WASHINGTON -- Kenneth W. 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 yesterday, 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.
Charles Bakaly, Starr's spokesman, said at 12: 30 p.m. yesterday that he would not comment until he had finished reading the article, but would try to do so by 2 p.m. He did not call by that time, and further attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Since Jan. 21, when the first stories appeared suggesting that Clinton had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, most of the reporting on the subject has been based on unnamed sources.
On Feb. 9, Clinton's lawyer, David E. 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 Feb. 2. The Newsweek story relied on taped conversations between Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp, a former co-worker, that reportedly contained statements by Lewinsky indicating that she had demanded a job as the price of denying having a sexual relationship with Clinton.
Print and TV reports
Starr identified 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 stated that the president had talked to Currie about questions he had been asked concerning Lewinsky at a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct 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 "more extensively" to the Times reporters, Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton, who wrote the story with Don Van Natta.
Bennett, however, 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 news organizations yesterday, is highly critical of much of the reporting on the matter, saying that journalists worked hastily and rushed unconfirmed information to the public.
Pressure on Lewinsky
The magazine article also suggests that leaks from Starr's office were orchestrated to pressure Lewinsky and her attorney into cooperating with the independent counsel'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."