LINDA TRIPP MAY NOT BE America's sweetheart, but one fact remains: The Clinton Defense Department -- her own employer -- played a rotten trick on her. And no one has yet been held responsible.

The matter has been investigated ad nauseam -- in a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch (the conservative public-interest group); by the Pentagon's inspector general (who has issued no report, despite promises to Congress to do so); and by the Office of Independent Counsel. The facts are well established. Virtually all disinterested parties agree that Clinton appointees broke the law. And still the administration -- whose long-ago pledge to be the most ethical in history is now a joke -- does nothing.

A quick refresher: In mid-March, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker put in a call to an old colleague, Ken Bacon, the Pentagon's chief spokesman. She had learned that Tripp, when a teenager, was arrested. Could he find out how Tripp had answered a question about prior arrests on a security form -- number 398, to be exact? Bacon was happy to oblige. He directed his deputy, Cliff Bernath, to satisfy the reporter's request. Bernath worked the phones, muscled skeptical career officers, and did so -- on deadline.

Tripp had not, in fact, disclosed on Form 398 her 1969 arrest. She appeared to be in hot water. Bernath told the New York Times that Tripp (his subordinate) faced the "very serious charge" of misleading the government. Secretary Bill Cohen -- who did not yet know of his department's leak to Mayer -- declared on CNN that Tripp was guilty of "a contradiction of the truth," which would be "looked into." But it soon became clear that Tripp's arrest had been the result of a juvenile prank, perpetrated against her. The Pentagon dropped the idea of investigating Tripp. Instead, Congress demanded that it probe Bacon and Bernath, for violating the Privacy Act in their zeal to wound a troublesome employee.

The two men gave slightly different accounts to Ken Starr's prosecutors. Bacon maintained that he did not ask Bernath to "release information" from Tripp's confidential file. Bernath insisted that he made no move other than on Bacon's instructions. Bacon recalled that he was immediately seized by Privacy Act concerns -- even to the point of sharing them with Mayer. Bernath swore repeatedly that "we did not consider the Privacy Act." Bacon admitted he knew without doubt that Mayer was planning a hit on Tripp. Bernath claimed innocence of such knowledge. Both men, however, were clear on one point (even if inadvertently): Mayer asked them to do an extraordinary thing; and when she called, they hopped to.

According to Bacon's testimony, he had not even heard of Form 398 before Mayer phoned him (although he guessed he had been required to fill one out himself). It was Mayer who advised him of the form's existence; she did not volunteer how she had come to know to check it. Bacon, on a Thursday night, told Bernath that Mayer needed the information the next morning -- she had even extended her deadline for it.

Early on Friday, Bernath called Mayer, simply to assure her that he was on top of the case. He quickly put his hands on a Form 171 (which serves as an employment application in government), but that would not suffice: It asked about convictions, not arrests, and did not reach far enough into history. As Bacon explained to the grand jury, "Jane Mayer had asked me for something very specific, and what Cliff brought me was not what Jane Mayer had asked for." So Bernath procured from a hesitant, questioning document-keeper -- Les Blake, an official with the Privacy Act Branch of the Defense Security Service -- the other, highly sensitive form. Within minutes, Bernath had divulged its prized item to Mayer.

And yet Bacon testified that his office treated Mayer's inquiry no differently from any other -- an absurd contention, as anyone who has ever tried to wring even routine information from the Pentagon can attest.

Did Bacon pause to consider the effect of the disclosure on Tripp? "I did not think about that," he answered, though he conceded that a story like Mayer's "certainly is not one you would like to have published about you." Asked by the inspector general whether he felt "culpable," Bacon responded, baldly, "Not at all." Even so, he offered Secretary Cohen his resignation for the embarrassment he had caused the department. (Cohen declined it.) In front of the grand jury, Bacon was careful not to make Bernath a scapegoat, insisting, "I was very aware of what Cliff was doing. . . . I mean, I didn't just send Cliff off . . . I knew what was happening."

As for Bernath, he allowed that he himself had noticed a Privacy Act warning when filling out his own Form 398. And what did that mean to him? That "it would not be released without consideration of the terms of the Privacy Act"; that "nobody would ever see that information." Bernath also acknowledged that Cohen's chief of staff, Bob Tyrer, was "irate" about the play against Tripp. (Tyrer later opposed a significant promotion for Bernath, which Bernath nevertheless received.) Even months after the fact, Bernath expressed amazement that his action had created such a stir. "We responded to a query," he said. "It was not a significant event in our lives." Yet, "you know, in retrospect, this has been the most significant event in my life."

The grand jurors themselves were utterly incredulous at Bacon's and Bernath's denials, rationalizations, and shadings. One of them said to Bacon, "What would make you think that it would be all right to release that kind of information . . . knowing it was a confidential question in files that were locked up?" Bacon could only reply, "I think this incident has sensitized everybody in the office." The grand jurors were particularly contemptuous of the claim -- made by both men -- that they were operating "on the fly," unthinkingly, noting that the two had had an entire night to reflect on their complicity with Mayer.

The great question hanging over the whole affair is, Did Ken Bacon act entirely on his own? Or did he act at the prompting of the White House (which had ample reason to want to cook Tripp)? Bacon has steadfastly denied that he carried out another's orders. "I never discussed this issue with anybody at the White House," he told Starr's men. That would seem an unambiguous statement -- made in any other administration. The independent counsel's office has been especially interested in Bacon's contracts with Harold Ickes, the faithful Clinton operative who has played an off-the-books role for the president throughout Monicagate. Both Bacon and Ickes testified that their encounters have been innocuous -- a little Chinese food, a shared Passover seder, a wave in a restaurant.

A source familiar with the Pentagon's public-affairs unit argues that Bacon and Bernath engaged in a "pathetic bending to political pressure." Bernath in particular, says the source, strongly disliked Tripp, especially after she accused him of cutting ethical corners. And did Bacon act on his own? Says a veteran Pentagon hand, "Couldn't happen, didn't happen, no way, no how. Remember," he continued: "Everyone who comes into public affairs is told Privacy Act rules. You don't release someone's confidential information -- to anyone, much less the media. This is Public Affairs 101. And Bacon is perpetrating a shameful lie. Any professional in the building will tell you the same thing."

One investigator on Capitol Hill doubts that the Pentagon inspector general will issue a report any time soon: The judge in the Judicial Watch case ordered Cliff Bernath's computer files seized, "and who knows what's in there? The Pentagon is far too nervous to do anything about Trippgate now. They don't know what other shoe will drop on them." Tripp herself is contemplating a lawsuit, based not only on the Privacy Act but on statutes designed to protect whistleblowers.

Nothing -- but nothing -- incenses a Clintonite more than the suggestion that this administration is like Nixon's: devious, vindictive, mendacious. But Trippgate is markedly Nixonian. Back in 1974, Charles Colson pleaded guilty to releasing information from Daniel Ellsberg's FBI file to the Copley Press (at a time when Ellsberg was a defendant in the Pentagon Papers case and a major irritant to the administration). Colson went to jail for it. Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski remarked that Colson's plea had set a sterling precedent -- one that would serve as a deterrent to future custodians of government files.

The Colson precedent is obviously lost on the Clintonites. And we now see that there is a critical difference between Nixon's men and Clinton's: Nixon's, when caught, paid a price. Clinton's? They just glide on.

Jay Nordlinger is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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