White House aides' pranks no joke to Bush administration

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WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration reportedly did not leave the White House quietly.

Bush administration officials said yesterday that they're cataloging numerous apparent pranks and acts of vandalism they attribute to outgoing Clinton aides, including sliced phone and computer wires, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet.

Several former Clinton administration officials confirmed that pranks were played on the incoming Republicans but contended that nothing malicious was intended. The officials said the actions were meant to be funny or in some cases were an outlet for frustration by soon-to-be-unemployed staffers.

The issue surfaced this week when Bush officials moving into their offices found the "W" key had been popped off many computer keyboards. George Walker Bush is known as "Dubya" to some friends, and he had made a three-fingered "W" his signature salute in the waning days of his campaign. The keyboard incident was portrayed as high jinks on talk shows and in news accounts.

But yesterday, Bush officials described serious damage that has taken taxpayer money to repair, and made it clear that if the actions were meant to be funny, they weren't taken that way.

Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was asked if the damage could have been done by workers who began renovating the White House and Old Executive Office Building within 30 minutes of Bush taking the oath of office.

"I don't think that the people who are professionals, who make it their business to go in and prepare the White House for new arrivals, would cut wires," he said.

Fleischer said the administration doesn't plan to press criminal charges, however. "There's no investigation," he said. "What we are doing is cataloging that which took place."

A little tomfoolery is typical in transitions between presidents. Clinton administration officials complained bitterly yesterday about all the "Bush-Quayle" stickers they found plastered on desks in 1993 when they moved into the White House. Some said phones and computers had been disabled, and pencils were cut into 1-inch lengths.

Fleischer declined to list the problems that have been found. "I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival because I think that's part of changing the tone in Washington," he said. "I think it would be easy for us to reflect and to discuss these things and to be critical.

"President Bush chooses to set a different tone. The president understands that transitions can be times of difficulty and strong emotion, and he's going to approach it in that vein."

Reportedly there was a phone call of apology to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

A high-level Republican who saw some of the damage said the White House is leery about putting information out about this because Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. doesn't want to appear to be ratting on the Clinton administration. "People wanted to talk about this, and Andy said no," an official said.

An official added that phones and computers were not working because of the incidents, so Bush officials determined that some explanation was required. A Bush official added that the administration did not want to talk much about the vandalism because the vandalism could be seen as diminishing the office of the presidency.

A Clinton official confirmed that glassware was missing from the jet that flew Clinton and his staff out of Washington on Inauguration Day but said it had shattered accidentally.

At least a dozen Clinton and Gore aides who were working at the White House in the final week of Clinton's presidency said they were unaware of any vandalism. The aides, who refused to be quoted by name, acknowledged plans to pop the "W" off keyboards but said there was never any intent to do damage.

"Most people were working so hard up to the last minute that they barely had time to do more than clean out their desks," former White House press secretary Jake Siewert said.

Clinton and Gore officials admitted having left official-looking signs on office doors that said, "Office of Strategerie" (a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of Bush), "Office of Subliminable Messages" (another reference to Bush malapropisms) and "Division of Uniting."

The vice president's suite of offices had trash everywhere, according to sources.

A Bush official said Democrats had interspersed blank photocopy paper with a fake Time magazine cover - widely circulated on the Internet during the Florida recount - that featured a photo of an unhappy Bush and used an obscenity to describe his imagined reaction to a temporary legal setback.

One admitted prankster on Gore's team said a few surprises remain for Bush's team. When several copiers run out of paper, "Gore 2000" bumper stickers will appear on the trays.

"It's childish, but it's also funny," a former Clinton official said.

A high-ranking Bush campaign official accused some Clinton staffers of taking White House paintings and trying to have them shipped to themselves. Others are said to have steamed official seals off office doors and then tried to have those shipped. The incoming Bush administration ordered all packages X-rayed starting at noon tomorrow.

Incoming administrations often accuse their predecessors of trying to make life difficult.

"Past administrations have done all sorts of stuff. They piled desks on each other and filled offices with wadded-up newspaper. They're childhood pranks," said Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions at the Brookings Institution in Washington,

In 1993, some Clinton officials cried foul when they found hard drives missing from their computers, but they turned out to have been seized by an independent prosecutor looking into the Bush administration's use of passport files.

However, some Clinton aides said they also were the victims of pranks when they arrived at the White House in 1993 to replace aides to Bush's father's staff. In some offices, they said, the phone cords connecting the receivers to the telephones were missing. In others, pictures of former President Bush were stuck on the sides of file cabinets and desktops, they said.

Informationl from Reuters, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News is included in this report.