The phone messages started appearing on my answering machine about two weeks ago. xxx“You’re on the list,” a voice chortled. “You’re on the Clinton enemies list.”
Within a day or two, I had received a half-dozen of the calls, all from old Republican acquaintances or current Washington friends. By then a samizdat copy of “the list” had appeared on my fax machine, and the meaning of it all had become clear to me, as it had to most of the rest of the country: The Clinton White House had been caught pulling up the FBI background investigation files of roughly 400 Republicans who once had security clearances. I had spent three years in the White House working for George Bush. Now it looked like I was finally getting a little recognition.
It’s still unclear how the FBI files of a seemingly random assortment of former Republican officeholders ended up in the hands of White House political appointees. The list contains only persons whose last names begin with letters running from A to G. And it is hardly what you would call a GOP VIP List. It includes the names of genuine Republican bigfoots such as Secretary of State James A. Baker and Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, but it also includes an array of former White House secretaries, interns, receptionists, executive assistants, political apparatchiks, and minor bureaucrats (me, for instance).
In the past week, the political fallout from “ListGate” blossomed, threatening to outdo Whitewater on the Washington scandal meter. While the administration tried to explain the discovery as an innocent gaffe by their Keystone Kop White House team, few were buying their story. The FBI director ran for the tall grass, blasting the White House all the way; the Secret Service pointed fingers at the Clinton staff; and Janet Reno requested a special prosecutor to investigate her boss, four months before an election.
Republicans could scarcely believe their good fortune. For as long as people can remember, liberals and Democrats have had a virtual monopoly on political persecution. Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixonall Republicanswere all keepers of infamous “enemy lists.” Now Clinton seems to have handed Republicans a remarkable opportunity for role reversal.
Having carefully studied the Democrats’ apoplectic displays of moral outrage at every GOP scandal, the Republicans know exactly how to react to the FBI file story. We are incensed by this violation of our privacy. We are indignant over this naked abuse of power. We are mortified by this betrayal of our trust.
We are milking this for all it’s worth.
Like Claude Rains as the French inspector in Casablanca discovering that there’s gambling at Rick’s Place, Republicans are “shocked, shocked, shocked” to find partisan meddling in sensitive personnel files at the White House.
Last week, the GOP shifted from high dudgeon to high-level spin patrol in order to help keep the “ExFfile” story on the front page. I received one call from a Senate staffer who encouraged me to express my outrage at being on the FBI file list by publishing an article in my hometown paper. The next day, an equally earnest staffer from the House Republican leadership told me that the “victims” were circulating a letter of protest to be sent to the president. As you might expect, the text of the letter was packed with the type of fulsome indignation normally reserved for international war crimes.
Before you could say “a conspiracy so immense...,” The Wall Street Journal editorial page reliably weighed in with an op-ed piece linking the search of the FBI files to Travelgate and maybe to the Whitewater paper trail itself.
Then, with so much attention to one political story, a curious thing happened. My friend (and fellow listee) Andy Ferguson, writing in The Weekly Standard, shrewdly dubbed it “list envy.” Sure enough, Republicans who never served in the White House and, especially, those who did but have the misfortune of a family name that begins with a letter falling after “G” in the alphabet seemed overcome with jealousy, bordering on resentment, toward those who had made the list. Rather than an affront to one’s privacy, being on the list was suddenly cool; it had cachet. In a city obsessed with “who’s in” and “who’s out,” having your file pulled by the Clinton plumbers had become a mark of political gravitas.
Even as Republicans in Congress scramble to hold hearings, few have asked why the FBI should be keeping security files on so many political officeholders. After all, many of the people whose names showed up on the Clinton list performed largely clerical duties. They were bright-eyed Young Republicans, barely out of Brigham Young or Sweetbriar. Others were the old dowagers of Republican secretarial duty who have served faithfully since the Nixon administration.
