10/16/97 - 12:17 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Little-known military unit tapes events

WASHINGTON - The controversial videotapes of President Clinton socializing with political donors were taken by an obscure group of soldiers whose main job is keeping the commander in chief linked to his troops.

The White House Communications Agency, usually abbreviated WHCA and pronounced "wocka" by the president's staff, has more than 850 electronics experts. Most hook up wires, code messages and carry out other tasks to maintain a secret communications system. They even transport the president's bulletproof traveling lectern.

But about 150 of the experts, trained to film the battlefield, specialize in creating a video record of the presidency.

The military crews are a regular presence around the White House. They travel alongside their commercial TV colleagues, wearing civilian clothes to blend in. Their recordings are cataloged and sent to the National Archives and presidential libraries.

After congressional investigators asked for any videotapes of Clinton's gatherings with contributors, WHCA staff searched for donors' names on a computerized index and found none. Only months later, when a White House lawyer pressed for a second search using the word "coffees," did the tapes turn up.

Over the past two weeks, the tapes have been collected, dubbed onto videocassettes and turned over to Congress and the Justice Department.

Even if no evidence appears on the tapes - still being scrutinized - the delay already has embarrassed the White House and angered Attorney General Janet Reno. A day before they appeared, she had said all available evidence showed no sign of illegal fund-raising by Clinton.

Technically a part of the Pentagon, the agency's activities are directed on a day-to-day basis by the White House staff.

Crews generally film only snippets of presidential events for posterity before exiting. On many of the fund-raising tapes, Clinton is shown delivering brief remarks and shaking hands for a few moments, but the entire event is not recorded.

WHCA was created during World War II to keep President Franklin Roosevelt in touch with his military commanders. Over the years, it has taken on more responsibilities, including maintaining the historical record of the presidency.

The agency helped document the death of President Kennedy and, later, the attempts to kill Presidents Ford and Reagan.

By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY