FEBRUARY 24, 1998
White House officials are attacking the latest subpoenas by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Included in the newest batch: top communications aide Sidney Blumenthal and a private investigator who was hired by President Clinton's lawyers. After a background report, two former prosecutors discuss the latest developments.
PHIL PONCE: White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has reportedly been ordered by independent counsel Kenneth Starr to tell a grand jury what he has old reporters about Starr and some of Starr's staffers.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
February 5, 1998:
Washington Post reporter, Dan Balz, discusses Kenneth Starr's press conference .
January 26, 1998:
The NewsHour's presidential historians discuss the importance of President Clinton's State of the Union address.
January 26, 1998:
Experts debate the role of the independent counsel.
January 23, 1998:
Mark Shields and Paul Gigot discuss the the political issues surrounding President Clinton's alleged affair.
January 22, 1998:
Shields and Gigot discuss the legal implications of the crisis.
January 22, 1998:
The legal implications of President Clinton's alleged affair.
January 22, 1998:
Presidential historians and experts put the brewing crisis in perspective.
January 21, 1998:
President Clinton responds to charges that he may have had an affair with a former White House intern.
May 27, 1997:
A discussion on the ramifications of the Paula Jones case on the office of the Presidency.
January 13, 1997:
Paula Jones's case goes before the Supreme Court.
An exploration of presidential leadership: Character Above All
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the U.S. Presidency and law
The Shields and Gigot index page.
The Washingtonpost.com's coverage of the crisis.
The prospect of having to do that prompted Blumenthal to tell NBC News: "Starr is definitely abusing his power. This is a case of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse. He's assaulting the First Amendment."
Increasingly, headlines on the Starr investigation have reflected as much a focus on the tactics of the various parties as on the substance of the allegations pertaining to Monica Lewinsky. On January 27th, First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the question of Starr's tactics on the "Today Show."
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.
"A campaign of leaks against the White House"?
PHIL PONCE: Ten days later, the President's private attorney vowed to take legal action against Kenneth Starr to stop what he called "a campaign of leaks against the White House."
DAVID KENDALL: The leaking of the past few weeks is intolerably unfair. It violates not only the criminal rules, rules of court, rules of ethics and Department of Justice guidelines, it also violates the fundamental rules of fairness in an investigation like this. We've seen leak after leak which ultimately and in the fullness of time turns out to be false information. These leaks make a mockery of the traditional rules of grand jury secrecy. They often appear to be a cynical attempt to pressure and intimidate witnesses, to deceive the public, and to smear people involved in the investigation.
Starr says he would look into the charges himself.
KENNETH STARR: We are taking appropriate action. I'm not going to describe at this time what that is.
REPORTER: Can you tell us what your involvement--
KENNETH STARR: I'm taking it very seriously.
REPORTER: Are you angry, Your Honor, at this?
KENNETH STARR: I'm trying to find out the facts. I try to control my emotions until I know the facts.
The President's lawyers stand accused of hiring private investigators.
PHIL PONCE: The latest twist began when critical stories appeared about two of Starr's deputies. Starr's backers accused the Clinton team of hiring private investigators to probe into their personal backgrounds.
JOSEPH DIGENOVA: While people are concerned about Ken Starr's tactics, I think they ought to be concerned about the White House tactics, and I'll tell you why. Last week, I got a telephone call from a correspondent for a national weekly telling me that word had gotten around town that I and my wife, Victoria Tensing, were being investigated by a private investigator with links to the White House and the attorneys representing the president.
PHIL PONCE: Today White House spokesman Mike McCurry called these accusations outrageous and the subpoena ordering Sidney Blumenthal to testify about White House contacts with reporters troubling.
MIKE McCURRY, White House Spokesman: It would certainly have a chilling effect on me to learn that the way in which we do business with all of you and the way we try to get through the day, make sure your news accounts are accurate and truthful, that it was being impinged upon by an outside investigator. I think that would be very troubling to me personally, and I know it would be very troubling to a number of people here at the White House.
Starr: "We're going by the book."
PHIL PONCE: But prosecutor Starr defended his actions.
KENNETH STARR: We're going by the book. I've said that before. We're moving quickly. But we're going by the book.
PHIL PONCE: Today Blumenthal and Terry Lindser, an investigator who's done work for the President's private legal team, were called before the grand jury. But late this afternoon, Blumenthal's attorney said her client was ordered to the courthouse but never even appeared before the grand jury. She blasted Starr's subpoena of her client.
