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Who Is Ken Starr?
January 30, 1998
Correspondents: Chris Bury, John Donvan
Anchor: Ted Koppel

ANNOUNCER: February 2, 1998.

TED KOPPEL, ABC News (voice-over): It's not easy when you count among your detractors the first lady of the United States.

First Lady HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: (from NBC's "Today") We get a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband.

TED KOPPEL (voice-over): Or when you're accused of orchestrating a witch hunt.

BOB WEINER: This is an incredible overreach by the prosecutor to have subpoenaed us. It is Big Brother at its worst and it really scares you.

TED KOPPEL (voice-over): Or when you're called inept.

JAMES CARVILLE, Clinton Advisor: (From NBC's "Meet The Press") This is a scuzzy investigation and I guarantee you one thing, that when the facts come out, people are going to be repulsed by this.

TED KOPPEL (voice-over): Tonight, who is Ken Starr and why are people saying such nasty things about him?

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, this is Nightline. Reporting from Washington, Ted Koppel.

TED KOPPEL: President Clinton, in what must be one of his most difficult times, is nevertheless enjoying an unprecedented surge of public approval. That is surely due in part to the fact that he continues to project a cheerful, indeed, an amiable disposition in most of his public appearances. He is also fortunate in his adversaries, real or perceived. We in the media are judged to have overstepped the bounds of good taste and our general credibility has really been lowered. Some of the key players in the current scandal appear both mean-spirited and unreliable.

There is a considerable body of circumstantial evidence at least connecting several of those players with the right-wing -- enemies of the President whose hostility toward Mr. and Mrs. Clinton goes back many years. When the first lady complains of a right-wing conspiracy, it rings true, even though there is little or no evidence that right-wingers have done anything but capitalize on a scandal they did nothing to create.

And then, of course, there is Kenneth Starr, who may be a fine lawyer but who appears to be tone-deaf when it comes to addressing the impact that some of his actions have on public opinion at large.

In the final analysis, though, it will not be the media or the right-wing or Mr. Starr's bumbling efforts at public relations that threaten the President. It will be the case that Kenneth Starr has spent so much money and so many years assembling.

Some background on the independent counsel now from Nightline correspondent Chris Bury.

CHRIS BURY, ABC News (voice-over): The power of Kenneth Starr at this moment in history can be gauged by the media mob that now envelopes his rare public appearances. But Starr is also surrounded, once again, by hard questions about his motives and his methods. Even Monica Lewinsky's lawyer wondered who is the villain here when the allegations first surfaced against the President.

WILLIAM GINSBURG, Lewinsky Attorney: If they're not true, then I have to question the integrity and purpose of the independent counsel's office. Why are they ravaging the life of a 23-year-old girl who was an intern in the White House?

Pres. BILL CLINTON: The allegations are false.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): The day after the allegations first surfaced, President Clinton promised to cooperate with the press and, it seemed, the independent counsel.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: We will give you as many answers as we can as soon as we can at the appropriate time consistent with our obligation to also cooperate with the investigation.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): But over the next few days, another White House strategy began to emerge -- to help save the President, his surrogates would savage Kenneth Starr and his investigation.

JAMES CARVILLE: This started out as a $40,000 land deal that lost money and about $50 million and five years later, after nobody could find anything we're wiring up people in hotels and feeding them whiskey, trying to get them to talk and everything else. This is a scuzzy investigation.

(clip from NBC News "Today" Show)

First Lady HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We get a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband, who has literally spent four years looking at every telephone...

MATT LAUER, NBC News: And $30 million.

First Lady HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: More than that now. But looking at every telephone call we've made, every check we've ever written scratching for dirt, intimidating witnesses, doing everything possible to try to make some accusation against my husband.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): That is nonsense, the independent counsel responded in a statement. "Our current investigation began when we received credible evidence of serious federal crimes." But even that written response by Starr is being criticized by a former independent counsel, Michael Zeldin.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, Former Special Prosecutor: To be an independent counsel in a highly charged case such as this I think you have to be very thick skinned. I don't think you can respond to the accusations that are leveled against you as much as you may want to. Your evidence speaks for you. He shouldn't respond to Mrs. Clinton or for anybody else.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): But Starr may have chosen to respond because public opinion is moving sharply against him. In the latest ABC News poll, 41 percent disapprove of the way Starr is handling the case. Only 35 percent approve. Even more damaging, when asked whether Starr is more interested in hurting Clinton politically than he is in finding the truth, 56 percent say yes. Linda DiVall is a Republican pollster.

