We published an editorial today sharply criticizing politicization of federal agencies by the Bush adminstration, the most recent examples being a gag order for employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and a Justice Department investigation finding serious violations of federal civil service laws in the hiring of career professionals, including prosecutors and immigration judges.

The editorial prompted a question in the comments section on pressdemocrat.com about whether we were similarly critical of the Clinton administration in 1996 when it was caught with hundreds of FBI files, including dossiers on some political rivals.

The answer is yes.

I didn’t remember, perhaps because I was working in the newsroom at the time. But I found the editorial in the archive and will post it below for anyone interested. Here’s a link to today’s editorial: http://www1.pressdemocrat.com/article/20080801/OPINION/808010305/1043/opinion&title=PD_Editorial__Ethics_morass

— Jim Sweeney

THE ADMINISTRATION PLEADS INCOMPETENCE
Date: Tuesday, June 18, 1996
Section: LOCAL
Edition: FINAL
Page: B4

Faced with reports that it obtained 400 or so FBI files of prominent and not-so-prominent Republicans, the Clinton administration doesn’t plead innocent. It pleads incompetent instead.

The president’s explanation — “a completely honest bureaucratic snafu,” he called it -would be more convincing if this were an isolated incident. But whether through incompetence or arrogance, this administration seems prone to falling into ethical thickets.

The administration has apologized for the incident. But its spin on the story keeps evolving.

First, the man in charge of obtaining the files was an “Army aide.” It turns out he was an Army civilian employee who had worked as a Clinton campaign operative. So has his boss, the administration’s security chief.

The original story had the aide getting an outdated list of pass-holders to the White House from the Secret Service, and then obtaining their files from the FBI. Put aside the scary idea of the administration using FBI files as a handy trove of information, and maybe you really do have a “bureaucratic snafu.”

But Secret Service officials reportedly say that the file of pass-holders is constantly updated, making such a mistake unlikely.

Meanwhile, FBI Director Louis Freeh, promising to tighten control of files, called sharing of the reports “egregious violations of privacy.”

The president’s opponents will keep this story alive. But you can’t blame them. This involves not some long-ago Arkansas land deal, but use and abuse of the powers of the presidency.

The administration’s defenders cite the fact that only files A through G were obtained as proof this wasn’t an organized effort. And the files, the president’s defenders say, sat around unexamined for two years.

So, it’s the incompetence defense. We got the wrong stuff, and we just forgot about it. You wouldn’t do that with a mail-order sweater that didn’t fit, but the administration would do it with Republicans’ FBI files.

Whether you believe the administration’s current story or not doesn’t much matter. Either way, it is not good enough.