Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating President Clinton, acknowledged in a magazine interview that he and his aides have given information on the Monica Lewinsky matter to reporters.
But he also insisted that these leaks were neither illegal, because they did not involve testimony before a grand jury, nor a violation of Justice Department ethics barring leaks of "substantive information" about a prosecution. In the interview with the magazine, Brill's Content, Starr defended his actions as necessary "to engender confidence in the work of this office."Joe Lockhart, a White House spokesman, responded Saturday in a statement, saying, "The article represents an admission from Mr. Starr that he and his deputies have violated grand jury secrecy rules. An independent investigation of this matter is now more necessary than ever to determine how to address these violations of secrecy and to address the question of what steps need to be taken."
Lockhart, traveling with the president in Portland, Ore., was alluding to the fact that it is against the law to release grand jury information. Some courts, including the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, have held that the prohibition extends to information gathered by prosecutors in preparing for grand jury proceedings. Other courts have taken Starr's view about the legality of releasing such information.
Ever since Jan. 21, when the first stories appeared suggesting that Clinton had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, most of the reporting on the subject has been based on unnamed sources.
On Feb. 9, Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, sought contempt sanctions against Starr for "the deluge of leaks which quite obviously stem from your office." Starr replied by suggesting that the White House was the source of some leaks. No action has been taken on the motion.
The article by Steven Brill, the editor and publisher of the new magazine on the press, identifies various reports as apparently coming from Starr's office, including the Washington Post's initial story and a Newsweek article of Feb. 2. The Newsweek story relied on taped conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, a former co-worker, that reportedly contained statements by Lewinsky indicating she had demanded a job as the price of denying a sexual relationship with the president.
Starr identified three reporters, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post and Jackie Judd of ABC News, as journalists to whom his deputy, Jackie Bennett had talked "extensively" about the case.
Starr, in the April 15 interview, also said that he had held discussions with two New York Times reporters before publication of a Feb. 6 article about Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary. That article described how Currie had retrieved gifts the president had given to Lewinsky, and that the president had talked to Currie about questions he had been asked concerning Lewinsky at a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case the previous day.
The magazine reports that Starr told Brill, "I only wanted to talk to them about the timing." He said, "My understanding was that they knew the substance of it." He also said Bennett had talked to the Times reporters, Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton, who wrote the story with Don Van Natta, "more extensively." But Bennett told Brill that he was "in no way a source for the information in the Times' Betty Currie story."
The article in the new issue of Brill's Content, which was released to various news organizations Saturday, is highly critical of much of the reporting on the matter, saying that journalists worked hastily and rushed unconfirmed information to the public. The article also suggests that leaks from Starr's office were orchestrated to pressure Lew-in-sky and her lawyer into coop-er-at-ing with the independent coun-sel's office.
But the direct quotations of Starr could prove significant, because they clearly relate to Kendall's accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
The article quotes Starr as saying that there was "nothing improper" about discussions with reporters "because we never discussed grand jury proceedings."
"It is definitely not 6-E," he said in reference to the federal rule barring disclosure of grand jury information, "if you are talking about what witnesses tell FBI agents or us before they testify before the grand jury or about related matters."
But on May 5, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the prohibition extends to "not only what has occurred and what is occurring, but also what is likely to occur. Encompassed within the rule of secrecy are the identities of witnesses or jurors, the substance of testimony as well as actual transcripts, the strategy or direction of the investigation, the deliberations or questions of jurors, and the like."
Asked whether these leaks, if not illegal, still violated Justice Department and American Bar Association guidelines against leaks of pending investigations, Starr replied:
"That would be true except in case of a situation where what we are doing is countering misinformation that is being spread about our investigation in order to discredit our office and our dedicated career prosecutors."