What the White House Tapes Really Show

The Keystone Kops behind the cameras.

Once upon a time there was a tiny organization within the United States War Department known as the White House Signal Detachment. Created in December 1941 by President Franklin Roosevelt, the White House Signal Detachment wasn’t even a real agency for the first three months of its life. Rather, it was an unofficial collection of 32 members of the U.S. Army whose low-profile mission was to provide secure lines of communication for the president during World War II. Officially activated in March 1942, WHSD has since undergone two name changes and a couple of shifts in oversight. Today, the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), as it has been known since 1962, is a “joint service agency” staffed by all branches of the armed forces, as well as a handful of civilians.

As is the case with the entire executive branch over the past five decades, the White House Communications Agency—dubbed “Wocka” by White House aides and the press corps—has grown in both mission and size. By 1978, WHCA’s stated duty had become “to provide telecommunications and other related support to the president of the United States and to other elements related to the president.” Sounds relatively straightforward. Upon closer examination, however, one learns that those “related” elements include services for “the vice president, the National Security Council, the president’s staff, the First Family, the Secret Service, and others as directed.” Today, this mandate entails, among other things: toting the presidential seal, American flags, and bulletproof podium around the country for the president’s public appearances; manning the switchboards at the White House; developing and printing photos of the president and first lady; providing stenographic services for the White House press secretary; videotaping key events of the presidency for the National Archives; and, of course, ensuring that, wherever he goes and whenever he gets there, the leader of the United States of America has “dependable means by which to communicate instantly with individuals anywhere in the world at any moment.”

As one might expect, such an increase in responsibilities has required a comparable increase in staff. During the Bush years, the agency hit a personnel peak of 1,017. Since 1991, this number has gradually declined, and today WHCA employs a mere 854 personnel. In 1996, its budget topped $120 million, all of which came out of the Defense Department’s coffers.

Although staffed and funded through the Pentagon’s Defense Information Systems Agency, WHCA takes its marching orders from the White House, under the auspices of the White House Military Office. (Stay with me here, these layers of command will be important later on.) Downsizing notwithstanding, WHCA remains the single largest agency overseen by the Executive Office of the President. The Office of Management and Budget, commonly thought to be the largest, runs a pale second with 520 employees.

Despite WHCA’s considerable bulk, however, this 800-pound gorilla has operated with little attention from either its Defense Department or White House masters. (Which helps explain why no one really knows when the White House assigned WHCA all those “other related” duties mentioned in the agency’s

Didn’t the president or someone on his staff ever question the wisdom of having Bill Clinton’s years in office memorialized as a never-ending kissup to checkbook-swinging fat cats?

1978 mission statement.) The agency’s basic tasks have been reviewed only three times since its inception, and it escaped formal audit until a defense department review two years ago. The November 1995 report on phase one of the audit cited “no evidence of significant theft or significant waste” in WHCA, but noted several areas in need of “management attention.” Among these: WHCA was annually performing $7.8 million worth of tasks beyond the scope of its mission; it was unable to account for more than half a million dollars worth of agency property; and it was paying close to $800,000 to lease superfluous equipment. The April 1996 phase-two report concluded that WHCA was receiving “little or no oversight of budgeting, acquisition planning, and organizational effectiveness,” and recommended that the DoD’s oversight role be strengthened. The following June, WHCA representatives testified before a congressional subcommittee that the agency was taking steps to address the audit’s criticisms. And after only a couple of unflattering media blips, WHCA sank back into relative anonymity.

Then came The Coffees.

“Wocka” Is Watching

Time magazine was credited with breaking the story. On October 4 of this year, deep into the Senate hearings on campaign finance reform, the Clinton administration turned over to investigators “belatedly discovered” videotapes of the infamous White House coffees. Within days, the White House Communications Agency, the unfortunate maker and keeper of the tapes, found itself under siege from all sides. Why hadn’t the agency responded to previous committee inquiries regarding taped events? Why had WHCA ignored a memo from the White House requesting all videos of coffees and political events? Attorney General Janet Reno was furious. President Clinton said he was even more furious. And Senate Committee Chairman Fred Thompson and his Republican cohorts were downright apoplectic. Having requested all pertinent information on the events months earlier, GOP lawmakers charged that this delay in producing the tapes was another example of the administration’s obstructionist “foot-dragging.”

