At 6 p.m. on Sept. 30, State Department officials went to the Federal Records Center in Suitland, Md., to examine the passport records of Bill Clinton and his mother. In a four-hour search that night and a six-hour search the next day, the officials also studied old diplomatic records from the London and Oslo embassies that they thought might have mentioned Governor Clinton's activities there while a student.
Republicans were circulating rumors that young Clinton may have renounced his citizenship. The searchers were looking for dirt.
These officials were sent on their highly unusual mission by Elizabeth Tamposi, a political appointee at the State Department whose father is a big Republican fund-raiser. Her excuse is that news organizations had just filed Freedom of Information Act requests for Governor Clinton's files.
That is a lame excuse. FOIA requests are never routinely responded to with such haste. And no news organizations had asked about the governor's mother's files.
This recalls "Watergate." That infamous event -- the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex by Richard Nixon's operatives -- was largely for the purpose of finding political dirt on an opponent in the midst of a presidential campaign. The State Department records-search in Suitland sounds very much like a legal version of Watergate.
If it was legal. It is against federal law to release passport files to unauthorized people without notice to the subject, and that may have happened in the Clinton case. Even if it didn't, there may well have been malfeasance, according to some familiar with the case.
This may be something U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett of Baltimore ought to investigate. Suitland lies within his jurisdiction. It is pretty clear that the State Department's own inquiry is not going to be as thorough as it needs to be.
Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has initiated an "administrative investigation," which assumes no illegality occurred, only possible "misconduct" in the form of violations of department regulations. That keeps the FBI out of it. And -- shades of Watergate again -- Mr. Eagleburger has ordered State employees not to answer questions from or supply documents to Congress and its investigative arm, the General Accounting Office.
White House use of government agencies to harm political opponents is an abuse of power. It is highly offensive -- even scary -- to most Americans. Bill Clinton and his mother have a right to know whether or not this occurred. So does the public.