Strange Bedfellow

Clinton’s Catch-96

When Bob Woodward’s byline appears on Page One of the Washington Post, it generally means: It’s time to pay attention. And indeed, Woodward’s April 8 story, an it’s-even-worse-than-you-thought piece about the Clinton campaign-finance scandal, sounded pretty sordid. It reported that White House officials had tipped off the Democratic National Committee in 1995 about Grigori Loutchansky, a bad-egg Latvian businessman with alleged ties to the Russian Mafia. Loutchansky, who had been invited to meet the president at a $25,000-a-plate fund-raiser (with a ticket paid for by an American business associate), was promptly uninvited. The reason this is troublesome is that the news about Loutchansky’s background came indirectly from the National Security Administration, and that folks at the DNC who lack security clearances were thus recipients of an unauthorized leak of highly classified information.

CNN played this revelation all day, and the other networks reported it on the evening news. “If this allegation proves true, and this disclosure actually took place, it constitutes a felony violation,” said Rep. Porter Goss, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House intelligence committee. “I am very troubled by the implications for breaches of long-standing security controls at the White House and the apparent misuse of intelligence information for political purposes.”

In this furor, a few significant details were overlooked, however. The first was that the essence of Woodward’s “scoop” had been reported two-and-a-half weeks earlier in the Washington Times. The Times relied on what looks to have been the same source–a leak from Indiana Rep. Dan Burton’s Government Reform & Oversight Committee, which had apparently got wind of the issue via DNC documents handed over in response to a subpoena. When the story appeared in the Moonie-owned Times, no one cared. Only the Woodward imprimatur made it national news.

A more significant problem with Woodward’s story is that the DNC didn’t need any classified leaks to find out that Loutchansky, who had met the president at an earlier fund-raiser in 1993, was trouble. Before the 1995 dinner even took place, none other than William Safire had written about Loutchansky in the New York Times, noting that the Latvian had been refused entry into Canada the previous year because of suspected “Mafiya” connections. Safire’s source was Comrade Criminal, a book about the Russian Mafia by the journalist Stephen Handelman that was available months before the fund-raiser at the Hay-Adams to which Loutchansky was given the invitation that was then withdrawn. The DNC could have spared itself the need for NSA intercepts by reading the paper or visiting the library.

B ut the larger irony of this turn in the scandal is that when Woodward wrote his story, the Clintonites were still being beaten up in the press for not having communicated similar information about Chinese bad guys trying to sidle up to the president. A month earlier, the hot new revelation in the scandal was that officials at the National Security Council had neglected to pass on to their superiors the contents of a briefing by FBI officials, who warned that the Chinese government might be trying to funnel money into the 1996 campaign. Incidentally, the Chinese-influence story had been broken by the same Bob Woodward.

What would have constituted proper handling of the FBI disclosure to the NSC? Presumably the same type of procedure that draws bitter denunciations in the Loutchansky episode. The NSC might have told White House officials, some of whom were supervising fund raising for the campaign, to be on the lookout for Chinese bearing gifts. For this warning to be effective, those White House officials would have had to tip off the DNC, which was soliciting the money directly. In a separate but related episode, the administration has been pilloried for failing to heed exactly such a warning from NSC officials about Johnny Chung, a Beijing-connected “hustler” who got six Chinese friends into the taping of a radio address by the president.

“You really are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says one anonymous source quoted in the most recent Woodward story. It’s good of Woodward to acknowledge this irony–if briefly. A more prominent quote–from “one senior official”–is less sympathetic to the double bind that the Clintonites now find themselves in. “This was top secret, and it further demonstrates the total politicization of all intelligence and White House operations. Anything and everything was done in the name of fund-raising.” Had Loutchansky got to see the president, Woodward would probably have written a story about lax screening procedures at the White House.

In fact, this story was written, though not by Woodward. In February, Tim Weiner of the New York Times reported that the administration was no longer using vetting procedures put in place by Ronald Reagan to keep foreign ghouls away from the president. “In their eagerness to raise campaign money, [DNC officials] invited friends of the President’s fund-raisers–including China’s biggest arms merchant, favor-seeking Indonesian businessmen, a reputed Russian mobster and other dubiously credentialed dealmakers–to meet with Mr. Clinton,” Weiner writes. “Nor did the White House check the suitability of Americans invited by the Democratic National Committee to meet the President, allowing, among others, a twice-convicted felon to sip coffee with Mr. Clinton.” The procedure Weiner complains was dropped was essentially what Woodward complains happened with Loutchansky.

The most vociferous journalistic critics of the president preach it round or preach it flat when it comes to these kinds of contacts. The Wall StreetJournal’s editorials now oscillate between accusations that the administration abused sensitive information on the one hand, and allegations that it ignored intelligence warnings on the other. Safire, too, has ricocheted between lambasting the administration for abusing quasi-independent intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and blasting it for ignoring intelligence so it could raise gobs of money. In the case of the FBI-NSC China warning, Safire thinks that the Justice Department behaved too cautiously because it didn’t wish to tip off Chinese agents lurking inside the administration.

So what’s a president–or an attorney general–to do? Safire suggests that Janet Reno should have asked to see the president alone, “warned him unequivocally of the penetration, enlisted his aid in the investigation–or, if she thought it necessary, read him his rights.” Read him his rights for what crime? Being a Chinese spy? That bit of hysteria aside, it’s not hard to imagine Safire and the Journal waxing apoplectic if the attorney general had asked for a private meeting to warn the president. Clinton’s critics would surely have portrayed such a meeting as a corrupt politicization of the Justice Department, reminded us again of the misuse of the FBI in Travelgate and Filegate, and called once more for an independent counsel.

The Clinton administration has done plenty to fuel suspicion of all kinds. But at some point, the skeptics have to choose: Did the Clintonites abuse power by trafficking in classified information or by ignoring it? You can’t commit both crimes–or, at least, not at the same time.