As the news media detailed the furious finger-pointing, what emerged read more like a comedy of errors than a grand conspiracy: The White House had sent a memo to WHCA in April, but part of the memo hadn’t gotten distributed by the White House Military Office, so WHCA officials didn’t know the White House wanted the database searched specifically for coffee footage, and certainly nobody at WHCA had thought to query the database using the keyword “coffee.”

The question of whether this apparent display of stunning incompetence was in fact intentional will likely be debated along partisan lines for years to come. (Expect conspiracy don Christopher Ruddy to come out with the FBI-files/Rose-billing-records/WHCA-videos conspiracy thrillogy next spring.) But an even more basic—if somewhat less politically gripping—question is likely to remain unexplored: What in the hell were WHCA camera crews doing at those coffees to begin with?

The agency’s stated reason for attending the events sounds benign enough: The duties of the White House Communications Agency include videotaping “key” moments in the presidency for posterity. But while this may be a valid explanation for WHCA crews’ tailing the president to peace conferences and fluttering around him during state dinners, it still begs the question of why they were on hand for DNC fund-raisers and White House love-ins with big-money donors. The agency is, after all, under operational control of the White House, and senior White House aides are, in fact, the folks who arrange for WHCA coverage of an event. Didn’t the president or someone on his staff ever question the wisdom of having Bill Clinton’s years in office memorialized as a never-ending kiss-up to checkbook-swinging fat cats? Granted, fund-raising is fast becoming the primary activity—and defining skill—of America’s elected officials. But to preserve in Technicolor detail the pathetic realities of today’s political money-grub is hardly a shrewd move for a guy supposedly obsessed with his presidential “legacy.”

A handful of explanations for WHCA’s videotaping the coffees comes to mind. One, President Clinton wanted them there. After five years in the Oval Office, Clinton’s judgment may have been so eroded by all of the bowing and scraping that accompany the job, that he came to assume any move he made merited video documentation. (At last count, footage of 44 coffees and more than 200 fundraisers had been turned over to congressional investigators.)

Alternatively, with the end of the Cold War, perhaps the DoD is so desperate for something to do that it concocted a variety of make-work tasks for military personnel—a kind of workfare for the enlisted set—and asked President Clinton to go along. Or perhaps WHCA itself, in a classic bureaucratic attempt to protect its share of the defense-funding pie, kept offering to take on additional duties, and the White House obligingly piled them on. Permanently cowed where the Pentagon is concerned by that unpleasant “draft-dodger” label, Clinton is unlikely to deny the military anything its little heart desires. (Not to mention that WHCA provides the Executive Office of the President 850 additional staffers, while allowing the White House to keep its own budget and personnel numbers respectably low.)

An equally plausible scenario is that Clinton never thought twice about the cameras being there—that he is so accustomed to being shadowed by the video crews that he no longer notices when they’re around. (See page 14 for why this isn’t as absurd as it seems.) This, at least, was the impression given by former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes in his October testimony before Congress concerning the WHCA incident. When asked about the agency’s function, Ickes responded: “I’m fortunate, I think, that I know little about it. They were around a great deal of time to the extent that those of us traveling with, or with the president in meetings or otherwise, came not to even notice them, quite frankly…. My understanding [is] that they were a unit of the United States military and that their function is to record … certain events and certain statements by the president. I don’t know when they are called. I don’t know what the criteria is for what they film and what they take on audio. All I know is they were there, and they were there quite frequently, but not all the time.” Ickes’ offered similar insight into the workings of WHCA’s operational overseer, the White House Military Office: “There is a military unit in the EOP [Executive Office of the President]. I don’t know how it is structured. I don’t know who it reports to. And I don’t know from whom it takes its orders, quite frankly.” (Hardly a promising sign from the folks who promised to thoroughly evaluate and “reinvent” the federal government.)

