The FBI clamped down on use of its background files after Director Louis J. Freeh issued a scalding report Friday blaming his agency and, by implication, the White House, for “egregious violations of privacy” in distribution of the secret dossiers.
In a 31-page review of the bureau’s rules and recent procedures, the FBI found that the White House had obtained 408 secret files improperly from FBI archives between December 1993, and February 1994.
The report ascribed no motive to White House officials who sought the files. But Freeh, in the kind of criticism of the White House rarely heard from any agency head, said that the 30-year system of providing files to the White House had “relied on good faith and honor. Unfortunately, the FBI and I were victimized.”
The White House brushed aside this seeming criticism, arguing again that the files were mistakenly sought only because low-level officials did not know which holdover employees and others needed to be screened for White House access.
“I don’t understand that [Freeh’s] statement,” said Mike McCurry, White House press secretary.
But the president’s Capitol Hill critics, who next week begin hearings on the matter, insisted that Freeh’s words were unequivocal.
“He’s completely clear,” said Ed Amorosi, a spokesman for Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. “The system had been working fine since the time of Lyndon Johnson, and then the Clinton people came along. And this is giving the FBI a black eye.”
In Savannah, Ga., presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole seized the issue, demanding: “How far will this White House go? We need an investigation . . . to find out the truth.” The FBI report seemed likely to give new momentum to an episode that came to light last week after congressional Republicans sought to learn how the White House had obtained the FBI file on Billy R. Dale, former head of the White House travel office. Dale’s firing in May 1993, along with six others for alleged mismanagement, set off an investigation within the White House.
The White House has not investigated the file matter itself, and the FBI sharply limited its inquiries. Neither wants to interfere with the inquiry now underway by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, but both announced reforms.
Officials on all sides have strongly condemned White House use of the files as improper. And Freeh served himself a share of blame Friday, declaring: “‘I was not vigilant enough in seeking to avoid invasions of privacy.” He promised that such violations “will not occur again on my watch.”
The FBI report found no blame in the work of any of the 37 employees of the FBI “name check” unit, which provides background information to the White House on about 10,000 names a year. In fact, the report, written by FBI general counsel Howard Shapiro, found that those employees had “worked tirelessly” to meet White House requests.
The review concluded that “over time, a tradition of considerable deference to White House authority had developed.” And it found a “complete abdication of management responsibility” among those who oversaw the “name check” unit. But those officials are beyond disciplining because, as the report noted, one of them retired in 1994, and another last year.
The FBI’s tightened rules for obtaining the files will require that any request from the White House contain the actual signatures of White House officials, rather than stamped versions. White House officials will be put on notice of the penalties for misuse of files and will be required to certify that the information will only be used for a specified purpose.
The rules will also require that higher-level FBI officials review requests before they are fulfilled.
In conjunction with the FBI action, White House Counsel Jack Quinn issued a memo that tightened White House procedures for the handling of such files. He directed that such requests now will be made only with the knowledge of the individual on whom the information is sought. Only the White House counsel or a deputy will have the authority to seek such information, and these officials will be required to specify the purpose of their inquiry.
President Clinton assumed full responsibility, McCurry said, for what the White House continues to describe as an innocent bureaucratic snafu.
At White House urging, both the head of the office that obtained the files and the White House lawyer to whom they reported issued statements on Friday denying improper action.
D. Craig Livingstone, head of the Office of Personnel Security, said: “I was never asked to obtain, I never instructed anyone to obtain, I never sought myself to obtain and I never disseminated or asked anyone else to disseminate, any information I learned from any FBI background files on any person for any improper purpose whatsoever.”
The report’s finding that there were 408 misappropriated files represented an expansion from earlier estimates. On June 6, the White House returned 330 files to the FBI, including those on such GOP luminaries as former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, former White House Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein and Tony Blankley, spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
The latest accounting, however, listed another 71 improperly obtained files.
The FBI report noted that, besides Dale, the White House had obtained the files of another former travel office official, Barnaby Brasseux. The report said that these reports were “among the unquestionably unjustified acquisitions.”
McCurry said that Clinton concurred in Freeh’s view that there were “egregious violations of privacy.”
But, “as to accountability, remember we inherited a system here that has been in place for three decades. It’s the same procedures . . . used by President Bush and his administration. So it’s not clear that there’s something here that someone ‘should be held accountable for.’ ”
He said officials “need to be held accountable for the fact that there was not sufficient attention to the privacy concerns. And we’ve taken responsibility for that today by instituting these new procedures.”