Like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe's story, the smoking gun in the most recent Clinton scandal is in plain sight.

The evidence that strikes dread in the White House is a three-page document called "the talking points." Nobody has yet disputed that Monica Lewinsky gave the points to Linda Tripp to influence her testimony about a third woman, Kathleen Willey, in preparations for the Paula Jones trial.Tripp had said publicly that she saw Willey, lipstick smeared and blouse untucked, in the White House after what Willey claimed was a pass made at her by the president. The purpose of the "talking points," transmitted by Lewinsky, was to get Tripp to change her story in an affidavit.

The person or persons unknown who drafted or dictated the talking points urged Tripp to swear to a more recent conversation with Willey. "As a result of my conversation with her and subsequent reports that showed she had tried to enlist the help of someone else in her lie that the president sexually harassed her," the talking-pointer directed Lewinsky to suggest that Tripp say, "I now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. I now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc."

White House aides know that few young interns use phrases like "subsequent reports." Question: Who was the talking-pointer? He or she or they seem to have been suborning perjury, tampering with a witness and using Monica Lew-in-sky as an accessory in obstructing justice.

That helps explain why immunity talks broke down. Lewinsky's lawyers were reported ready to have her assert a sexual relationship with the president, which is no crime, but were apparently not willing to let her identify the person who may have enlisted her in a conspiracy to suborn perjury, which is a crime.

It also explains the existential dread palpable in the White House today, despite the bravado of the counterattack and the public's laudable aversion to invasion of privacy. The author of the talking points will likely be found, is in real danger of going to jail and may not want to go alone or for long.

Why did the talking-pointer take the chance of using the intern Lewinsky as a conduit for changing Tripp's testimony about Willey?

Because the Willey episode, if it occurred as initially described, could be a presidency-breaker. The Lewinsky affair (if it was not all a figment of her imagination) was consensual and could be forgiven by a cluck-clucking but prosperous majority. But when a job applicant is grabbed and fondled by an executive, chief or otherwise, that's outright sexual harassment. And because this applicant's testimony is given reluctantly, it's especially damning.

Is it any wonder that Monica Lewinsky's help was urgently sought? Not only was she needed to deny any relationship of her own, but to transmit a document that would shape another's sworn testimony. Having placed her in such a key position, the talking-pointer was eager to meet her career demands.

New York Times News Service