A Starr Investigation Update
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson has rejected President Clinton’s efforts to shield two top aides from testifying in the Monica Lewinsky matter, denying the president’s claim of executive privilege. We get more on this now from Dan Balz, a correspondent on the Washington Post national staff. He joins us from the Post’s newsroom. Dan, what did Judge Johnson rule?
DAN BALZ, Washington Post: Elizabeth, she ruled essentially that the president cannot prevent senior aides from testifying before the grand jury by invoking either executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. Neither of those shields will prevent them from testifying. Now, this is obviously a very important ruling, but there is a lot we don’t know about it. She made this ruling on Monday. We learned about it yesterday, but the reality is, it’s under seal because it all deals with grand jury proceedings. And so at this point there’s probably more that we don’t know about the ruling than we do know about the ruling.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you know anything about the judge’s reasoning in this ruling?
DAN BALZ: We have some insight into some of the reasoning. We don’t really know much at all about the attorney-client privilege issue, but on the executive privilege issue we’re back at what has been a long-running dispute, and that is the issue of which takes precedence, the needs of a prosecutor in a criminal case, or the right of a president to maintain confidentiality in his communications within the White House. Now, what we understand is that as this issue has been debated back and forth, Judge Johnson did say that there is a right, as other courts have said, for protection of presidential communications, for maintaining confidentiality. But in this case it did not outweigh the needs of the prosecutors in a criminal investigation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Dan, when was this privilege dispute set in motion? Cap this off, or give us the background on this one.
DAN BALZ: Right. This started earlier in the year when the Starr grand jury that’s looking into the Monica Lewinsky matter began to take testimony from White House officials and others. There were two senior advisers to the president, Bruce Lindsey, and Sidney Blumenthal, who both invoked executive privilege. Now, you’ll recall that Bruce Lindsey is one of the president’s most trusted friends and oldest advisers. He’s a member of the office of legal counsel at the White House, but he plays a very intimate role with the president in terms of dealing with issues. Sidney Blumenthal is part of the communications operation at the White House and is close to both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton. And, as we understand it, in Mr. Blumenthal’s case, he invoked executive privilege not only having to do with conversations involving the president but also Mrs. Clinton.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I know that the White House arguments are also secret, but what do we know about the arguments they made?
DAN BALZ: Well, their argument longstanding is that it is the right of a president to maintain confidential discussions with his advisers. Without that protection or without that confidentiality, it’s argued that a president would not get free and unfettered advice from his advisers. So their argument is that a president needs to be able to talk freely with aides about the important matters. One of the issues that’s involved in this case, of course, is the distinction between official matters and unofficial matters. This is not a matter of national security per se. This involves a private legal matter, and it’s part of that reasoning that we believe Judge Johnson ruled against the White House.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is the consequence for Bruce Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal at this point? Will they have to go before the grand jury and testify and answer questions that they didn’t want to answer before?
DAN BALZ: Well, if the judge’s ruling is not appealed, certainly they will have to go and testify. But we are not at that point yet. There could well be an appeal and an appeal that is not expedited could drag on because it would likely go to the Supreme Court, could drag on well into next year. It’s also possible that the appeal would go on an expedited basis with the Supreme Court in which there might be a ruling sooner than that. But we won’t know. There are several legal steps to take. It’s not 100 percent clear at this point that the White House will appeal the case. We think it’s likely, but there’s a discussion going on at the White House about what they should do. Obviously, they would not like to lose this case at the Supreme Court level, but there’s a political decision they need to take into account that’s part of the argument that’s going on or the debate, at least, within the White House. And that is the issue of the analogy between what the Clinton White House is doing and Richard Nixon and Watergate. At his press conference today the president went out of his way to make clear that he does not think there is any parallel between the Watergate matter and the issues that are now before the Supreme Court–before the grand jury. So this is a somewhat delicate political decision, as well as a legal decision they have to make.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Dan, did Judge Johnson address the Treasury and–Treasury Department and Justice Department assertions that the Secret Service should also not have to testify because of a special privilege that will be extended to them?
DAN BALZ: Not in this case, as far as we understand it. That’s been proceeding on a separate track. Again, that also is all under seal because of the secrecy of the grand jury. We don’t know whether there has been a ruling on that front.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is the independent counsel’s record so far in the various legal disputes that have run like a thread throughout all of this investigation?
DAN BALZ: Well, so far, you would have to say the independent counsel’s office is doing pretty well. They’ve won the executive privilege and attorney-client privileged issue, which is the largest of the issues that’s been in dispute, but in addition to that, last week, the independent counsel won his argument with the lawyer for Monica Lewinsky over whether she had, in fact, already been given immunity in exchange for her testimony. And before that the courts ruled that Frank Carter, who was Monica Lewinsky’s first attorney, had to turn over some of the documents that he has prepared when he was representing her, denying his claim of attorney-client privilege in that case. So you would have to say at this point so far Ken Starr is having a very good record in these legal disputes that are part and parcel of the ongoing case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Dan Balz, thanks very much for being with us.
DAN BALZ: Thank you.