At the core of the bitter dispute over whether Kenneth Starr improperly disclosed information about the investigation of President Clinton are Justice Department regulations and court decisions involving how much prosecutors may tell the public and the media about their work.

Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor, said in an interview with Brill's Content, a new magazine about the media, that he and his aides have given information about the Monica Lewinsky matter to reporters.The White House immediately responded that the article buttressed its complaints that the independent counsel's office has improperly leaked information to the press. But Starr said that he and his prosecutors had not violated rules about grand jury secrecy and said that the actions were permissible because they were done to protect his office from attacks that undermined public confidence in his work.

He was apparently referring to Justice Department regulations that prohibit prosecutors from disclosing any information about a grand jury investigation but include an exception for instances in which there is a need to reassure the public that an investigation is being conducted properly.

Senior Justice Department officials said it was not certain whether Starr's reasoning - that he made clarifications to reporters to protect the reputation of his office from unrelenting attacks - qualified under the guidelines as a permissible exception to rules against disclosing grand jury material. "He might well be able to make that argument," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The battle between Clinton and Starr has become not just a legal but a political one, in which both sides have sought to win the public's support.