Probers Missed Clue to Envoy’s Misstatement Finances, Not Service, Were Focus of Check

By Stephen Barr Washington Post Staff Writer

State Department investigators pressed M. Larry Lawrence for documentation of his World War II record during a background check before he became a U.S. ambassador, but dropped the issue and focused instead on his complex financial and legal dealings, current and former department officials familiar with the 1993 probe said.

Officials accepted Lawrence's assertion that he did not have papers or personal effects from the U.S. Merchant Marine because his wartime service did not seem crucial to determining whether he should receive a security clearance, the primary goal of the background check, a State Department official said yesterday.

“Remember, the focus here was on his eligibility for a security clearance, not eligibility for burial at Arlington,” said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.

The State Department has been swept up in the controversy over Lawrence's burial at Arlington National Cemetery since last week, when House Republican investigators announced they could find no records of the ambassador's Merchant Marine service aboard a liberty ship destroyed in 1945 in a German torpedo attack. Lawrence said he was thrown overboard and suffered serious head injuries after the SS Horace Bushnell was hit.

Army officials gave special permission for Lawrence's burial at Arlington in part because the State Department provided an account of his Merchant Marine service. House Republicans are investigating the Lawrence case and the administration's use of waivers to allow burials at Arlington. As questions about Lawrence increased, President Clinton asked the State Department to reexamine the handling of his case.

The controversy also renewed questions about the quality of government background checks and whether political appointees, particularly campaign contributors like Lawrence, receive less scrutiny. Lawrence died in 1996 while serving as ambassador to Switzerland.

But administration officials who have participated in the “vetting process” disputed such criticism yesterday, saying the 1993 Lawrence background check was handled professionally and routinely, and appeared normal.

In the Lawrence case, the State Department official said, the background check did not turn up derogatory information and U.S. Coast Guard officials had told investigators that files on Merchant Marine volunteers during World War II were incomplete.

“Because we were able to go to friends, business associates, an array of people who gave us a glowing recommendation, it mitigated against having to go back and chase ghost records of Merchant Marine service,” the official said.

Investigators chose to focus on Lawrence's more recent activities, including his financial and legal affairs, including lawsuits, the official said.

But the official acknowledged that investigators missed at least one clue that might have cast doubt on Lawrence's story of wartime service. Lawrence told investigators he was aboard the Bushnell in March 1945, but a University of Arizona transcript of his college studies showed Lawrence attending a Chicago college during the fall of 1944 and the spring of 1945, the official said.

The Lawrence nomination was one of several nominations being handled by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 1993 and the bureau, as a goal, tried to complete background checks within 45 days. Contract employees, usually retired federal law enforcement officials, conducted the field investigation and filed reports to Washington, the official said.

As reports filled Lawrence's file, the investigators, seeing no obvious warning signals in his case and short of time, did not examine notations in each record and compare various time periods, the official said.

The official predicted that investigators will spend more time on the “cross-checking of documentation” during future background checks. He said the administration could announce its formal findings by week's end.

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