FBI background investigations are an integral part of White House culture. Everyone there works in close proximity to the president (although most rarely see him), so there is an obvious need for security and background checks. Once you get clearance, you receive a cryptically encoded hard blue plastic pass that hangs from a chain around your neck. It bestows on its owner the most important privilege Washington has to offer: access.
Getting that access is no easy matter. The FBI background investigation is a loathsome process. It can take days to fill out the required government form. You need to find the address, phone number, and the name of the landlord of every place you have lived since the age of 16. You must detail every place of employment, including part-time summer jobs. You must disclose every time you’ve been fired and every country you’ve visited. You must reveal your entire history of drug use. If you’ve ever seen a shrink, you have to report that too.
Armed with this information, investigators go on a hunt. They talk to your neighbors. They show up at your friends’ offices. They arrive unannounced at your high school and ask to verify your attendance records. Several FBI agents have told me that the Bureau is really looking for just three things: criminal records (in which case, you probably shouldn’t be applying for the job); a history of spasmodic or unpredictable drug or drinking binges (dorm room bong parties don’t count); or significant gaps in your personal chronology (which could be a sign of a two-month stint at a KGB training school).
At the very end of the process, a man named George Saunders comes to see you at the White House. He interviews you, probing all the information supplied in your paperwork. He meticulously walks through the details of drug experiences you’ve admitted. (“So that would be about how many joints in one evening...?”)
Of course, political appointees in the Reagan and Bush White Houses were not exactly disciples of Timothy Leary, and the drug investigation was rarely a stumbling block. Yet reporting every “youthful experimentation” with drugs is the one part of the FBI background check that lingers in the memory of everyone who goes through the process.
That may be the real clue to understanding why a box of FBI background files from Republican administrations was requested by the White House in the first place. At the moment, much of the focus is on Craig Livingstone, a political appointee who was in charge of personnel security in the Clinton White House and who has now been placed on a leave-with-pay. From all accounts, Livingstone is a Democratic campaign slug who thrived on the earpiece, dark glasses, and security culture of the political advance man.
Last Friday, an article in The Wall Street Journal accused him of having a fascination with the personnel files of opponents when he worked for the 1984 Gary Hart campaign. But the motive in the current case remains unclear. Unless, that is, one recalls a minor controversy during 1993, the same year the Republican files were taken.
Back then, a few Republican congressmen began complaining that White House staffers had failed to obtain FBI clearance several months into the new administration. Some Republican lawmakers ventured to suggest that the delay may have been due to the unusually high incidence of drug use among Clinton’s young (and, they implied, “long-haired”) aides.
Those charges were never substantiated. But it is inconceivable that the White House senior staff did not spend some time discussing how to refute them. That is how every White House works, and the Clinton team has proven itself extremely adept at countering each accusation made against them. Could it be that at one late-night “communications” session, some presidential advisor casually suggested that Bush and Reagan appointees probably had just as much drug use in their backgrounds as the Clinton appointees did? Perhaps they further suggested that, if such a story were to find its way into, say, the Washington Post, it might blunt the criticism coming from the Hill.
Maybe, just maybe, that errant, half-baked thought found its way, broken-telephone-style, to the office of Craig Livingstone. Rather than questioning the idea, Livingstone, in the true G. Gordon Liddy tradition, simply acted.
All this is merely a theory, of course. But it will be one of several theoriessome of them more farfetched than thisfloating around this summer and fall if the Clinton White House cannot put this scandal to rest. At the moment, its lame defense seems to rest on boasting about its own incompetence; the file request was merely a bureaucratic error. Yet unlike Whitewater, which after three years still confounds the public, ListGate just looks suspicious. Instead of repeatedly rolling out the president to offer a profuse apology with his trademark hangdog face and firing a handful of people, the White House has decided to stage a don’t-give-an-inch defense.
It is the first big Republican break of the ’96 campaign.
Daniel Casse, who lives in Nashville, was policy director for Lamar Alexander’s recent presidential campaign. He writes for numerous publications, including Commentary and The Wall Street Journal.
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