn out to be false. When misused it can have terrible consequences because it can be used to blackmail people, either directly or implicitly; it can be used to ruin people's reputations, or to exercise power over people in high places -- which is what J. Edgar Hoover did when he was FBI director.

Both Anthony Marceca and Craig Livingstone told Congress yesterday that the files were pulled merely to update old security files.

No way. The sole legitimate purpose of looking at these files is to grant clearances for people who actually work in the White House. These people knew who worked in the White House and who didn't. They knew that these Republicans were not working in the White House, but still kept their files.

You're saying the White House explanation that the whole thing was a bureaucratic bungle doesn't wash?

Not in any way. There is no conceivable, plausibly innocent explanation for the White House obtaining files on prominent Republicans who had no connection with the Clinton administration. You'd have to be a total idiot not to know that James Baker and Marlin Fitzwater were not people who needed clearances to get in the Clinton White House. And Livingstone and Marceca were not political naofs; they had both worked for other campaigns, and seemed to have traded in this kind of derogatory information about opponents before.

What files were they after -- and why?

I don't know. But then we still don't know exactly what the Watergate burglars were looking for. Conceivably, they could have heard rumors about certain people -- that they were having affairs -- and wanted to get the documentation which they could have used to embarrass them, or to get them in line with particular programs the White House wanted. Alternatively, they could have been interested in various past investigations involving the Clintons, such as the Bush administration using the passport office to investigate Clinton during the '92 election.

A tit for tat sort of thing?

Could be. James Baker may have been involved in the passport affair, so they may have thought, "if we pull his file maybe we'll find out more about what went on in that investigation." But just picture what you can do if you could look at secret information about anybody you want. There's no end of possibilities.

When you say "they," you presumably are pointing the finger at Livingstone and Marcecas.

No. No way people at that level would be doing this kind of thing alone, knowing how serious it was. It's a criminal violation under the Privacy Act, and also under IRS statutes, to try to obtain this information for such purposes. I would not be surprised if this went right to the top of the White House.

When you say "right to the top"...

Well, Hillary and Bill. And that may be something the FBI will be able to find out. I'm sure right now they're checking the returned files for fingerprints. And if the originals were given to Hillary and Bill, then their fingerprints will be on them. Unless photocopies were distributed, in which case it might be harder to document what happened. Still, just by interviewing all the people involved, I think the FBI will be able to determine what happened.

Why on earth would the Clintons put themselves at such risk? Wouldn't they -- lawyers both -- see the risks of doing something like this? Hillary Clinton was a lawyer on the Watergate investigations!

Yes, but they've got themselves in jams before -- in Whitewater and the Travelgate situation. They may have other things to hide: they put on an act, holding hands in public, while in private they are at each other's throats -- which is typical of the kind of hypocrisy that goes on in the White House.

You're not a particular fan of the First Couple.

I've interviewed Air Force One stewards, maids, butlers, Secret Service agents, and the picture they paint -- and they are eyewitnesses -- is not pretty. Every night, there's screaming in the White House and the residence between Hillary and Bill. They do throw things at each other.

But what would they be after in those FBI files?

Files on people who Hillary thought might have leaked the information that she threw a lamp at Bill. The leaker could have been a White House butler. One of the files pulled was Billy Dale, former head of the White House travel office. They might have been trying to get the goods on him to justify having fired him so they could hire the President's cousin and give a contract to another friend of theirs. There is more and more evidence about efforts to get stuff on Billy Dale. Statements by Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent, and another former agent, both talk about improper efforts to get information on Dale. It could also have been just a fishing expedition: "Let's see what we can find out about anybody we don't like, and then we'll figure out what to do with it." They didn't necessarily think through what they would do with all this information.

So far, in the other scandals, the allegations have floated more around Hillary, that she was somehow the Lady Macbeth of the team, while Bill was blissfully ignorant. You're saying the President himself was perhaps involved in this?

I think he would have been aware of it, but probably it would have been Hillary who would have motivated it.

Where do you think this is going to go?

I think it's going to get much worse. No question, this is just the beginning. I suspect perhaps there are more files. And the FBI is culpable also here. They had to realize that these requests were improper.

FBI director Louis Freeh said, "We were victimized." What did he mean by that?

That the FBI was asked for these files under false pretenses, and that therefore the FBI was the victim of a crime.

Quote of the day

Unanswered prayer

"Each time he went over there, I put him in God's hands. And I said to the Lord, 'He's yours now. You brought him back to me safely before, just bring him back again.'"

-- Laura Johnson, 36, wife of Sgt. Kevin J. Johnson of the U.S. Air Force, one of 19 Americans killed in Tuesday's terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia. (From "Back Home, Sadness and Fond Memories," in Thursday's New York Times.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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