Blumenthal's lawyer: "I find this total disregard for other people's livelihoods and rights judged to be absolutely horrible."
JO MARSH: I find this total disregard for other people's livelihoods and rights judged to be absolutely horrible. Both Sidney and I have other things to do that much better serve the American people and everyone else. I have other clients. Sidney has other duties that are much more important than this. And this is all so Mr. Starr can just find out which one of you guys that he's been talking to lately and what he's said.
PHIL PONCE: Blumenthal is due back at the courthouse on Thursday.
How the situation looks to two former prosecutors.
MARGARET WARNER: Late today Mr. Clinton's lawyers released a statement saying it had hired Mr. Lenser, but they were not investigating the "personal lives" of prosecutors, investigators or members of the press. Now, two views on all this from two former prosecutors. Richard Ben-Veniste was a member of the Watergate special prosecutor staff, and more recently served as Democratic counsel on the Senate Whitewater committee. He is a former U.S. attorney. And George Terwilliger served as deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, and he's also a former U.S. attorney. Mr. Ben-Veniste, what do you make of this, subpoenaing Sidney Blumenthal and Terry Lindser?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I'm surprised. I think it is a reflection of poor judgment. And it simply provides Mr. Starr's critics with fresh ammunition that his methods are so far beyond the pale of what ordinarily occurs in the investigation and prosecution of a serious case, but it again calls into question whether Mr. Starr's the appropriate person for this job. The idea that you can subpoena an individual and ask him to testify about and bring all his books and records about any comment he has made about Mr. Starr or Mr. Starr's office seems to me to lack any sort of connection to an appropriate prosecutorial goal here.
MARGARET WARNER: Beyond the pale?
Are tax dollars being spent wisely?
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Not beyond the pale. We can't know and don't know the reason that Starr decided to issue these subpoenas. But we can make the connection. And the connection is simply this: Starr and his people are sworn law enforcement officers, prosecutors, who have taken an oath to do a job, and that job is to do the investigation that concerns the president, obstruction of justice, and so forth, whatever the results of that may be. If there is a suggestion that someone is trying to intimidate the people who are doing that investigation, or chill the zealous pursuit of that investigation, and that itself is something that requires investigation. Now, I don't know and you don't know and my friend, Richard, doesn't know if that's the case. But one would assume that Starr is not just willy nilly issuing subpoenas. I also think--and this is just my personal opinion--I've not talked to Mr. Starr about this, and I don't know--I'm somewhat offended if the taxpayer's hard-earned money is being used by officials at the White House to spread information around among the Washington press corps that is apparently derogatory about some of the people working in Starr's office. I hope the people at the White House do, in fact, have better things to do than that, and I think it's irresponsible if that's what they're doing with their time.
The accusations are flying.
MARGARET WARNER: What about his first point, which is that if this is going on, if the Clinton team were doing this, or any defendants doing this, that is, trying to spread information about prosecutors, that it could amount to obstruction of justice?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think that is pretty far fetched. The criticism that I have seen discussed quite openly by a number of former federal prosecutors, a number of former judges, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, for example, of all being critical of the notion of spending a million dollars a month if we want to talk about taxpayer money for three and a half years, and then the perception of having an individual who may be perceived by the public, rather than being independent, being an individual who is out to get the President. I think that has become the general perception, and that's why people like Senator Specter, I think, have said Mr. Starr is not the appropriate person for this task. The idea, however, of issuing a subpoena to explore whether an individual has talked to the press or others about the motives and methods that have been used seems to me to be well beyond any appropriate function. This is in our system appropriate for discussion. The methods, the motives--
MARGARET WARNER: You mean, appropriate to be discussing with reporters--
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Of course. What could be more protected under the First Amendment than questioning, the methods, the focus, the things that this prosecution has utilized, the combined effect of running, attempting to run a sting operation against the President of the United States--not for treason, not for bribery, but for supposedly assisting or encouraging the filing of an affidavit in a civil harassment case? I mean, this is fair game for anybody who wants to engage in that kind of investigation.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying, Mr. Terwilliger, that you think then it is improper for someone on a defense team to be doing this kind of thing, if, in fact, it's been going on?
