Seeking to bank the fires of an extraordinary public dispute with the FBI, the White House Tuesday pulled back from its flat assertion that the bureau had effectively blocked President Clinton from learning last year of an alleged Chinese attempt to buy influence in Washington.
Faced with a flat denial by the FBI, White House officials revised their account of why a briefing given to two White House National Security Council staffers by an FBI official June 3 was not shared at the time with Clinton or other top administration officials. They suggested the controversy may have resulted from a misunderstanding.
Monday night, after the FBI denial, White House spokesman Michael McCurry had said the two NSC officials who received the briefing were “adamant in recalling specifically that they were urged not to disseminate the information outside the briefing room.” As a result, he said, the FBI statement was “in error.”
But Tuesday, after a flurry of questions at McCurry’s regular morning briefing for reporters, the White House counsel’s office issued a statement saying that only one of the two NSC staffers recalled being asked to keep secret the information about alleged Chinese government efforts to funnel campaign contributions to members of Congress.
That staffer has “a strong recollection” of the request for secrecy and made a “contemporaneous note that reflects the bureau’s preference for no ‘wider dissemination,”’ the statement said. A White House spokesman declined to release that note, saying it contained “sensitive information.”
The other NSC staffer “has no specific recollection of this request but accepts the accuracy of his colleague’s recollection,” according to the counsel’s statement.
The statement also acknowledged that NSC procedures would have permitted the staffers to pass on the information regardless of any requests for secrecy from the FBI, but that they chose not to do so.
In an obvious effort to tamp down the controversy, several White House officials, including McCurry, suggested that the affair may have been the result of a misunderstanding between the FBI briefing official and the NSC staffers.
A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also characterized the affair as a misunderstanding and said the department’s Office of Intelligence Policy is conducting an internal review of how the FBI conducts its briefings for the White House and Congress.
The official confirmed that notes taken by an NSC official who received the briefing indicate that “some type of caution” was given by the FBI. This “gave these people (at NSC) the impression” that they couldn’t share the information with others, the official said.
Despite efforts to quell the controversy, the impression remained of a White House in some internal disarray and on poor terms with the government’s top law enforcement agency. xxxx A DEMOCRATIC PARTY In other fund-raising news Tuesday, officials told a House appropriations subcommittee that Clinton ran up nearly $3.7 million in bills entertaining people at coffees, Christmas parties, receptions and other non-official events since he took office in 1993. The National Parks Service, which oversees operation of the White House, said the money had been reimbursed by the Democratic Party or other groups.