LINDA DiVALL: Mr. Starr's negatives have increased rather substantially from the beginning of the investigation to today, going from about 23 percent to 43 percent negative. And I think most of that is due to the calculated attack by the White House on the way his office is handling the investigation.

CHRIS BURY: James Carville and other reports have repeated their refrain with some success whenever the independent counsel's investigation seems to be gathering steam. Then, as now, Starr is being criticized for his hardball tactics and for his politics, that he is too often seen as a friend of the President's enemies. Clinton defenders like to cite these examples. Starr's early support before his appointment of Paula Jones' legal argument before the Supreme Court, the possible influence of arch conservative Republican senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth in Starr's nomination, Starr's legal work on behalf of tobacco companies opposed to Clinton policies while serving as independent counsel, Starr's initial acceptance of a Pepperdine University position partially funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, a hard-core Clinton enemy.

(interviewing) Does it appear to you that Kenneth Starr is politically tone-deaf?

MICHAEL ZELDIN: It would appear so. Given the way he came to the appointment it would seem to me the smart thing for him to have done would be to sever all ties with all issues that might be controversial or may give the appearance of controversy in his investigation. He failed to do that and as a consequence, he lives with that legacy and people doubt him.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): But John Barrett, a law professor at St. John's who helped prosecute the Iran-Contra case, believes Starr has conducted a professional investigation.

JOHN BARRETT, Former Special Prosecutor: I mean you have to understand what he's built as an office. He has people who are career Department of Justice prosecutors, he has people who are career FBI agents. These aren't people who are in it for some political agenda. These are people who are law enforcement pros.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): In the case of Monica Lewinsky and the President, Starr has been attacked less for his politics than his tactics, including his flurry of subpoenas to every corner of the White House.

BOB WEINER: I think this is an incredible overreach by the prosecutor to have subpoenaed us. It is Big Brother at its worst. It really scares you.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): Last week, Bob Weiner, a spokesman for Clinton's drug policy director, and his wife complained of being hauled before a grand jury because of calls they'd made to local Democrats in Maryland. The independent counsel asked whether the White House had encouraged them to urge Maryland officials to prosecute Linda Tripp for recording Lewinsky's phone calls.

MRS. WEINER: We don't live under the government of Nazi Germany. This is the United States. We have free speech and if we want to pick up the phone and call someone we have the right to do that.

CHRIS BURY (voice-over): Starr is being criticized, too, for wiring Linda Tripp to record Monica Lewinsky on tape in those FBI stings.

JOHN BARRETT: Law enforcement hits hard. The point is that it has to hit fair. Wiring people up is a standard law enforcement practice that every FBI field office all across the country does every day.

CHRIS BURY: Kenneth Starr's investigation of the President's sex life is hardly standard practice, of course, and on that point public opinion has been harshly critical. In the last week, the independent counsel's office has been considering ways to improve its battered image, possibly with a major television interview. Starr has been keeping a low profile, waiting, perhaps, until the evidence can speak for itself.

This is Chris Bury for Nightline in Washington.

TED KOPPEL: Former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger has long opposed the independent counsel law, yet he is a strong supporter of Kenneth Starr. We'll be joined by Mr. Terwilliger when we return.

(Commercial Break)

TED KOPPEL: Joining us now live here in Washington, former deputy attorney general during the Bush administration, George Terwilliger.

So what is an independent counsel, beleaguered as he may be, to do at a time like this? He is being battered so hard that his credibility in the public is going down. It may, in the long run, even affect his case. And yet if he as much as issues a printed statement in defense of himself or countering what the first lady, in this case, said, he is criticized.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, Former Deputy Attorney General: (Washington) Well, he's criticized for almost everything he does now because there are people who have a strong motive to criticize him, try to damage his credibility and thus damage the credibility of his work. So the first thing that the independent counsel, that any prosecutor has to do, Ted, is stick to the job. Secondly, I disagree with those, including some of the people who were on in your first segment tonight, who say that he can't answer back. What he cannot do is talk about the evidence, the results of his investigation. But when someone, particularly someone with the preeminent position of the first lady, accuses him of being part of a right-wing conspiracy, I think it's perfectly appropriate for him to call that nonsense.

