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What began as a "snafu" by overzealous White House aides has now graduated into "filegate." But the public may know little more about what happened in 1993, and why, than it did a little over two weeks ago when the story first made headlines.

The plot has thickened. The administration's story about aides using an outdated Secret Service list of people with access to the White House was punctured by the Secret Service itself, which said its computers could generate no such list. The access list, supposedly, was the basis for asking for confidential FBI background files. Now new questions have been raised.

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Attorney General Janet Reno first took responsibility for determining why White House staffers searched those files, which were heavy with Republicans. She soon recognized the conflict of interest in this, and the job is now part of an expanded mandate for Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The constant crossfire of the presidential campaign won't make it any easier to put the truth before the public. But clear answers are needed, for reasons that go beyond politics. Whether the error involved was innocent or malevolent, it raises basic questions of privacy and the misuse of government power.

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