The flap over the White House travel office is serious if the White House staff tried to oust career employees without just cause. It is serious if the White House staff suggested criminal transgressions when there was no evidence of that. It appears both those things happened, but the full story is not known. At this point, we suggest reserving judgment.
But the full story -- or at least enough of it -- is known concerning the White House staff's improper use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in this affair, and that is very serious indeed. The FBI and the Justice Department have suffered from political manipulation under several previous presidents. The American people have always been fearful of a law enforcement agency like the FBI being given political chores.
Just last week, the nominee for deputy attorney general, Philip Heymann, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that to avoid compromising the Justice Department, the Clinton White House had established a system under which the only contacts with the department or its components, like the FBI, would be by the White House counsel's office to one of the top three Justice officials -- the attorney general, the deputy A.G. or the associate A.G.
But the associate White House counsel, a former law partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton, called a mid-level FBI official directly and requested the bureau look into the travel office. He made no specific charges. He made the call a few days before Mr. Heymann's testimony and a few days after a complaint to the White House by Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer and "friend of Bill" who is also in the travel business.
Then three days after Mr. Heymann testified, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers called another FBI official to the White House to discuss the travel office. She and her superiors on the White House staff obtained from him agreement that travel office irregularities may have involved criminality and would be investigated more fully. The White House made this public, in violation of standard FBI operating procedure.
Some Republicans have called for a congressional review. Democratic senators ought to join them. This is an important matter. It should be above partisan point-making. (Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, with his typical over-kill, compares it to Watergate, which it is not.) Attorney General Janet Reno complained to the White House about what happened -- and justly so. We trust this episode strengthens her reported resolve not to go along with the choice of an old college friend of President Clinton's as director of the FBI. If current FBI Director William Sessions is to be ousted before his term is up, as now appears certain, it is imperative he be replaced by a man or woman who is in no way suspected of having compromising political or personal loyalties to the president.