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Jewish World Review / December 22, 1997 / 23 Kislev, 5758

Eric Breindel

Eric Breindel How did Lawrence slip through?

WITH LAST WEEK's ghoulish disinterment of M. Larry Lawrence's remains (at the ostensible request of his widow), the uproar over the waiver that allowed his burial at Arlington National Cemetery is over.

All but ignored, however, has been the question of how the San Diego real-estate titan and noted Clinton donor made his way through the State Department's vetting process -- an enterprise often described as grueling and, if anything, too thorough. Lawrence was named U.S. ambassador to Switzerland early in President Clinton's first term.

For several years, Lawrence had been telling virtually anyone who would listen that he'd been an underage volunteer on the Horace Bushnell, a Merchant Marine Liberty ship that -- loaded with Soviet-bound war supplies as well as food -- was torpedoed in the Arctic Ocean in early 1945.

In fact, he never got anywhere near the ship or the Merchant Marine (or, for that matter, the armed forces). Lawrence's "survival" is attributable to the fact that he was taking courses at a Chicago junior college -- a decidedly less hazardous occupation -- when the Bushnell was torpedoed. (Interestingly, few living Bushnell seamen deem it feasible that anyone tossed overboard into the freezing Arctic could have survived.)

Lawrence's "relationship" with the Merchant Marine seems to have begun around 1990, when he instructed an aide to research which Merchant ships had come under enemy attack during the war. Ex-Lawrence assistant Norma Nicolls also acknowledges obeying his order to contact a couple of Merchant Marine veterans groups, sign him up as a member and send the organizations small donations. At his instruction, she also added Lawrence's newly discovered "military" past to his listings in various "Who's Who" volumes.

This deception should have been uncovered long before the Arlington uproar. And, indeed, Lawrence was found out. But those responsible for acting on this knowledge chose to look the other way.

Ambassador-designees are subjected to background investigations by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security; the goal is to ensure that each White House ambassadorial nominee -- if confirmed by the Senate -- would qualify for a Top Secret clearance.

The probe includes a full-length interview (which can take place over several sessions), a review of documents with emphasis on financial material, and discussions with folks who know the appointee. The would-be public servant also fills out a standard background form (the SF-86).

An entire report is prepared -- over the course of 30 to 45 days (a deadline seldom met) -- and passed on to the undersecretary of state for management. After reviewing it, he submits the findings to the secretary of state. Eventually, the file is sent over to the White House, which -- barring the unforeseen -- hands it on to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the ambassador-designate's name is sent down to Capitol Hill.

As with FBI inquiries, such reports don't pass judgment regarding fitness to serve; the raw information is meant to speak for itself. (For obvious reasons, investigatory files are kept confidential.)

In the Lawrence case, security officials discovered early on that the nominee had lied to them -- and, of course, to many others -- about serving in the Merchant Marine.

Military service records are easy to check. Merchant Marine files are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard Personnel Office. Moreover, in the event that old records prove to be incomplete, investigators generally endeavor to talk to folks who might fill in the blanks. In this case, they interviewed Bushnell survivors.

The resulting report "could not confirm" Lawrence's claims about his wartime activities. In effect, investigators were sending their superiors a warning: The "could not confirm" wording tends to flag perjury and generally has a devastating impact on the nominee's chances.

Lawrence's file remains sealed. But administration spokesmen -- implying, incidentally, that the investigators had a role in the decision to overlook discrepancies -- have explained that Lawrence's "likely" dishonesty regarding his World War II heroics wasn't deemed germane to the ambassadorial appointment.

The reasoning here doesn't survive even cursory scrutiny. Perjury, after all, would seem germane to almost every appointment. Ex-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, let's recall, was just indicted on charges that he -- among other things -- lied to the FBI about extramarital liaisons. As for diplomats, a lying ambassador is a walking invitation to blackmail.

It's not clear whether the decision to stick with Lawrence came from then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, from a member of the White House counsel's office or from the president himself. But there's no evidence that anyone had second thoughts regarding the appointment.

This shouldn't surprise. It's been plain for some time that the Clintonites don't treat national-security issues with much seriousness. The notorious John Huang, for example -- the man at the heart of the campaign finance scandal -- received a Top Secret clearance for a mid-level Commerce Department job without ever undergoing a background check.

While clearance backlogs have -- on rare occasions -- necessitated such exemptions, Huang's need for CIA briefings wouldn't seem to qualify as a national-security emergency. Moreover, American citizens born elsewhere -- let alone those, such as Huang, who've served in foreign armies -- are rarely waved through.

In John Huang's case, it's relatively easy to discern a motive. Like his Commerce post itself, the CIA briefings focused on economic development in Asia, a subject in which various Big Givers -- including Huang's former employers, the Riady family -- nurture a continuing interest.

Viewed in this light, the Lawrence Affair begins to make sense. The disinterred envoy had given millions to the Democratic Party and -- over the years -- hundreds of thousands to Clinton efforts. From the White House's standpoint, a trivial matter (false claims concerning past military service) was no reason keep Larry Lawrence from the job of his dreams.

How genuine veterans might feel -- let alone the families of men who fell in combat -- wasn't a consideration. As with other Lawrence-related issues -- including 22 disputes with the IRS (four judgments were entered against him in U.S. Tax Court) -- that would have darkened the chances of an ordinary appointee, the would-be ambassador to Bern was consistently accorded special treatment.

This fact, however -- like the burial waiver -- seems far less insidious than the administration's manifestly lax disposition towards security. If there are lessons to be learned here, they turn on the need for senators -- before confirming any Clinton nominees -- to pursue indications of dishonesty with enhanced determination.


©1997, Creators Syndicate, Inc.