Did system flaws play a role in the files affair?

Election years routinely bring allegations of political dirty tricks. The most serious
charge leveled at the Clinton administration this year is that the acquisition of FBI
files by the White House staff represents dirty tricks rather than mere bungling.


Information technology may be at the root of this affair. At least, IT could be an
important factor in proving or disproving what occurred.


First, the incontrovertible facts. The White House security office is required to get
background information on prospective White House pass holders. This is akin to a security
clearance.


Two security office employees with political backgrounds appropriately ordered FBI
files on Clinton administration employees. But they also ordered a batch of about 480
reports, about 375 of which were for people who had left the White House. (The balance
were holdovers who had begun work at the White House during the Bush years and whose files
were needed.)


Among the files requested were those of Republicans who were Bush administration pass
holders, including James Baker, the former secretary of State and White House chief of
staff, and Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary.


Now the controversy. Why were these files requested? Craig Livingstone, who resigned
his security office post over this issue, has claimed in Senate and House hearings that a
Secret Service computer system and unrelated administrative problems may have contributed
to these events.


He has testified that White House pass holders listed on a database known as E-Pass
would leave the White House employ and be struck from the E-Pass system. But their names
inappropriately continued to pop up as active pass holders on an administrative database
known as Waves. His theory was that an out-of-date Waves printout led to gathering so many
unnecessary Republican files, in part to clean up the Waves system.


One Republican theory is that the file of Billy Dale, a central figure in the earlier
White House travel office scandal, was being sought, and this fact was covered up by
getting files A-G. Another Republican theory is even less flattering--that the two
low-level folk in the White House were rummaging for political dirt in the most sensitive
personal information available.


There is some support for the Livingstone theory that faulty Waves printouts, and
related problems in updating the information between databases, caused at least part of
the problem. For example, the Secret Service, which runs both databases, was forced to
admit that even though Secretary Baker had been deactivated on the E-Pass system, he had
not been dropped from the Waves database and printout as he should have been.


Secret Service officials also testified that the volume of changes caused by the party
switch in the White House had overwhelmed their system and led to some problems.


Other celebrated individuals were not struck from either system because of other
bureaucratic foul-ups, not all of which can be attributed to the Secret Service. Thus, a
White House functionary with such a list could have ordered a portion of the offending
files innocently, based on an unremarkable computer snafu that has blossomed into a
significant political problem.


In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 28, Secret Service officials
said such errors did not account for the bulk of the 370 files, despite their need to
admit that some errors could be accounted for by computer problems.


However, Democrats on the committee suggested that the Secret Service appeared to be
siding with the Republicans on the committee. For example, Sen. Joseph Biden, the
committee's ranking Democrat, was disturbed by the fact that Secret Service personnel met
only with chairman Orrin Hatch's staff in preparation for the hearing. All other witnesses
had been jointly interviewed by Democratic and Republican staffs.


Hatch's cross-examination of Livingstone was striking because of his detailed attempts
to find additional versions of the FBI files on Livingstone's home PC. Livingstone said he
had failed to get his home PC up in time. (Having struggled through this myself, I'm
sympathetic.)


The end of the file story is not yet written. New facts undoubtedly will appear now
that the Senate, the House and an independent counsel are all probing the issue.


American history is replete with examples of presidents and law enforcement officials
who used or tried to use sensitive law enforcement files for non-official purposes.
President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover are not the only ones who come to mind.


As sensitive law enforcement databases multiply, so too will allegations that someone
has tapped or sought to tap such files for inappropriate political purposes. A classic
tension will continue to exist between the need to have such information routinely
available for its intended use and the growing ease with which the data can be downloaded.


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell &
Ryan. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. His clients include
senior White House officials.



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