TED KOPPEL: You wouldn't argue that he has something of a tin ear in terms of some of his behavior over the past couple of years? I mean, for example, accepting that job at Pepperdine and then after the public outcry turning it down again, the business of continuing his law practice and representing the tobacco industry. It hasn't helped his case, has it?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, I think it's given his critics something to work with. I don't know whether it's a tin ear or just a fact of modern life. If you want to get a lawyer of Ken's caliber into an independent counsel position, Congress recognized that you can't take someone completely away from their law practice. Whether someone else might have done things differently or maybe even Judge Starr would do things differently with some of those things you mentioned probably is fair commentary and I certainly think that even Ken would agree that the Malibu move wound up making him look bad. But to his credit he sort of stuck with the program and went on.

TED KOPPEL: Overreaching a little bit? I mean you heard the outrage of both Mr. And Mrs. Weiner there, who feel that, I mean, you know, here they are in the privacy of their own home making a few phone calls and trying to rally a little bit of political support. Were they entitled to do that and even if they weren't, is he entitled to haul them before a grand jury?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, he is and that was a good move, Ted. And let's just spend a minute on this because we need to be clear about something. I remember during the Bush administration when I and other people were embroiled in the so-called B&L scandal and there were allegations flying from the floor of Congress, some of them tremendously irresponsible and some low-level White House staff person made a call to the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta where this case was being investigated. And there was a hue and cry of no end about attempts at White House influence.

Here you have a relatively high-ranking individual in the middle of an investigation of obstruction of justice making a phone call that could easily be construed as an attempt to intimidate a witness. If the purpose of that subpoena, and I don't know what the purpose of it was, but if the purpose of that was to send a shot across the bow of other White House staffers who might be considering a similar move I think it was entirely appropriate.

TED KOPPEL: Let's also spend a minute or so talking about the time and the money, and as you and I both know, independent counsels have a way, I mean first of all they start from scratch. They start without a staff, they start without any files, they start without any office space, but they do have an almost limitless amount of time and money and no one who really rides herd on them. Why has it taken so long, why has it been so expensive?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, I wish I knew the answer precisely to that. Partly I think that's a mark of Ken's style. He is not a lawyer, let alone a prosecutor, who's going to go off half cocked and make wild accusations. He's careful, he's thorough and he's methodical. But I think that is a legitimate criticism of the independent counsel statute and this whole setup together. It's just so artificial to create a prosecutorial office to pursue one subject matter or one group of subject matters. As I think someone said at the top of the show, I've opposed this statute for a long time, before it was fashionable in Democratic circles to do so. I think it's got to go.

TED KOPPEL: Can this lead to an indictment of the President or is he almost doomed to pass it off at one point or another to the House?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, as you know, Ted, that's an open question with the Supreme Court as to whether or not a sitting president can be indicted. I do not believe a sitting president can be indicted. The independent counsel is part of the executive branch. That, the branch is personified in the President. It would be like the President indicting himself. I think the only thing that can be done with evidence of presidential misdeeds, crimes, is to refer them to the House.

TED KOPPEL: George Terwilliger, thanks very much indeed.


TED KOPPEL: When we come back, on background, on deep background and off the record, trying to make sense of how news is reported.

(Commercial Break)

TED KOPPEL: This is one six letter word that you may believe has been used too frequently over the past couple of weeks -- S-O-U-R-C-E, source. You often hear it in front of another word or with another word in front of it, anonymous, unnamed. You often hear other words behind it as in a source close to the investigation or in the White House.

As John Donvan now reports, if you understand the rules of sourcing, you understand a lot about Washington in general and this story in particular.

KENNETH STARR: Well, we're continuing to move forward so I try not to comment too specifically.

JOHN DONVAN, ABC News (voice-over): It's about the only thing that Ken Starr has said in public.

KENNETH STARR: I can't comment on the investigation.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): Over...

KENNETH STARR: I can't comment.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): And over.

KENNETH STARR: I just can't comment on it.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): But if Ken Starr can't say anything, especially not in public, plenty of people, lawyers, witnesses, law enforcement officials and White House aides are talking in private to reporters.

(on camera) And when the information they share shows up in print or on the air, you never hear their names. Maybe they'll be called senior officials or lawyers close to the case, but no names. That is the deal that they have made with reporters. They are anonymous sources.

1st REPORTER: Sources tell us that that meeting...

JACKIE JUDD, ABC News: Several sources have told us that...

2nd REPORTER: A highly placed source says...

SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: ABC News has learned from sources...

1st NBC REPORTER: NBC news has learned that...

1st CBS REPORTER: CBS News has also learned...

3rd REPORTER: Sources say that Monica Lewinsky.

4th REPORTER: Sources close to the first lady...

DAN RATHER, CBS News: Friends of First Lady Hillary Clinton have told CBS News...

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): Without the use of anonymous sources, reporters probably could never have told this extraordinary story. But in reality, stories get told this way every day in Washington. Take a look at today's Washington Post, the secretary of state scolding Israeli and Palestinian leaders for dragging their feet in the peace process, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the conversations. Now it's all but certain that official was one of three people, either State Department Spokesman Jamie Rubin or Middle East envoy Dennis Ross or Madeleine Albright herself. The question is why would any of them choose not to be quoted by name?

This evening we put a call through to ABC's David Ensor, who is traveling with Albright in Saudi Arabia.

(interviewing) David, you were there when these remarks were made.

DAVID ENSOR, ABC News: That's right. Yes. And this person said they didn't want to be identified as describing this as a scolding. They want people to know there is a scolding, but if they're identified by name as having said that, this is a person who has to deal with the Israelis and Palestinians directly and that might become more difficult.

JOHN DONVAN: Diplomacy and the sensitivity that diplomacy requires are one thing, but people who are sources come up with many other reasons for going anonymous. Some of those reasons are possibly altruistic, some are downright nasty and some are in between.

"DONNA": I just was afraid to do anything because I was sure to be retaliated against.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): Many, for example, are whistle blowers, like these women, complaining of sexual harassment by the CIA, where they worked. Then there are people deep in the Washington bureaucracy who go anonymous to float an untried idea, personnel appointments perhaps or a move like easing sanctions on Iraq. These are called trial balloons. Then there are what media critic Howard Kurtz describes as more self-serving sources.

HOWARD KURTZ, "The Washington Post": When you see someone quoted anonymously in the paper it means that they want to say something good about themselves, something bad about someone else or somehow pursue a political agenda without having their names attached.

REPORTER: It's an opinion, sir, that I'm hearing from others who are beginning to question whether simply talking...

Pres. BILL CLINTON: Who are they? Name one.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): Of course no one likes the source game when they're who the source is talking about. This was the President in December, asked to comment on criticism of his race initiative coming from people within his own administration.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: Just one. Give me a name. I think all this other stuff, you know, it's confusing to the American people when they hear all these anonymous sources.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): But Mr. Clinton knows the rules and revealing sources is against them. When it comes to the scandal that has consumed Washington for the past 13 days, the White House blames Kenneth Starr and lawyers associated with Paula Jones for most of the leaks. But both sides have sledgehammers.

2nd CBS REPORTER: Well, we have just obtained the complete settlement offer that Paula Jones' lawyers proposed and it's now clear why the President's lawyer, Bob Bennett, rejected it.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): That story, reported by CBS News, made Paula Jones look greedy for demanding $2 million to settle her lawsuit against the President. Do we know that the President's lawyer, Bob Bennett, or someone in his office was the source? No, we do not. Do we think it was someone on Bennett's team? We sure do.

Often people will seek to stay anonymous because they come in for less blame when their information turns out to be wrong. That happens plenty. Recall one of the biggest stories of 1996.

ABC REPORTER: Today, sources familiar with the TWA investigation told us that a U.S. government agency has received a specific claim of responsibility.

JOHN McWETHY, ABC News: Peter, authorities are considering the possibility of a bomb.

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): And a completely separate story that very same month.

3rd CBS REPORTER: Tonight, agents confirm that security guard Richard Jewell has become the focus of their investigation.

ART HARRIS, CNN Correspondent: Top law enforcement sources confirm that Jewell is "one of those we're looking at".

JOHN DONVAN (voice-over): For the scandal of 1998, these are still early days. We do not know who is telling the truth, who is lying and who is merely embellishing. But it is clear that in this city of raging egos, a lot of people who like to talk these days prefer to whisper and to remain invisible.

This is John Donvan for Nightline in Washington.

TED KOPPEL: And I'll be back in a moment.

(Commercial Break)

TED KOPPEL: Tomorrow on Good Morning America, the 11th hour appeal of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who is scheduled for execution in a Texas prison tomorrow evening.

And that's our report for tonight. I'm Ted Koppel in Washington. For all of us here at ABC News, good night.

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