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One of the nastiest aspects of Richard Nixon’s scandals was his dirty tricks squad of professional spies, burglars, forgers and electronic eavesdroppers known as “the plumbers.”

Now it turns out Bill Clinton, who shares so many other parallels with Nixon, had his own plumbers operation. But this one, as explosive as it appears, has yet to register on the Richter scales of the establishment press or government investigators. Like so many other Clinton administration scandals, no one is picking up this well-blazed trail.

The latest disclosure was made by Insight’s pre-eminent investigative reporter Tim Maier, who has had more than his share of scoops in the last year. In the Sept. 29 issue of Insight he reveals that Clinton, in a sweeping electronic-espionage mission, ordered the bugging of his guests at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Seattle in 1993.

Further, Maier reports, secrets recorded in this covert operation appear to have been leaked to White House political staffers who, in turn, are suspected of passing the classified data to the Democratic National Committee who could have traded the valuable business information for Asian campaign contributions. But it gets even more bizarre — and scandalous.

“But what does come as a surprise is an apparent failure by federal law-enforcement and intelligence authorities to pursue allegations of kickbacks to FBI agents involved in the sweeping intelligence operation and separate allegations involving underage boys provided as prostitutes to visiting dignitaries attending the weeklong November conference of 15 Asia-Pacific nations.”

Pimping? Spying? Bribery? Blackmail? Extortion? This sounds more like a script for a “Godfather” movie than a plan for an international economic summit.

“One reason for the alleged cover-up — and that may be the only term appropriate, according to high officials in and out of government who claim direct and indirect knowledge of the APEC bugging — is that those said to have engaged in kickbacks involving thousands of dollars include FBI agents through suppliers with whom they worked to procure electronic audio- and video-surveillance equipment,” Maier writes.

And what about the juvenile prostitution? Those crimes were not pursued, he says, because a probe would have exposed a Top Secret national-security operation.

Predictably, nobody’s commenting at the White House or at the FBI or at the National Security Council or at the Secret Service or at the DNC. Mum’s the word. And this policy of stonewalling has worked for this administration, even as it failed for Nixon’s.

One of the questions that skeptics always raise in connection with the various Clinton scandals is: How could such wide-ranging conspiracies remain secret? When large numbers of people are involved in cover-ups and illegal activities, how can the lid be kept on the story? Maier may also have discovered one of the answers to that question.

“The FBI agents themselves were part of a clique called the ‘Footprinter’s Club,’ which began as a social gathering among members of other federal agencies but grew into a means by which to share information,” he writes.

“They would learn how to do things off the books,” one high official source told Insight, “but that’s not the real crime here. These are the good guys. They are doing what they are told needs to be done. They’re not the bad guys. They were taking a few thousand dollars compared to the billions in contracts that were awarded. This Seattle operation is about keeping the people at the top in power politically.”

Maier reports that this bugging operation was huge — involving more than 300 locations, including a chartered boat Clinton and other national leaders used to visit Blake Island for a salmon feast and Indian dance at Tillicum Village. At least three security companies provided equipment at a pricetag of $250,000.

If you recall the buildup for the APEC conference, Clinton told us that it was a gathering of friends, not adversaries, to find ways to help each other prosper. If this is how Bill Clinton treats his friends, it’s scary to think about how he treats his enemies.

Another day, another Clinton scandal. The secret of Clinton’s success in surviving outrage after outrage appears to be opening up so many fronts of vulnerability that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. How can anyone — journalist or politician — maintain passion for truth and justice when there is no sign of either, when there is no mechanism for seeking them, when there is, as Al Gore would say, “no controlling legal authority”?

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