The Magazine

LINDA TRIPP'S PENTAGON PAPERS

Mar 30, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 28 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Last week, the New Yorker informed its readers of least two previously undisclosed facts about Linda Tripp. First, in the spring of 1969, Tripp, then 19, was arrested in the town of Greenwood Lake, New York, on charges of grand larceny. Second, in 1987, on a federal security-clearance form she filled out for her job at the Pentagon, Tripp answered no to a question asking whether she had ever been arrested.


The New Yorker story appeared just as Kathleen Willey was making headlines, and immediately was held up by Clinton defenders as more evidence that the president's accusers have credibility problems. Linda Tripp's security-clearance form contains a "contradiction of the truth," Secretary of Defense William Cohen told CNN a day before the New Yorker even arrived on newsstands. "I'm sure it will be looked into. It's a serious matter." An editorial in USA Today the next morning found the news equally serious. " [This] crew isn't made up of angels," the paper said, referring to the various women in the Lewinsky saga. Linda Tripp, the editorial noted, "is accused of failing to disclose a 1969 arrest on a security clearance form."


For a moment, it seemed possible that Linda Tripp would face felony charges for making a false statement. Then, within a day, an explanation emerged. The Washington Post reported that Tripp's larceny charge, which was part of a teenage prank, was reduced by the judge to one count of loitering, a sub- misdemeanor offense considered so insignificant in New York state that it is not entered into a person's permanent record. Tripp had not been aware that her 29-year-old arrest even counted as an arrest, her lawyer explained, so she did not acknowledge it when asked.


Tripp's explanation is one that those who handle security clearances have heard many times before. "It happens all the time," says the recently retired head of security for a large federal agency. When an employee is found to have lied about a minor scrape with the law that took place before entering government service, he says, "nobody does anything about it except make a note and put it in the employee's file." It is rare, in other words, for a cabinet secretary to talk about the incident on television.


But that's not the only unusual thing about the recent flap over Linda Tripp's arrest record. The federal government is fatuously reluctant to give reporters confidential information about its employees. How did Jane Mayer, who wrote the Linda Tripp story for the New Yorker, get access to information in Tripp's personnel file? Simple, says Pentagon spokesman Cliff Bernath: She asked for it. "She called in Thursday, and we responded Friday afternoon," explains Bernath, who gave Mayer the information over the phone. Bernath, who happens to be one of Tripp's supervisors, doesn't sound embarrassed as he explains how he turned over private information about his employee. "It would have been releasable under the Freedom of Information Act, " Bernath says. "We felt very strongly that when information is releasable we shouldn't jerk around reporters or anybody else. We try to be forward-leaning. This is information that, again, was releasable."


Speaking on Monday, the day the New Yorker hits the newsstand, Bernath comes off as straightforward enough, but his nothing-to-hide tone seems strangely out of character for the Defense Department. "It's very, very odd that they were willing to provide that information on someone who works at the Pentagon, and that they provided it so quickly," says Greg Caires, a reporter who covers the military for Defense Daily. According to Caires, the Pentagon is so security conscious that it is often impossible for journalists to get the personnel records of military employees who have been dead for 30 years. "Listen," he says, "it took me two years just to get a permanent pass to get into the Pentagon. Believe me, it's very odd."