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Passport-Search Fiasco: an Attempt At Candidate-Bashing Run Aground

AS with many Washington scandals, the State Department investigation of Bill Clinton's passport files involved actions that in retrospect appear not so much illegal as heinous and stupid.

The late-night Sept. 30 search of the passport records of Governor Clinton and his mother were "heinous," says State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk, because it was clearly an attempt to find government-held information that could be used for political purposes.

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It was stupid because it should have been clear to any experienced Washington political appointee that by today's ethics standards the search itself could backfire explosively. So many people were touched by the effort that it was sure to become public through news leaks, no matter what it discovered.

"These people actually walked into the National Archives to do this? Do they think the people who work in the archives are their friends, discreet civil servants like the British? Where do they come from, the planet Debbie?" asks Suzanne Garment, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of a book on Washington scandals.

The White House did not direct or order the snooping into Clinton's files, concluded the inspector general's report on the incident released Wednesday. The report determined that the highest-ranking officials involved were Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Elizabeth Tamposi, dismissed last week by President Bush, and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Steven Berry, who will be disciplined but not fired.

THE report confirmed, however, that Mr. Berry routinely called Janet Mullins, an aide to James Baker III, the White House chief of staff. Inspector General Funk said that Ms. Mullins presumably knew the search was going on, but that "there is a difference between involvement and knowledge."

At one point while the search was under way, Ms. Tamposi placed a call to key Baker aide Margaret Tutwiler. Ms. Tutwiler would not take the call but apparently knew what it was about.

In published interviews, Tamposi has insisted that Berry told her the White House was very interested in pursuing the rumor that initially drove the passport search - that Mr. Clinton, as a young man opposed to the Vietnam War, had inquired about giving up his US citizenship. Tamposi has said she figured that White House officials wanted the job done, but in a manner that made it appear they did not know about it.

According to the report, Berry emphatically denies that the White House pressured him and attributes Tamposi's beliefs to mistakes of communication.

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The misuse of government documents for political purposes is nothing new. President Nixon abused IRS information in this manner, and J. Edgar Hoover's manipulations of FBI files are legendary. But the passage of the Privacy Act in the mid '70s, and the whole post-Watergate process of government reform, have greatly stigmatized abuses that may once have been routine.

Given that climate, says Robert Vaughn, an American University law professor who is an expert in public information regulations: "I'm surprised this happened. Maybe I'm naive."

Tamposi's investigation was carried out ostensibly in response to three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from news organizations. By expediting those requests, however, the State Department broke its own information-act rules. The inspector general's report makes clear that the FOIA requests were just an excuse for a passport- file investigation that included the search for the Clinton files and fishing for Ross Perot's files.

"Never in the annals of the FOIA act has a FOIA request been conducted with such diligence," Funk said.

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