09/11/97 - 05:12 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

National security staff didn't restrict visitors

WASHINGTON - President Clinton's national security adviser said Thursday his staff was infrequently consulted about unsavory foreign visitors who met with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore during the last presidential campaign.

The failure to check the background of a Chinese arms merchant, a Russian businessman with alleged mob ties and other visitors - admitted at the request of Democratic Party officials - never influenced foreign policy, Samuel R. Berger told a Senate committee.

The problem doesn't exist in Clinton's second term, Berger asserted, because new procedures are in place that require intelligence checks with the State Department and CIA before foreign visitors are admitted to the White House. Clinton insisted on tightening the controls, Berger told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

At a hearing on campaign finance abuse, Berger was forced to defend not only administration policy but his own activities, when he was deputy national security adviser during Clinton's first term.

Republicans chided Berger for allowing his photo to be taken with a large Democratic contributor in October 1995, and his attendance at weekly campaign strategy meetings in 1996.

Asked by committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., whether the foreign nationals were checked out by national security staffers during the first term, Berger replied: "Obviously, they were not - we were not asked in all situations. And I think the president and others have said that the system was inadequate."

But since "there was no evidence ... of any extraneous influences" on foreign policy, Berger testified, "I did not see this problem on the radar screen."

Defending his attendance at political strategy meetings, Berger said he wanted to be sure the president's foreign policy would be portrayed accurately in the campaign. Berger described himself as "kind of a living stop sign" in the meetings to discourage the use of foreign policy for political purposes.

"I just don't see that that's a big problem," said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, ranking Democrat on the panel. Glenn pointed out that President Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, met with Bush's inner circle of political advisers.

Thompson questioned Berger about a White House national security staffer's electronic memo dated Oct. 3, 1995, asking Berger to meet with Hong Kong businessman Eric Hotung and allow their picture to be taken.

The request was made by then-Democratic Party Chairman Donald L. Fowler, the memo said, but it did not mention that Hotung and his American wife had pledged to contribute $100,000 to the party.

"If you don't know Hotung, he's a fabulously wealthy Hong Kong businessman who heads an institute dedicated to promoting U.S.-China relations," the memo said.

The memo cautioned Berger, "I think a photo op would be fine, but I'd try not to sit down with the guy. That could consume more than 5 minutes."

The photo was taken the next day, Oct. 4. Patricia Hotung contributed $20,000 to the Democrats on Oct. 12 and $79,980 the next day.

"Had I known in any way it was mixed up in a campaign contribution, I wouldn't have had anything to do with it," Berger said, adding "Mr. Hotung is a serious man of substance" on China and Taiwan issues.

To emphasize his point, Berger said Hotung has met with a number of senators to discuss China.

David Johnson, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House photographer never made a print of the picture of Hotung and Berger because nobody ever requested one.

Berger faced his toughest questioning from Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla. who chided the White House for ignoring a national security staff recommendation against admitting businessman Roger Tamraz to the White House in 1995.

The oil man, who was seeking U.S. support for a pipeline he sought to build in the Caspian Sea region, attended six White House social events including coffee, dinner and a movie with Clinton. He has been wanted in Lebanon on a decade-old embezzlement charge, although Tamraz denies the allegation.

"I'm not aware of the NSC (National Security Council) blocking anybody," Nickles told Berger. "You had an arms dealer, you had a drug dealer, you had a person with an international arrest warrant. You didn't block anybody except Mr. Tamraz and that blockage was overruled evidently."

The senator noted that after Tamraz discussed the pipeline with Clinton, presidential adviser Thomas F. McLarty Jr. asked the Energy Department to review the proposal. Tamraz contributed $300,000 to the Democratic National Committee and other party organizations for the 1996 election.

Berger replied, "My understanding is the people who invited Mr. Tamraz back in were not aware of the advice of our staff. We need to fix that part."

However, Nickles said Tamraz "got what he wanted. He got access to the president, he got action by the president, he got action by the president's chief of staff."