Pentagon Scolds Officials for Violating Tripp Privacy

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

The Pentagon (CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary William Cohen Thursday expressed "disappointment" in two senior Pentagon officials who provided confidential information to a reporter from the personnel file of Linda Tripp during the height of an investigation that led to the impeachment of President Clinton.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H Bacon and his chief assistant, Clifford H Bernath, violated the Privacy Act by releasing information from Tripp's personnel file to a reporter in 1998, the Pentagon's inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

Responding to the IG's findings, Cohen sent letters to both officials "to express my disappointment."

Cohen called "hasty and ill-considered" their decision to release to a reporter from The New Yorker information from Tripp's security file "without consulting with counsel or fully weighing the public and private interests involved."

"[T]he failure to follow established procedures must be considered a serious lapse in judgment," Cohen said.

Cohen added, however, that the officials' action "was a departure from the very high quality of performance that you have otherwise exhibited and that I fully expect and anticipate that you will continue to exhibit in the future."

The Justice Department already has reviewed the Pentagon inspector general's report and declined to prosecute.

Thursday's action stemmed from the Monica Lewinsky scandal in March 1998, when a reporter learned that Tripp, a Defense Department employee and a confidant of Lewinsky, had been arrested at age 19. The reporter obtained the public arrest record and called Bacon to find out whether Tripp had reported the arrest on her security clearance application.

Bernath located the security clearance application and verified that Tripp had not revealed her arrest, then, with Bacon's concurrence, provided that information to the reporter.

Cohen Considers Matter Closed

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley told reporters Cohen will take no further action against the two men.

"The secretary thought about this carefully, and with the delivery of these letters to both men today, he considers the matter closed," he said.

Investigators concluded that neither official was influenced by anyone on the White House staff - or any other outside influence - to release the negative information on Tripp, whose secret recordings of conversations with Lewinsky led to the impeachment of the president in the House of Representatives. Tripp later was charged with violating state wiretap laws, but those charges were dismissed on Wednesday by a Maryland prosecutor.

Tripp is working as a public affairs employee for the Defense Manpower Data Center in Washington, DC.

Bacon, who normally conducts news briefings at the Pentagon, chose not to conduct Thursday's briefing because he knew the subject of the IG report would come up, Quigley said.

In a written statement, Bacon said he believed that ultimately his conduct would be found lawful.

"My response to a reporter's inquiry raised a complex and important question about the balance between the goal of open government, as expressed in the Freedom of Information Act, and the goal of protecting some personnel records from disclosure, as expressed in the Privacy Act," he said. In this case, "the balance weighed in favor of responding to a specific question involving a public arrest record [Tripp's]," he said.

Inhofe Pledges He Will Hold Hearings on Matter

In a reaction from Capitol Hill, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said Cohen's letter to the two men was "another Clinton administration whitewash and cover-up."

"This sends a signal to millions of federal civilian and military employees that their private government records can be made public for political purposes and no one will be held accountable. Bacon and Bernath should have been prosecuted and sent to jail for violating the confidentiality of private government personnel records," he said.

Inhofe said he plans to hold hearings on the matter in the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.