File This ‘-Gate’ Under ‘Dead’

If news reports are to be believed, we are now close to the conclusion of that long-running political hoax known as “Filegate.” According to a story in The New York Times on March 13-which ran on an inside page, of course-the Office of Independent Counsel is about to release its final report on the 900 F.B.I. personnel files mistakenly obtained by security officials in the Clinton White House.

There will be no criminal prosecutions of anyone involved in this unfortunate fiasco, including Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, the two former White House employees directly responsible. Obviously, there will be no indictments of any of the wholly innocent persons supposedly implicated in this matter, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Considering the level of hysteria generated by enemies of the Administration when the F.B.I. files issue first arose four years ago, this impending exoneration ought to prompt some retractions and apologies. But instead we now see the old phony story replaced by the new phony story. Kenneth Starr is gone and Filegate is dead, but we hear whispers that Mr. Starr’s replacement, Robert Ray, may still indict Bill Clinton after he leaves office.

To expect a sense of honor and decency from the Office of Independent Counsel and its epigones in the media is, of course, to be disappointed. Dozens of conscientious lawyers and investigators have worked for the O.I.C., but there has always been an excess of partisan zeal at the top. The so-called Filegate case provides an example of that misplaced zeal from beginning to end.

The ultimate outcome of this case was predicted here long ago, a forecast that required neither special brilliance nor inside information, but only a cursory examination of the evidence. The list of 900 names showed that the White House’s embarrassed explanation of the matter-in updating clearances, they had wrongly obtained an outdated list of White House staff-was not just plausible but probable: It included scarcely anyone of political notoriety and many obscure employees, such as gardeners and secretarial aides. That their privacy had been breached was truly awful, as the President said when he apologized publicly for the errors committed by his aides. Yet their stupid, careless behavior in no way resembled the felonious conspiracy of which they were so swiftly accused.

The accusers were the usual right-wing suspects, from William Safire of The New York Times all the way down to the tabloid gumshoes of the New York Post . Even Nat Hentoff of The Village Voice was willingly duped by this fraud. They told us that Filegate was equal to Watergate or worse, and that the perpetrators would be traced all the way into the Oval Office and the White House residence. It was all a nefarious plot cooked up by the First Lady, who allegedly had hired Mr. Livingstone for the express purpose of smearing and intimidating the Administration’s opponents.

But the smearing was done to the Clintons, not by them. And that smearing was made possible in large measure by the Office of Independent Counsel, which delayed as long as possible in confirming the obvious.

As early as the fall of 1997, Byron York reported in The American Spectator -a publication with excellent sources in the O.I.C.-that prosecutors had found no crimes whatsoever in Filegate. But the O.I.C. did nothing to confirm that finding until a year later, when Mr. Starr testified before the House Judiciary Committee and rather reluctantly admitted there would be no indictments in that case, the White House Travel Office affair, or the Whitewater matter that first provoked all of his useless and expensive activity.

Why has the O.I.C. permitted this closed case to drag on for an additional two years? Justice delayed is justice denied for the innocent as well as for the guilty, and all the more so when political motives pervert the process. It will be interesting to read how the new proprietors of the O.I.C. try to excuse the misconduct of their predecessors. They can only hope that the Republicans retain control of Congress in November, because Representative Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the relevant Judiciary subcommittee, has vowed to hold hearings on this disgrace if his party regains the majority.

Does Mr. Ray plan to assist his Republican allies by issuing additional reports that suggest guilt where none can be proved? So he seemed to imply in his recent interview with Mr. Safire. When he vowed to “explain our judgments so the country can evaluate them.” According to the Times columnist, although Mr. Ray “expressed his determination not to issue condemnations of wrongdoing he does not bring to trial,” he also intends to “lay out the sometimes ugly facts” to the judicial panel that oversees his office. Just how Mr. Ray will reconcile those contradictory goals remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, here are two more predictions. Few if any of the pundits who got Filegate wrong will acknowledge their gross error-and there will be no prosecution of Mr. Clinton, as President or private citizen.