WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top Defense Department public affairs officials violated Linda Tripp's privacy rights by releasing information from her personnel file to a reporter in 1998, but they did not act under White House influence, an internal report made public Thursday concluded.
In response to the finding by the Pentagon's inspector general, Defense Secretary William Cohen sent letters to Kenneth Bacon,
assistant secretary for public affairs, and to Clifford H. Bernath, formerly Bacon's main deputy, "to express my disappointment" in
Cohen said their actions were "hasty and ill-considered," but added: "This was a departure from the very high quality of performance that you have otherwise exhibited."
Spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said Cohen considers the matter closed and will taken no further action.
Bacon and Bernath were involved in informing a reporter for The New Yorker magazine in March 1998 that Tripp stated on a security clearance form she never had been arrested. In fact, Tripp was arrested for grand larceny as a teen-ager, a charge later reduced
Tripp has filed a civil suit against the Defense Department over the release of the information from her personnel records.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, who has called for Bacon's resignation, denounced Cohen's response as a "whitewash and cover-up."
"The law was broken and nothing is being done about it," said Inhofe, R-Okla., adding that both Bacon and Bernath should be
The Justice Department in April declined to seek prosecution, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove that Bacon and Bernath knowingly violated the Privacy Act of 1974.
Tripp's lawyers, in a statement, accused Bacon of having participated knowingly in a "public relations smear campaign"
orchestrated by the White House to undermine Tripp's credibility.
They urged Clinton to overturn Cohen's action and "order proper punishment and remedial actions" against Bacon.
Quigley said Cohen chose not to make his letters a part of either Bacon's or Bernath's permanent personnel file. Cohen ordered
more training on the Privacy Act for all Pentagon public affairs employees.
Bacon, who is Cohen's chief spokesman and normally conducts news briefings at the Pentagon, chose not to attend Thursday's because of his personal involvement in the investigation, Quigley said. In a brief interview later, Bacon said he had tried to strike a
balance between open government and privacy protection.
"Obviously, at the time it did not occur to me that the Privacy Act would preclude disclosure of what a public official had said about her public arrest record on a security clearance form," Bacon said.
Tripp, who secretly recorded conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, worked for Bacon in the Pentagon's
public affairs office, as did Lewinsky. Tripp remains a Defense Department employee but works in a public affairs office outside the Pentagon.
Tripp's secret taping of conversations with Lewinsky gave Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr evidence of a sexual relationship
between Lewinsky and Clinton. That evidence was used as a base for the impeachment trial against the president.
On Wednesday, Maryland prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli dropped wiretap charges against Tripp. He said a judge's decision limiting
testimony from Lewinsky left him unable to prove that Tripp recorded a telephone conversation with Lewinsky in December 1997
without her consent.
Starr defended his decision to grant federal immunity to Tripp. "At the time, we needed the information and so we, consistent with
Justice Department practices, granted immunity," he told reporters Thursday. "But it was a limited form of immunity."
The inspector general's report, dated May 4 but not released until Thursday, concluded that the harm to Tripp's privacy interests caused by the release of information from her personnel file outweighed any public benefit.
"Accordingly, the release constituted a clearly unwarranted invasion of her privacy," the IG report said.
The report said Bacon and Bernath should have known that releasing the information was improper. It also said the two "were not influenced to act as they did by any person on the White House staff or anyone else." It recommended that Cohen take unspecified
"appropriate corrective action."
In a written statement, Bacon said he accepts Cohen's decision to write a letter of reprimand.
"In this case, I have consistently maintained that the balance weighed in favor of responding to a specific question involving a
public arrest record," Bacon wrote. "I believe that ultimately my conduct will be found lawful."
On the Net:
Linda Tripp's Web site: http://www.lindatripp.com
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil