WASHINGTON -- Amid concern in the White House last Friday over charges that cronyism lay behind the dismissal of seven travel aides, Clinton advisers summoned a senior official in the FBI to a political strategy session and solicited a public statement from the agency backing their version of events.
By calling on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help save the administration from embarrassment, the White House appeared to be deviating from two decades of efforts to insulate the law enforcement agency from even the appearance of presidential manipulation.
It also put the bureau in the position of departing from what some FBI officials said had been two long-standing practices: dealing with the White House only through the Justice Department to avoid the appearance that the bureau was being enlisted for political ends, and avoiding confirmations of the bureau's investigations. In the past, FBI officials have been disciplined for disclosing investigations.
"Technically, a call should placed through the Justice Department," said Carl Stern, chief spokesman for the department. "Everybody here wishes that he had done it by the book."
Attorney General Janet Reno considered the breach serious enough that she called White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum yesterday morning to "express concern," officials said.
The disclosure of the White House's interaction with the bureau came during questioning of George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, yesterday.
Mr. Stephanopoulos also acknowledged that President Clinton was "disappointed in what happened" last week, when the furor over the dismissal of the travel office staff and over the president's expensive haircut at Los Angeles International Airport diverted attention from his economic message. Mr. Stephanopoulos said the president "feels we've got to do better, and we will."
He then found himself bombarded by questions about the links between the White House and the FBI in the travel office dismissals.
John Collingwood, the bureau official who attended the White House meeting, said that no one had tried to manipulate the agency into backing the White House findings of mismanagement. "I'm very confident we followed our normal practice here," he said.
Nevertheless, he said he was "surprised" when presidential aides on Friday took the highly unusual step of releasing an FBI statement not intended for public release, confirming that a federal inquiry was under way.
While the FBI normally does not disclose investigations, he said, this particular statement was consistent with the bureau's policy of acknowledging some high-profile investigations if the facts have been disclosed by a credible source, in this case the White House.
Mr. Stephanopoulos said yesterday that last Friday, Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, called Mr. Collingwood, the bureau's director of public affairs and congressional
relations, and asked him to meet in Mr. Stephanopoulos' office with Mr. Stephanopoulos; Ms. Myers; David Watkins, assistant to the president for management and administration, who supervised the travel office; Mr. Nussbaum; and two members of Mr. Nussbaum's staff.
Ms. Myers said yesterday she was unaware of the protocol for FBI contacts.
White House officials acknowledged that the meeting was a political strategy session on how to quell the furor over the abrupt dismissal of the travel office staff.
The FBI official was asked to help draft a statement on Friday afternoon after several news organizations obtained a memorandum written by Mr. Clinton's cousin, Catherine Cornelius, less than a month after Mr. Clinton took office, proposing that the White House dismiss the seven career travel office employees and put her in charge.
The disclosure of the Cornelius memo had called into question the White House's claims that the members of the travel office staff were dismissed purely because of mismanagement and possible criminal behavior, supposedly discovered during an efficiency review by Vice President Al Gore.
In light of the memo, it became even more important for the White House to solicit a statement from the bureau confirming that the White House was telling the truth when it said that the members of the travel staff were dismissed because of mismanagement so extreme that even the FBI believed there was possible criminal behavior.
Normally, bureau spokesmen neither confirm nor deny the existence of its criminal inquiries, except in unusual cases when an investigation has independently come to light. Some FBI officials said privately last week that they were uncomfortable with the way their agency was being brought into a case with apparent political ramifications.
Nevertheless, bureau officials also said there appeared to have been adequate grounds to begin a preliminary criminal investigation, as the White House had claimed.
Mr. Stephanopoulos said the Clinton team had "talked to" the FBI official about issuing a statement backing the White House claim of possible criminality.