The National Records Center in Suitland, Md., is home to 3.2 million cubic feet of government documents, boxed, coded and stored in 20 football-field-size chambers, each with 98 rows of gray steel shelves 15 feet tall. This bureaucratic sprawl is normally the province of faceless archivists and clerks. But one day last month, a team of senior State Department officials arrived after business hours to carry out what the government now admits was an improperly expedited request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for information from Bill Clinton's passport file. Last week the controversy became a family affair. Department officials acknowledged to The Washington Post that the search-which was in response to queries from reporters chasing unfounded rumors that Clinton had sought foreign citizenship to evade the draft-also included a look at his mother's passport application.
It was one of several twists that deepened the aura of Watergate-style skulduggery surrounding the episode. At the weekend, the senior State Department official who had dispatched the team to Suitland broke her silence and spoke to NEWSWEEK. Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Elizabeth Tamposi vehemently denied any impropriety and said she only wanted to ensure that departmental rules were rigorously followed to safeguard Clinton's privacy. "I was in a Catch-22, no-win situation," said Tamposi, daughter of a prominent New Hampshire real-estate developer and GOP fund raiser who won her appointment through former Bush chief of staff John Sununu. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," she said. "I was damned if I didn't get involved, because if something went wrong, the question would be 'Why didn't you make sure the privacy of the files was respected?' But I was damned if I did get involved, because my motives could always be questioned."
Tamposi told associates that her intention was to task a "trustworthy" working group to handle the sensitive task at Suitland. After learning of the rush order on three FOIA requests (from the Associated Press, Hearst Newspapers and ABC News) Sept. 30, she placed Carmen DiPlacido, a 22-year veteran of the department and then acting deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, in charge. Working with DiPlacido were Richard McClevey, another career civil servant in the passport office, and Steven Moheban, a political appointee and special assistant to Tamposi. Tamposi told investigators she never asked any of her subordinates to rush their search, nor did she ever suggest expanding it beyond the scope of the original requests. On Oct. 1, she called David Hobbs, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services, and the consular officers in London and Oslo, whose Clinton-related correspondence had been requested by reporters, telling them to handle the matter in a manner "above reproach."
But NEWSWEEK has learned from sources other than Tamposi that she and her aides thought they might have found a political smoking gun. Before going to Suitland, officials looked at Clinton's 1978 passport application at another records facility on K Street in Washington. It reported his 1976 passport as lost. On an attached form Clinton-then Arkansas attorney general--stated that no prior passport of his had ever been lost or stolen. Yet when they pulled Clinton's 1976 application at Suitland, they saw that he also had reported his 1968 passport as "stolen." But unlike the 1978 form, there was no supporting documentation. Instead, it appeared that a piece of paper had been torn off. In addition, when they looked in the 1976 box and saw Bill Clinton's file upended, sources tell NEWSWEEK that the archives clerk said, "That's unusual." These discoveries led Tamposi and other department officials to ask the FBI to investigate suspected tampering with Clinton's file.
What's really going on here? One major unanswered question is who directed clerks in the FOIA office to expedite the press requests, which normally take months to process. NEWSWEEK has learned that the three requests were handled quite differently. One was sent by an FOIA clerk to Tamposi's office on Sept. 18 marked "expedite," a less-than-urgent notation. Another was sent four days later by another clerk with no notation. The third request was also marked "expedite." On Sept. 28, FOIA processor Yvonne Evans circulated a memo within the office stating that the requests are "time sensitive" due to the presidential elections. The next day, another FOIA processor sent a memo to Tamposi's office with all three requests attached, calling for "expeditious handling," the first notation actually calling for the requests to be handled outside the office's glacial order. Office chief Frank Machak has told investigators he had no role in speeding the queries. FOIA processors say they acted on their own. But other State Department officials, well aware of the FOIA office's reputation as a "Land of the Living Dead," doubt they would have shown such a burst of initiative. To keep the story alive, Democrats on Capitol Hill have been leaking details and conspiracy theories.
The FBI investigation turned up nothing suspicious in Clinton's passport file. The discrepancies over lost passports -leaked to NEWSWEEK in violation of the Privacy Act-could well have been an innocent oversight. Still, the discovery stirred up Tamposi and her excited aides into thinking something might really be amiss. Whatever their motive in pursuing the matter so aggressively, the irony is that they handed Clinton and the Democrats the chance to cry scandal in the closing days of a tightening race.