Entering the controversy over a House chairman's decision to edit transcripts of Webster Hubbell's prison conversations, Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Democrats Tuesday of trying to distract the public from the serious issues raised on the tapes.

But Gingrich stopped short of giving an endorsement to Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the embattled chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight committee."I would say Dan Burton has entered a very tough arena where those who are covering up the crimes and those who participated in the crimes are doing all they can to smear anybody who seeks the truth," Gingrich said.

The speaker charged that the furor over the tapes' release was orchestrated by Democrats in an effort to distract the public from comments on the tapes suggesting the former associate attorney general and his wife were under pressure by the White House to protect Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The Democrats, partly I think coordinated by the White House, decided to come back and instead of being concerned about the top political appointee at Justice being squeezed have desperately tried to make Dan Burton the issue," Gingrich said.

On Monday, Burton was forced to release the full tape recordings for dozens of Hubbell's recorded prison telephone conversations after Democrats charged that earlier transcripts he had made public were edited to remove exculpatory evidence.

The full tapes include conversations in which Hubbell declared that no one had bought his silence in the Whitewater investigation and described how he came to work for a controversial Indonesian family that supported the president.

"You know me, I have a hard time saying anything bad about the devil," Hubbell said in a taped conversation he had with his sister.

Hubbell, who knew his conversations and those of all other prisoners were recorded, told his wife, Suzy, "We know that's not true," when they were discussing allegations that he was bought off with no-work employment.

Furious Democrats produced a 10-page list of "alterations and omissions" from the original excerpts. They alleged that some of the verbatim quotes in the committee's original transcripts "do not appear anywhere in the tapes."

Burton refused to step down as chairman as some Democrats demanded, and said concerns about protecting some of Hubbell's privacy, not partisan efforts to embarrass him, were behind the selective release of the tapes.

"When you've got 150 hours of tapes and you've got to condense it down to an hour, obviously you're going to do some things that some people are going to be concerned about," Burton said.