- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

President-elect George W. Bush and his transition team will have to hire as many as 7,100 people to staff his new administration, including 3,000 policy-makers and 1,800 lawyers all of whom will have to undergo FBI background investigations.

The team, led by Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney, will sift through nearly 200,000 resumes to fill the administration posts. About 600 of the appointees are subject to Senate confirmation, although most of the public's and the media's attention will be focused on the top 100 or so people who will run the administration.

Despite a 36-day delay because of the disputed Nov. 7 election results, Ari Fleischer, transition team spokesman, acknowledged last week that the background-investigation process known as vetting had begun and that required information forms for would-be nominees and administration aides were being turned over, filled out and sent to the FBI.

Mr. Fleischer said the transition team worked "quietly and privately" during the Florida recount saga to get the vetting process under way.

"We still remain optimistic that we're going to hit all the marks that we need to, to be ready to govern on Jan. 20," he said. "It's a daunting prospect to put it all together on a shorter timetable than is usual."

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said agents assigned to the bureau's Special Inquiry General Background Investigations Unit, an agency within the FBI's Administrative Services Division, were "up and running."

"The unit has added increased personnel and the process is under way, with agents responding to the background requests as they come in," he said. "With cooperation between the transition team and the FBI, we're getting the information we need to get the job done."

The FBI background investigations include information on a person's professional and personal history, work record, investments, debts, trusts, financial dealings, tax returns, memberships in private organizations, marital history, family members, drug use, child-support payments, alimony requirements, travel history and other information.

Mr. Bush has signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the vetting process, also endorsed by Attorney General Janet Reno. Mr. Fleischer described the background forms as "very lengthy," adding that they require "lots of information."

"I mean, these forms are just mind-bogglingly in-depth," he said. "So they take some time."

FBI officials have said the bureau can expedite background checks in 15 to 20 days for the administration's top appointees to get them in place by Inauguration Day, with clearances for others taking longer hopefully avoiding unforeseen surprises, such as the "Nannygate" problem that arose for President Clinton's first two choices as attorney general.

Presidential observers, experts and scholars for some time have recognized that an orderly transition of government is of vital importance to the country and that the transition period is crucial to a successful presidency.

"Disastrous transitions in more than one recent presidency have sown the seeds of the chaos and serious mistakes of their early years in office," said Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and co-sponsor of the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, which authorizes the expenditure of transition funds.

Mr. Thompson noted that during a presidential transition, staff of the president-elect and vice president-elect are responsible for vetting thousands of prospective executive-branch appointees. The process, he said, normally takes up to four months.

Mr. Fleischer noted that for several persons including Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell the vetting process "really began quite some time ago." He said Mr. Bush instructed his top aides to begin talking with potential nominees after the campaign ended.

He also said that with regard to background checks, a lot of the required paperwork already has been filled out in anticipation of being submitted to the FBI "to begin the clearing process."

Mr. Fleischer also said the transition team had established some preclearance steps, including a clearing counsel that meets with the potential nominees to get answers to questions that would arise during the background checks.

"That way, we can get right to some of the most important matters, sensitive matters, in a private and confidential fashion," he said. "And that helps move the process forward, as well. There are other chats that you can do, too, short of the full FBI field investigation."

The FBI is responsible for conducting background investigations not only for its own agents, but for persons who "occupy important and sensitive positions in the federal government." Those people include officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the Energy Department, the Office of Personnel Management, the Administrative Office of the United States Court and Congress.

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