President Clinton ordered an investigation Friday into whether the late Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence, a major Democratic donor, fabricated the World War II service that later was used to justify his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Clinton’s spokesman, Mike McCurry, said Arlington “is a place of sacred honor to all Americans, and no one should be buried there who has falsified records.”
But he turned away questions on whether someone’s remains should be removed if it turned out he lied about his record.
“What the circumstances are and the truth is here, you know, you may rush to interpret but we won’t,” McCurry said.
At the same time, Clinton defended State Department officials who recommended burial at Arlington, saying “they acted on the facts as they knew them” concerning Lawrence’s claimed wartime service in the merchant marine.
The State Department sought to minimize the issue by saying that the truthfulness of Lawrence’s claims about wartime service was not relevant to his obtaining a security clearance to become ambassador to Switzerland. He died in 1996 after serving as ambassador for three years.
The furor over whether Lawrence was entitled to burial in Arlington erupted Thursday after Republican investigators were unable to find any records to document his claim that he was a merchant marine.
Clinton, in an exchange with reporters outside the Oval Office, acknowledged that the charges were serious and said he asked the State Department to investigate them.
Lawrence maintained that his merchant marine ship was torpedoed in March 1945 off the Russian coast, severely injuring his head and tossing him into icy Arctic waters. He would have been 18 at the time.
The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs investigations subcommittee, Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., said military records did not show a Larry Lawrence on the SS Horace Bushnell or even in the merchant marine.
State Department spokesman James Foley said merchant marine officials indicated that the majority of individuals who served on U.S. commercial ships during World War II had never enlisted in the merchant marine service.
The merchant marine is made up of U.S. commercial ships and the crews who operate them. It is not a military service, although it renders assistance to the military in wartime. The Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration operates an academy to train officers for the merchant marine; graduates receive a commission in the Naval Reserve.
Republicans have seized on the issue because Lawrence was one of he Democratic Party’s most generous donors.
Last year, Patrick F. Kennedy, then-assistant secretary of state for administration, asked the Army to approve a waiver for Lawrence because his injury while in the service would have earned him a Purple Heart, entitling him to be buried at Arlington.
Kennedy’s information was based partially on what he learned from another assistant secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke. McCurry said campaign donations were not considered when Lawrence’s eligibility for burial at Arlington was being reviewed.
State Department spokesman Foley acknowledged that Lawrence, during his security clearance process four years ago, indicated that he had volunteered for the merchant marines during World War II.
But when the department’s diplomatic security service tried to verify the information with merchant marine sources, no supporting evidence was turned up, Foley said.
“And as the information was 50 years old and did not have bearing on his suitability to serve as a U.S. ambassador, it wasn’t pursued further at that time,” he added.
Foley said the issue was not a matter of a military record but rather one of employment.
He said that in investigating employment records that are 40 to 50 years old, “it’s normally not pursued beyond the point of exhaustion” if an issue was irrelevant to the candidate’s suitability for the post or for a security clearance.
The merchant marine indicated that unless Lawrence had formally enlisted in the service, the probability of documentation would be low, Foley said.