When the White House is mentioned these days, character and credibility are not words that readily come to mind.

Besides the Whitewater and Paula Jones embarrassments, the Clinton administration has added the FBI background files blunder to its dossier.Things are more than just a bit putrid along the Potomac these days. If the air is to be cleared, vigorous investigations into "Filegate" will have to get beyond partisan finger-pointing.

The FBI file episode began with the news that the White House obtained 400 background files through questionable means, mostly on prominent Republicans in past administrations. The disclosure of another 300 files on various individuals - including Brent Scowcroft and other members of President Bush's National Security Council - reinforced a public perception of a sequel to Richard Nixon's "enemies list."

That's the type of modus operandi the administration and country could and should do without.

Of course, the Clinton administration has claimed the whole thing to be merely bureaucratic bungling and clerical misunderstandings by novice low-level staffers.

That excuse is hard to believe considering that the additional 300 names were computerized by Anthony Marceca, a veteran Democratic politico who was active in the campaigns of Edmund Muskie and Jimmy Carter.

White House personnel security chief Craig Livingstone resigned Wednesday after accepting responsibility for the fiasco. Documents disclosed that Livingstone had been informed that his office was gathering files on people no longer in government.

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Former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum also stepped forward to shoulder blame for the incident, saying that in the Clinton White House, "there was no enemies list."

But does the responsibility for this fiasco end there? Whatever happened to the idea that the buck stops at the Oval Office? Certainly this nation's chief executive is to be judged not just on the kind of policy decisions he makes, but also on the kind of subordinates he hires.

In any event, the gathering of confidential information by White House personnel at any level is an unethical and unwise invasion of privacy, poor management, and a wasteful use of FBI manpower and resources.

This episode cannot be shrugged off as just an innocent or innocuous blunder. At the very least, some contrite apologies are in order from the very top. Even better would be some changes in the administrative machinery of the White House aimed at assuring there is no repeat performance of such unwarranted snooping.

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