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: It depends on what this kind of thing is. I'm very encouraged by the statement that you referenced at the outset of this piece of the broadcast, that the legal teams are saying we only hired investigators to look into public record information, we're not investigating the prosecutors. I wish that they would have said that--
MARGARET WARNER: Their personal lives.
Weaknesses in the independent counsel statute.
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Their personal lives--a couple of days ago--because if it was the personal lives, then I think that's wrong. Does Starr have to accept this statement made today as the explanation and the truth? Is that all of the facts, were there other people doing other things? Those are legitimate areas for inquiry. Another interesting aspect of this, I think, is that it points up one of the weaknesses of the independent counsel statute. If I were the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, and this happened to one of my prosecutors, a United States attorney out there somewhere in the country, I would tell that United States attorney, don't you worry about investigating that, I'll get some other arm of the Justice Department to look into it, you concentrate on the investigation that you're in charge of, and we'll avoid any of this sort of skirmishing back and forth between you and the subjects in investigation. With the independent counsel statute we can't do that. And it frankly puts Judge Starr in a non-enviable position unless Janet Reno is willing to step up to the plate and say to Starr, look, why don't you let me worry about how that gets investigated.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think part of the problem here is that in an ordinary situation you would never see an investigation of a newspaper story where the methods of a prosecutor were criticized. I mean, this is the basis of our system. Indeed, under the independent counsel statute where there is really no one supervising the independent counsel, there's all the more reason for a free and open debate and discussion about the methods which are being--
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: The problem I have with that, though, is this is the White House, the seat of executive power in the United States, and the impresario of the White House is being put on these ad hominem attacks on Starr. I think the President's interest and the country's interest would be much better served if the President would tell people just stop that, we'll deal with the facts of this investigation when it's over.
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think that this stage of a criminal case we are seeing so much skirmishing over tactics? I mean, essentially, each side is saying the other side has overreached. Why are we seeing that?
Tracking the leaks....
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think part of the problem is because there have been so many leaks out there. There's been such a frenzy in the press about this story. And it has been fed by leaks from some source and--
MARGARET WARNER: Or sources.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Or sources. And if you take Mr. Kendall at his word, then you would believe that some of those come from Mr. Starr's office.
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Of course, we don't know that.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: We don't know that.
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Mr. Kendall doesn't know that.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: We don't know that, but there are certain leaks that would appear not to have been generated by anybody who the leaks have harmed. And unless you are really Machiavellian in your thinking and you think that people are putting out leaks which are harmful for them so that they can later accuse Mr. Starr of having done them, then I suppose George's point has some merit. But when a leak investigation is conducted, I think the right way to have done that--Mr. Starr step forward, take a polygraph--just as was done in the Thornburgh Justice Department--when Attorney General Thornburgh--
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Richard, you know--you know very well that leak investigations seldom produce anything, and if I recall correctly, the only leak that we have seen at the source identified for so far has come from some other attorney involved in this matter, according to testimony--
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: But, George, we know the way to conduct a leak investigation. There's an inherent problem, a conflict of interest, if you will, in the person who is suspected of being the leaker, or his office, and I make no such charge, incidentally, but if that's the person who's conducting the investigation in the secrecy of the grand jury, there's another way to do it, and I think those methods could be employed here. All of this leads to the problem, I think, that Mr. Starr has generated where the criticism is focused on not one, not two, but in number the cumulative effect of a number of things which go beyond the normal pale of investigation.
George Terwilliger: "You can't blame the media."
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think we're seeing so much public controversy from both sides of the tactics of the other side? I mean, is this at all typical of prosecution?
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, no. I think that there's nothing really normal about this situation, an investigation of a sitting president for ongoing criminal activity is very unusual, but really, I think to put this in context--and there's no point in being naive or saying anything other than what the situation exactly is and the situation is this--the White House embarked on a strategy when the Monica Lewinsky story broke that it was going to shift the focus of public attention, if at all possible, to the conduct of the independent counsel, rather than the conduct of the President. It's been a very successful strategy. It's worked. It's what been news. You can't blame the media. They're reporting what they are being told that is newsworthy about that. But that's what's going on, and it's sort of makes some of the things that Richard is making reference to about Starr a rather self-fulfilling prophecy, but that comes with the territory. Prosecutors face that all the time.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I agree--
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much. Mr. Ben-Veniste, Mr. Terwilliger.
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Thank you.