He MISUSED THE Federal Bureau of Investigation . . ."
That line from the three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in 1974 should have warned the Clinton White House that nothing is potentially as dangerous as using the FBI for its own purposes - especially in an investigation involving the White House itself.Now, newly released White House documents indicate that in December 1993, seven months after the firing of the travel-office staff, the White House personnel security office sought and obtained confidential material on Billy R. Dale, the fired director of the travel office.
And it was disclosed that the White House had obtained files on more than 300 Republicans. Some Watergate veterans already had a sense of deja vu when the suicide note of Vincent Foster, deputy White House counsel, turned up in August 1993 with the cryptic line, "The FBI lied in their report to the AG."
That was taken to mean that the bureau had not informed Attorney General Janet Reno about the White House's role in the investigation of the travel office.
Then it was revealed that George Stephanopoulos, a White House aide, had asked the bureau, in violation of its rules, to strengthen its press release to say it was conducting a "criminal investigation" of the travel office.
Other presidents have used the FBI for their own purposes. President Lyndon B. Johnson had the bureau bug the hotel room of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Nixon had it wiretap 17 aides and newsmen, looking for news leaks.
Cartha D. DeLoach, for many years the bureau's liaison with the White House, wrote in his memoirs, "From Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, all the presidents whom I served used the FBI in this fashion."
Perhaps the most dangerous thing that Nixon did was to try to control the agency's Watergate investigation. White House Counsel John Dean wrote in his memoirs about nervous sessions with the acting director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, "during which he would hand me his personal attache case filled with FBI reports."
Then Dean would coach White House and campaign officials who were to be interviewed by the bureau or before a grand jury. The White House counsel persuaded Gray that the president, as chief law-enforcement officer, was entitled to all reports on criminal investigations.
The effort to subvert the FBI's investigation created turmoil in the bureau. But in the end, the subversion backfired. The bureau rebelled and leaked stories to the press, contributing more than Watergate itself to Nixon's undoing.
With Watergate's lessons in mind, Reno told the White House to channel future requests for information on FBI investigations through her office. And now, Louis J. Freeh, the director of the FBI, has temporarily stopped responding to White House requests for confidential files. The White House's explanation is that the requests were a bureaucratic error.
This may end up as only a faint echo of Nixon's misuse of the FBI. But some two decades after Nixon was driven from office, it may be time to remind another generation of White House staffers that the FBI is not the president's personal instrument and that there is peril in trying to use it as such.