WASHINGTON - Assertions that burials took place at Arlington National Cemetery in exchange for contributions to the Democratic Party are "just not true," Army Secretary Togo West says.
To bolster that assertion, the Army said Friday it would release the names of those who had been granted waivers under West. Up until Friday, the service had refused to do so, citing privacy concerns.
The Army had sent the names to the proper congressional oversight panels earlier this year, saying that was the proper thing to do.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers say they are not satisfied with Pentagon and White House denials.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked President Clinton to address the charges. Specter, who is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his office had been "inundated" by demands for an investigation.
Specter said the charges "may be totally fallacious. ... But I do know there is a hue and cry out there for the facts." He said it was likely he would hold hearings on the matter.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., urged Clinton to make public the names of those granted exceptions and added, "If they refuse to release the names we will subpoena them."
West, the service's top civilian, made a surprise appearance Thursday in the Pentagon briefing room to rebut allegations that waivers for burials at the cemetery in Arlington, Va., were granted to civilians who gave money to the Democratic Party.
"There have been no considerations of (political) contributions in making determinations about any of the 60 or so exceptions that are attributed to my stewardship, and I am certain that that has been the policy historically," West said.
"It's not a factor at all. It's simply not considered. It is not known," what the contributions of any individual were, West insisted.
A House veterans affairs subcommittee is investigating 10 waivers for burial at Arlington that were granted by West over the objections of the superintendent of the cemetery, including one living "high-profile person," said Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., chairman of the panel.
Lewis said the subcommittee likely will hold hearings on the waivers in December and release the names of the 10 at that time.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Michael Doubleday said 58 exemptions were approved by West, and four by Clinton himself. West said he could not say exactly how Clinton came to approve the four waivers, but that he knew fund raising was not the reason.
White House special counsel Lanny Davis said Clinton's exemptions involved a Supreme Court justice, the wife of another Supreme Court justice, an Army Veteran Drug Enforcement Agency agent killed on a mission in Peru and a Washington police officer, a Marine corps veteran, killed in the line of duty.
West said he has granted waivers based on decisions that had been made in prior administrations. He cited as examples an ambassador who died in office, and two men who were working on a peace accord in Bosnia who were killed when their armored vehicle hit a land mine. One worked for the Pentagon, the other for the State Department.
Queried why the number of waivers under his administration has been greater than under other administrations, West said the "best answer" he has found is that the cemetery staff has gotten more requests in recent years.
The many veterans from the World War II era are now in the later stages of life and "perhaps more veterans of that age are dying," he said.
Under President Carter, 17 exemptions were made; 53 were made in President Reagan's eight years in office; 34 were made by President Bush, Doubleday said.
Specter said Clinton should "respond personally to the public" on the matter.
Arlington National Cemetery is across the Potomac River from Washington and is within view of the Pentagon. It is considered hallowed ground and is the site where veterans and active duty military who die in service are buried.
It is also the only such site where civilians who have no military service are interred, but only under a waiver process, "based on their service to America," West said.
News reports, quoting anonymous sources, have linked the exceptions to Democratic Party contributors. Radio talk show hosts have picked up on the reports, and lawmakers began getting besieged with calls from angry citizens.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry on Thursday said the charges were "absurd."
"This is a story that appeared, largely uncorroborated, with anonymous sources, in a conservative right-wing publication. It was picked up on the hate radio talk circuit and inflamed yesterday," he said.
"Sitting here and denying or clarifying or amplifying treats the absurd as something that is worthy of comment. And I don't know that I want to do that."
But Republicans were quick to compare the alleged burial waivers to Clinton's inviting big donors to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, joined other lawmakers in demanding that the White House and the Army provide a full list of those who have received waivers so they can be compared against political contributors.
"Given the administration's record in military affairs, the burden of proof lies completely with your office," he wrote West on Thursday.
By The Associated Press