Starr, White House, the press all guilty of hypocrisy regarding leaks

June 17, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is more than a little hypocrisy on both sides in the new brouhaha over special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's admission that he has been leaking information to the press.

The real surprise here is that Mr. Starr was willing to speak on the record about what he had been doing. In the political community, the assumption all along has been that he or members of his staff were dropping little tidbits damaging to President Clinton.

But it also has been assumed that the White House has been providing similar "guidance" to reporters to make its case in the Monica Lewinsky matter. It is the way the game is played here, both sides trying to shape the story without their role in the leaks being disclosed.

What lies behind those assumptions is a recognition on both sides that this is far less a legal matter than it is a political fight in which all of the weapons of political warfare are being deployed.

A political, not legal, fight

That reckoning lies behind Mr. Starr's statement in an interview with a new magazine, Content, that he needed "to engender public confidence in the work of this office." The White House countered by asking why Mr. Starr's briefings had to be done anonymously if they were so benign. But this is a little disingenuous.

After all, the White House displayed a similar determination to compete in the image game by hiring, at public expense, lawyers charged solely with responding to press inquiries about Clinton's personal conduct. Their public statements were by no means, however, the full extent of the White House effort to control the "spin" on the Lewinsky story.

The White House may have a point in its charge that Mr. Starr violated the rules of grand jury secrecy by discussing the findings of its investigation that later were presented to a grand jury. But the courts have taken contradictory positions on how much a prosecutor can tell the press. And Mr. Starr insisted that he and his assistants briefed reporters on the state of the investigation rather than specific materials being presented to the grand jury -- a distinction that may sound a little precious for mass consumption.

One of those matters was the existence of the Linda Tripp tapes of Monica Lewinsky discussing her relationship with Mr. Clinton

There is also more than a little press hypocrisy in this situation.

Hot news

Some newspapers and television networks are suddenly in the position of treating as hot news the fact that Mr. Starr had been briefing reporters from their own news organizations. Thus, for example, the New York Times carried a front-page report Sunday on Mr. Starr's interview with Content's publisher, Steven Brill. But when Mr. Starr cited several reporters from the Times who had been briefed, the newspaper quoted its Washington bureau chief, Michael Oreskes, as saying "the paper did not discuss its sources."

The story then is not really that Mr. Starr leaked information but that he blew his own cover.

As a practical matter, however, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep a lid on an investigation as broad and complex as this one. The prosecutorial team is huge, both here and in Little Rock. All of the principals and all of the witnesses have lawyers, who have partners and associates involved, many of whom are comparing notes and sharing information on a daily basis.

Inside the White House there has been a predictable effort to find out what questions are being asked and what answers are FTC being given to the grand jury. There is nothing questionable about that so long as the debriefing doesn't take the form of suggesting testimony. The president himself has acknowledged talking to his secretary, Betty Currie, about her recollection of what happened with Monica Lewinsky at what point.

With all this going, it is difficult to take at face value the declaration by White House adviser Rahm Emanuel that the Starr interview with Mr. Brill is a "bombshell." What it seems to be most of all is another example of Mr. Starr's ineptitude in playing the political game. Proving information "on background" -- meaning on condition the source not be publicly identified -- is one thing; admitting it in public is quite another.

In the long run, the controversy over whether the special prosecutor has violated the confidentiality of the grand jury process is essentially a sideshow. The key is whether Monica Lewinsky finally tells her story about what went on with President Clinton.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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