WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno requested yesterday that an investigation into possible White House misuse of FBI background files be turned back over to the Whitewater special prosecutor.
Republicans had complained that an investigation by the Clinton administration's Justice Department would not be perceived as independent. Yesterday, Reno as much as agreed.
She said the special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, was willing to accept the added responsibility, pending approval by the panel of federal judges that appointed him.
Earlier this week, Starr abruptly informed Reno that he had concluded that his authority did not extend to determining how and why White House political operatives obtained more than 400 highly confidential FBI files into the personal lives of Republicans who worked in the Bush and Reagan administrations.
Reno promptly ordered her own FBI investigation. But she swiftly decided that this solution might not put the matter to rest.
"I have concluded it would constitute a conflict of interest for the Department of Justice itself to investigate the matter involving an interaction between the White House and the FBI, a component of the Department of Justice," Reno's statement said.
At the White House, officials put a brave face on the attorney general's action. "We welcome and encourage an outside investigation," said press secretary Mike McCurry. Speaking of Republican critics, he added, "Hopefully, it will shut them up."
On Capitol Hill, the news of her decision was greeted with satisfaction by Republicans -- and by some Democrats -- who are proceeding with congressional inquires of their own.
"I think this is a prudent step, although I would have gone along with the FBI investigation," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
"Given Mr. Starr's record of fairness and thoroughness, I believe the nation will have better confidence in the integrity of the department's investigation, and I commend [the attorney general] for doing this and respect her for it."
Moments later, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, assailed Starr as an "extremely partisan" Republican. Leahy said he would have preferred to see the Justice Department inspector general handle the investigation.
His fellow Democrat, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, took issue with this characterization, however. He lauded Reno's decision and urged the Democrats in the White House to "be completely forthcoming."
For two days, hearings into this episode were held on Capitol Hill, first by the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight on Wednesday and then yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Neither committee has summoned the two principals in the case to testify. They are Anthony Marceca, the civilian Army employee temporarily detailed to the White House, and his boss, Craig Livingstone, head of the White House Office of Personnel Security who has been placed on administrative leave.
Instead, the committees heard from former White House officials who had custody of such records in previous administrations, current officials with the FBI and the Secret Service and people now in private life whose files were improperly obtained by Marceca and Livingstone.
None of these witnesses said they could imagine how such longtime political operatives as Marceca or Livingstone could have summoned the files of more than 400 Republicans without recognizing such names as former White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, and Billy R. Dale, whose firing as head of the White House travel office seven months before his file was retrieved had been highly publicized.
"It was Mr. Livingstone who filled out the check-out forms for the travel office employees and presented them to us on the morning we were fired," Dale told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Mr. Livingstone also wrote the memorandum to the Secret Service instructing them to remove us from the White House access list."
Marceca's assertion that he was working from an out-of-date list of names provided by the Secret Service also was met with skepticism.
Robert Miller, an associate director with the Secret Service, testified that updated lists came out more than once a month.
He was mystified how anyone could have worked from an outdated list.
Pub Date: 6/21/96