- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Critics of President Clinton, beware. Anything in your personnel files can and will be used against you by his administration, and the Justice Department will be happy to ignore any violations of your privacy rights along the way.

Last week, Justice officials announced that they would not prosecute Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon and aide Clifford Bernath for the illegal release of Linda Tripp's personnel file to a New Yorker reporter who just happened to be working on a hostile profile of her. The reporter, Jane Mayer, used the information to distort a 30-year-old incident involving Mrs. Tripp, who revealed the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky, in an attempt to undermine Mrs. Tripp's credibility. Notwithstanding the fact that releasing the documents was a clear violation of the law, Justice Department officials said there "was no direct evidence upon which to pursue any prosecution."

The Three Blind Mice could see the evidence. Even Defense Secretary William Cohen said Mrs. Tripp's files were "supposed to be protected by the privacy rules." Let's review the chronology here. In early 1998, Monicagate manager and former White House staffer Harold Ickes met with Ms. Mayer and discussed her plans to write an unfriendly article about Mrs. Tripp. At about the same time, Mr. Ickes also had dinner with Mr. Bacon. Again the subject of Mrs. Tripp and her part in the Lewinsky scandal came up. (For the record, Mr. Bacon is a former journalistic colleague of Ms. Mayer.) She called Mr. Bacon specifically requesting confidential files of Mrs. Tripp to substantiate information she had about her.

Mr. Bacon turned the job over to aide Bernath with instructions to "help Ms. Mayer get the information she needed as soon as possible." Questioned by a Department of Defense official responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of the records, Mr. Bernath assured him the request was for official use only. Then he turned the records over to Ms. Mayer, it apparently being an official policy in the Clinton administration to violate privacy rules whenever it is necessary to embarrass a political foe. Ms. Mayer then accused Mrs. Tripp of lying by denying that she had once been arrested in connection with a teen-age prank her friends played on her, a prank that went terribly awry when Mrs. Tripp momentarily ended up in legal trouble. In short, the accusation was false but not easy to refute in the political hothouse of that time.

Mr. Bacon subsequently announced that he was really, really, really sorry about what happened; he hadn't meant to violate the Privacy Act. If only, he said, he had taken the time to consult the law before disclosing Mrs. Tripp's files he would never have done it. Right.

Perhaps not coincidentally, President Clinton is also pleading ignorance of the Privacy Act in connection with his release of letters from Kathleen Willey after she accused him of groping her. He just never thought about the law, he said. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the president violated the Privacy Act nonetheless.

Mrs. Tripp has filed suit seeking protection of her privacy too. She deserves her day in court. In the meantime, Mr. Cohen must surely understand that if Messrs. Bacon and Bernath are willing to violate the Privacy Act so casually, then they represent a continuing threat to the privacy of others. He should fire them forthwith. Otherwise he risks leaving the impression that he is comfortable with the idea of allowing lawbreakers to speak for him.

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