'Violations Of Privacy'

IT WAS CALLED THE ""Up-date Project.'' The bland name was appropriate for what seemed to be a routine bit of bureaucratic housekeeping by the Clinton administration: a 1993 attempt to compile FBI background reports on the thousands of employees holding White House passes. But now it looks as if the venture would be more aptly dubbed ""The Ex-Files.''

A scathing FBI report last week found that Clinton aides had acquired information on more than 400 officials long gone from the White House, including Bush-era VIPs like former secretary of state James Baker. Also in White House hands were files of Travel Office staffers, whose 1993 dismissals are the subject of a congressional investigation. Even more startling, it seems that the bureau had handed over the files -- which often contain the most sensitive personal details unearthed in field investigations -- with no questions asked.

FBI Director Louis Freeh took himself and the bureau to task, calling its cooperation with the White House ""a complete abdication of management responsibility'' and ""egregious violations of privacy.'' But he left little doubt that he believed that the Clintonites were the real culprits. ""The prior system of providing files to the White House relied on good faith and honor,'' he said. ""Unfortunately, the FBI and I were victimized.'' Freeh later re-emphasized his own lack of vigilance.

The damage was done. It was another serious legal and political blow to a White House already struggling to contain Whitewater. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr wasted no time in launching his own probe of ""Filegate''; congressional Republicans immediately started hollering about a latter-day ""enemies list,'' and promised hearings this week. And the Dole campaign, heartened by improving polls, smells another chance to inject ""character'' into the campaign. ""The real race began this week,'' crowed a top Dole aide. ""Thank you, Louis Freeh!''

Mea culpas: For what, exactly? That's still far from clear. The FBI probe, in deference to Starr, was limited to interviews with bureau personnel. Its report offered no conclusions about what it called ""motivations of White House employees.'' Clinton and other administration officials, in a weeklong series of mea culpas, apologized to those who had their files improperly pulled. But they maintained that it was nothing more than a bureaucratic ""snafu,'' the product of unsophisticated low-level employees working from an outdated computer printout.

Nor, they contend, is there any sign that damaging information -- if there was any -- ever leaked from the files. ""There hasn't been any evidence of political manipulation,'' says Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos. The two aides in question -- White House personnel security director Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, an army investigator on loan from the Pentagon in 1993 and 1994 -- also say in sworn statements that they did nothing improper. Marceca blames a now retired security-office staffer for giving him an inaccurate roster of names.

But their stories may not wash. Congressional staffers told NEWSWEEK that both the retired employee, Nancy Gemmel, and Secret Service officials dispute aspects of Marceca's tale in interviews with congressional staff. The Secret Service, according to congressional aides, says its master list of White House passholders actually has 24,000 names -- far more than the list Marceca says he was given.

It's also apparent that Livingstone and Marceca are far from political naifs. Marceca is an ex-Senate staffer and investigator for former Pennsylvania state auditor Don Bailey. He also did advance work in New Hampshire for Democratic presidential candidates John Glenn, Gary Hart and Walter Mondale. ""This guy is no simple army clerk; he's a seasoned political operative,'' said one congressional investigator. Colleagues remember him as a character in dark glasses and trench coat who enjoyed cultivating a cloak-and-dagger image. He found a soulmate on the campaign trail in Livingstone, described by one White House aide as a ""cop without a gun,'' who relished the walkie-talkie-and-earpiece culture of campaign work. After Livingstone, an advance man in Vice President Gore's 1992 campaign, landed a job as security chief for the Clinton inaugural committee, he hired Marceca to oversee the communications gear.

Clerks and cooks: When Livingstone needed help in the White House personnel security office, he again called on Marceca. It was the summer of 1993 and there was a problem. For decades, all White House employees have been subject to FBI background checks. The resulting reports are stored at bureau headquarters; copies are kept in a special White House vault. But in early 1993 the departing Bush administration, for reasons that aren't clear, whisked its files off to the archives, leaving Clintonites without records on hundreds of career employees -- the clerks, groundskeepers and cooks -- who stay while presidents come and go.

Working from the disputed lists, Marceca began requisitioning replacement files from the FBI, using a form with the name of the then White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum typed into the blank. He worked the list from the letters A to G before leaving the office in March of 1994. Officials say that when his replacement discovered the files that had been pulled, she boxed them and sent them to the White House archives. No one can explain why they weren't simply shipped back to the FBI. Nor is it clear why these files were a priority to begin with. After all, scores of top Clinton appointees, including press secretary Dee Dee Myers, were still awaiting security clearance in mid-1993. Weren't they a priority?

The first inklings of a problem surfaced two weeks ago when the House committee investigating the Travel Office firings was examining newly released documents that the White House had originally tried to withhold. Staffers discovered a 1994 request for the file of former Travel Office director Billy Dale. The document indicated that Dale, who had been fired seven months earlier and was suing the government, was seeking security clearance for access to the White House. Dale says he made no such request. That led to the administration's admission that it had improperly collected more than 300 files. The FBI probe found close to an additional 100. Clintonites were reduced to arguing that the disclosures prove they weren't singling out Dale for mistreatment. ""It's an amazing situation,'' said one GOP staffer. ""The White House is trying to prove its incompetence.''

Clearly suspicious: None of this proves that Marceca or Livingstone was on a political mission -- either on his own or at the behest of higher-ups. But Republicans are clearly suspicious. Their interest has also been whetted by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich, who was sttationed at the White House in 1993. He charged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week that Livingstone ordered up special background investigations of employees in the White House residence suspected of leaking a story that the First Lady had thrown a lamp at the president during an argument. Aldrich says he confronted Livingstone about the propriety of using the FBI's files in a leak probe but was told it was none of his business.

Administration officials insisted there was nothing to support Aldrich's charges. But they acknowledged that they had not questioned Livingstone at all. Officials fear that such an internal inquiry would only spur further questions from Congress. ""We'd be accused of a cover-up,'' said one aide.

Both the FBI and the White House announced new measures to prevent misuse of background investigations. But no one expects the matter to go away any time soon. The collection of events known as ""Whitewater'' is still murky to most voters. But there is a vivid simplicity to the sound bites of an FBI director complaining of being ""victimized'' and a White House pursuing ""egregious violations of privacy.'' For the Clinton administration, the long, hot summer has only begun.

In December 1993, the Clinton White House obtained sensitive FBI background checks on 406 members of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The requests for the files stopped at the letter G. Among the better-known names on the list:

Bill R. Dale:            Fired Travel Office director

Marlin Fitzwater:        Bush's press secretary

Ken Duberstein:          Reagan's chief of staff

James Baker:             Bush's secretary of state

Tony Blankley:           Gingrich's spokesman