One might get the impression from Ickes’ statement that, despite its size—and considering the sad lack of attention it has received over the years—WHCA has never been very important to anyone in the White House. One would be wrong. If anything, the agency’s low profile was once a sign of the exact opposite. As a part of the even lower-profile White House Military Office, WHCA has long been among the most bizarre and the least understood government agencies. From the Eisenhower administration up through Reagan, WHCA’s overseer, the White House Military Office, is known to have controlled a multimillion-dollar secret fund (maintained ostensibly for the construction of presidential bomb shelters) into which the president could dip any time and for any purpose he so desired. The various abuses of this fund—including JFK’s upgrading family properties, President Johnson’s spending millions to improve the wiring and plumbing at his Texas ranch, Nixon’s using half a million for a swimming pool at Camp David—are outlined in the 1980 book Breaking Cover, by former WHMO Director Bill Gulley. The White House Military Office simply hid any expenditure the president did not want examined by “classifying” it as a matter of “presidential security,” said Gulley, who noted that WHCA personnel were frequently employed for these “classified” projects. For example, from the time he left office until six months after his death, LBJ had a dozen WHCA staffers down at his ranch—compliments of the WHMO fund. The book also includes memos documenting WHCNs setting up of LBJ’s secret taping system. Wrote Gulley, “It’s no exaggeration to say [the Military Office is] the President’s Aladdin’s lamp: there’s nothing that can’t be done, and there’s a bottomless pit of money, ingenuity, and resources to do it with.” When Breaking Cover was released in 1980, the Reagan White House admitted to the existence of the secret fund—which had survived undetected throughout the uproar and paranoid aftermath of Watergate—but vowed that the Gipper would never dream of misusing it. WHMO and the White House Counsel’s Office have been unavailable for comment on the current status of the fund.

Today, the administration remains very protective where WHCA and WHMO are concerned. In March of 1994, Congress asked the General Accounting Office to look into the agency’s management and finances. Although the GAO’s preliminary inquiries raised concerns about, among other issues, WHCA’s budgeting policies, investigators were barred from pursuing the matter by the White House. As the GAO’s Assistant Comptroller Henry L. Hinton Jr. later told the House subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice “[O]n three occasions in May, June, and August 1994, DoD representatives advised us that the White House had prohibited DoD contact with GAO or release of DoD data.” The GAO pursued the matter, said Hinton, and “during a January 1995 meeting with DoD and White House staff, White House Counsel staff indicated that we would not be provided the information needed to further pursue these issues.” The White House explained that its denial of the GAO’s request was because WHCA operations involved matters of “presidential protection.”

In February 1995, an agreement was finally reached whereby the Defense Department’s Inspector General would conduct an audit of WHCA. But even then, the White House kept an eye on the proceedings. In the 1996 follow-up hearings, the House Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice requested testimony from the head of WHMO, presidential appointee Alan Sullivan. The White House Counsel’s office wrote a letter seeking to block Sullivan’s appearance. In Sullivan’s stead went WHCA Commander Col. Joseph Simmons. But even Simmons’ testimony proved controversial. He first submitted a prepared statement indicating that “WHMO provides operational direction and control to the WHCA. … The director of the WHMO prepares annual officer evaluation reports for the commander [of] WHCA, and the White House Chief of Staff is the reviewing official.” He then submitted a second statement from which this reference to the White House’s oversight role had been deleted. The change had been made upon recommendation from someone who had reviewed the document, Simmons told the subcommittee, although he could not say precisely whom. Democrats chalked the incident up to a simple editing decision. Republicans saw it as the White House’s attempts to distance itself from the agency.

The Hunt For “Wocka”

The administration’s apparent evasions on WHCA, along with the nature and history of the agency, bring up the very real possibility that the White House is not at all ignorant of the agency’s operations. Congressional Republicans certainly suspect as much, and the recent videotape fiasco has spurred a movement to launch hearings by early spring into the perceived abuses of WHCA. (Rep. Mark Souder says such hearings would have begun yesterday if he had his druthers.) But the public shouldn’t expect too much from a congressional inquiry. WHCA has made a career of operating under the radar, and Congress will be hard-pressed to breach the walls of “presidential security” surrounding the agency. As Congressman Souder admits, right around the time last year that House members were hearing testimony on the appropriateness of WHCA’s oversight and operations, WHCA video crews were—unbeknownst to the subcommittee—busy working the coffee/fund-raiser circuit.

As for the agency’s colorful history, when approached for this article, staffers of the House subcommittee that ran last year’s WHCA hearings expressed total surprise at the agency’s past connection to WHMO’s secret fund, or indeed that the fund had ever existed. “I don’t know anything about that,” says Majority Staff Director Robert Charles. “You say you read about it in a book? What is the name of it? Can I get the pages faxed to me?”

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Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.