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Commentary: The damage was done

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst   |   June 18, 2002 at 6:17 PM
WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- Whoever first leaked the fact that outgoing Clinton/Gore administration staffers had vandalized the White House probably thought they were doing the new administration a favor.

They weren't.

They set off a firestorm of protest and a rush to judgment that left President George W. Bush and others on his staff looking sheepish and silly.

The mere suggestion that staffers, disgruntled and bitter over their man's narrow loss in the November election had defaced, destroyed and departed with official White House property was too much to resist.

Political partisans, denizens of the Web and reporters argued vehemently over whether the allegations were true. The media pushed the story with its typical reserve while the World Wide Web erupted. Democrat-leaning and leftwing Web sites busily suggested -- in some cases profanely -- that the rumors constituted nothing more than a dirty trick by the Republicans.

It has been 18 months since the first allegations of vandalism appeared. In that time, the denials have continued -- though they have become less absolute over time.

A new report from the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- should settle the matter once and for all. According to GAO, the allegation that the White House was vandalized during the 2001 presidential transition is true.

"Damage, theft, vandalism and pranks occurred in the White House complex during the 2001 presidential transition," it says on page 19 of GAO's June 2002 final report on the matter. "Incidents such as the removal of keys from computer keyboards; the theft of various items; the leaving of certain voice mail messages, signs and written messages; and the placing of glue of desk drawers clearly were intentional acts."

The instances cited by the GAO in the report may not rise to the level of destruction that occurred according to the juiciest rumors, but it happened nonetheless.

What the GAO uncovered should still be troubling considering the acts occurred inside the White House and were committed by people who should have been expected to know better.

Aside from the now-infamous removal of the "W" from computer keyboards that were glued to walls, furniture was overturned, glass table tops were smashed, food and beer bottles were left in offices, phones and phone lines were tampered with and vulgar messages were left in the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to greet members of the incoming administration. And that may just be for starters -- the full extent of the vandalism is still disputed.

The GAO says their investigation was based on a list of damage provided to them by the White House in June 2001. At they time they turned that list over, the administration specified, "The list is not the result of a comprehensive or systematic investigation into the issue, and should not be considered a complete record of the damage that was found."

White House comments published as part of the report indicate they feel the damage was more extensive. Their notes on the report represent their fullest accounting, to date, of the condition of the White House complex on January 20 when they came into office.

The GAO does not identify where the damage was found or disclose the identities of those whom they interviewed. The White House, in its response, does, providing a helpful context though which the GAO's discoveries and conclusions should be evaluated.

Among the more interesting observations made by those inside the White House -- a number of whom, the administration says, are career employees -- are "vulgar words" left on a white board in the vice president's office in the West Wing; signs comparing President Bush to a chimpanzee found in a number of printers laced throughout the reams of paper; as many as 18 keyboards in Hillary Rodham Clinton's office with their "W" keys pried off; and 20 cellular telephones belonging to the office of the vice president missing and unaccounted for.

The GAO downplays these and other allegations in the report, something the White House criticizes in their comments. But taken together, the GAO and White House statements reinforce the idea that angry politicos, not using their best judgment, took their frustrations over losing the election out on the White House itself.

As a number of employees acknowledge in the report, pranks occur anytime there is a transition. But according to at least one person who has witnessed more than one transition, what happened in 2001 was on a scale not seen before.

Where it not for the tenor of the debate and the vehemence of the denials by some of Clinton's staff and supporters, this issue should not have continued to command our attention. The damage was and is done.

But in another sense, there is great value in a review of the way the story unfolded because it says much about the way the previous administration and it allies operated. Since many of them remain prominent in Washington and in politics, it is likely we will see these tactics again.

They begin with outright denial.

As events unfold, the overall denial is maintained while that which has become public is back-handedly acknowledged and its importance minimized. After the initial intensity dissipates, the allegations are recast, embellished and once again denied -- sometimes accompanied by a demand for an apology or claim of vindication.

Then, many months down the road when the full truth is known, the discussion is changed to one of how ridiculous the whole business was and how outrageously expensive and political the investigation of the allegations are -- while only tacitly if at all admitting that which was alleged was substantively true. How did it work in this case?

First, the rumors of vandalism began to circulate. Estimates of the cost and extent varied while the White House, in the person of spokesman Ari Fleischer, tried to downplay the whole business when asked about it.

Former Clinton officials and their allies issued denials with everything from benign disdain for the new administration to violent outrage -- suggesting that some kind of dirty trick was afoot.

On Jan. 28, 2001, former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart went on CNN and -- as the network records -- "lashed out ... saying some presidential aides attempted to smear" the Clinton administration by "spreading stories about vandalism."

Mark Lindsey, a former Clinton assistant for management and administration, stated publicly that he "did not see one instance of vandalism, not a single one" in his last-minute walk through of the White House on Jan. 20.

These denials kicked off a pitched partisan battle in which the White House would not engage, preferring, in the words of Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card, "to focus on the business of governing."

Eventually the business of the "W" keys was acknowledged as a prank, nullifying Lindsey's exculpatory statements and compromising Lockhart's outright denial. The overall substance of the charges continued to be denied.

In the spring of 2001, the GAO issued a letter claiming no damage had occurred.

This letter was quickly re-labeled "a report" and was used as part of a demand for vindication. As the New York Daily News' Tim Burger wrote on April 18, "Angry Democrats who scoffed at the accusations (of vandalism) were quick to say 'I told you so' and said the investigation and subsequent report cost the federal government at least $200,000."

Even the press called the letter exculpatory. Writing in the Boston Globe, ombudsman Jack Thomas wrote a column entitled "Globe was right: no White House vandalism," trumpeting the coverage his paper had given the story and how Washington bureau reporter Anne E. Kronblut had written no vandalism had occurred when the media was moving in the other direction -- and how the "GAO report" had proved them right.

Claiming victory, those who claimed to have been falsely accused of vandalizing the White House backed down.

Last week, the GAO issued its final report and, 18 months after the rumors began to circulate, the general thrust of them -- that the White House had been vandalized during the transition -- was confirmed.

Did we hear apologies or admissions they were wrong from those who had denied so vehemently that any damage had occurred? No.

What we did hear were complaints from Clinton allies like Paul Begala, speaking on Crossfire, that spending $200,000 to uncover $20,000 worth of damage in the White House was an outrageous waste of the taxpayer's money.

Maybe so. But how much would it have cost if they had just told the truth in the first place?

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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