WASHINGTON -- The chief lawyer at the White House has told President Bush's aides that they may destroy telephone logs and other personal records during the transition. Congressional aides say the legal opinion will hinder their investigation of the search through Bill Clinton's passport files.
Telephone calls between the State Department and the White House have emerged as a potentially valuable source of evidence for congressional investigators trying to find out whether the White House was involved in the search for information that might have damaged Mr. Clinton's presidential campaign.
In particular, congressional investigators want telephone logs for James A. Baker III, the White House chief of staff, and two of his aides, Janet G. Mullins and Margaret D. Tutwiler, to see if there is any indication that they discussed the search with officials at the State Department or the Bush-Quayle campaign.
But in a memorandum issued two days after the election, C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the president, told White House employees that the 1978 law prohibiting destruction of "presidential records" does not cover " 'non-record' materials like scratch pads, unimportant notes to one's secretary, phone and visitor logs or informal notes (of meetings, etc.) used only by the staff member."
It is not known how many such records, if any, have already been destroyed. In an interview yesterday, Mr. Gray said, "I'm not aware of anybody destroying phone logs in relation to the passport case."
When a president leaves office, the fate of government records is often in doubt. In a separate action yesterday, a federal district judge is sued a temporary order that prevents the Bush White House from destroying computer records.
The 10-day restraining order by Judge Charles R. Richey applies to President Bush, the Executive Office of the President and the National Security Council.
"History is full of instances where the outgoing president has decided to erase, burn or destroy all or substantially all presidential or Executive Office of the president records before the end of his term," Judge Richey wrote.
The Bush administration argues that under federal law, the computer tapes in question are not records, do not have to be preserved, and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Judge Richey said the government's contention "may be in error" and must be evaluated in further legal proceedings.