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Background checks on potential officials could begin soon

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- - FBI background checks on potential senior staff in a Bush or Gore White House could begin late next week or, at the latest, early the following week, senior White House officials told CNN Friday.

According to senior officials close to transition deliberations, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and FBI Director Louis Freeh have reached an agreement to begin background checks when those tapped for high-level posts have completed the federal forms the FBI uses as a road map.

Podesta and Freeh have calculated that those forms are likely to be ready for FBI action by the end of next week or very early the following week. That's when the background checks will be set in motion, senior officials said.

"We're not at the stage yet where we have the ability to move," said a senior official involved in transition efforts. "But we will begin the process in the not-too-distant future."

Both Podesta and Freeh sit on the president's executive transition council. The background check question has been among the thorniest. Neither the White House nor the FBI wanted to appear obstructionist. Almost all other transition matters, especially related to access to $5.2 million in taxpayer funds and office space in downtown Washington, are controlled by the General Services Administration.

But the background check issue fell into uncharted and unprecedented legal terrain. Neither the FBI nor the White House could find precise federal language guiding them on the background check issue without a president-elect. By mutual agreement, Freeh and Podesta decided to rely on each other's judgment and sense of timing about when to proceed.

The FBI stands ready, senior White House sources said, to provide any assistance to those who are filing out the SF 86 form - which requires, among other things, complete information on all places of residence and work since the applicant turned 18. So far, the majority of the work in preparing for background checks has been the compiling of this type of data.

Also, senior White House officials said the president is not actively contacting Democrats in Congress, Democratic governors or party interest groups on Gore's behalf. The president, Podesta and deputy chief of staff Steve Richetti take plenty of calls from Democrats, officials said, but neither they nor the president are lobbying Democrats. Podesta and Richetti do, however, receive daily briefings from Gore campaign chairman William Daley.

As with many Democrats on Capitol Hill, senior White House officials believe Mr. Gore needs to rack up some victories in Florida's courts or from the Supreme Court to preserve Democrat support for his legal appeals. Senior aides have been encouraged by recent polls that show the nation even divided on the question of whether Mr. Gore should concede immediately. Early in the week they were fearful the Gore camp was losing the public relations battle. While senior aides do not believe the Gore team is ahead of Bush in a public relations sense, they do believe he's holding his own and thereby preserving his ability to keep Democrats on board as his lawyers seek swift recounts in Florida.

"My sense is that we'll see some definition on this by the middle of next week," said one senior White House official. "He needs some victories by then."

Lastly, Podesta was due to call both camps' designated chiefs of staff -- Andrew Card for Bush and Roy Neel for Gore -- to schedule a joint meeting or separate meetings next week on transition preparations.


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Friday, December 1, 2000

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