June 24, 1998

Starr Burst: Leaks & Lies

By Robert Parry

A veteran Associated Press reporter who covered America's early space shots was outraged when the directors of "The Right Stuff" used a troupe of acrobats in suits to portray the journalists. He felt the image of monkey-like reporters scaling trees and climbing over fences to spy on the wives and children of the astronauts exaggerated what happened. "We may have pissed on their lawn," the AP reporter growled, "but we never broke any windows."

For many years, I agreed that the movie version of obnoxious reporters jabbing microphones in the faces of people caught in the news was a bit over the top. Most reporters, I knew, were hard-working professionals. But with the melt-down over the Monica Lewinsky "scandal," I can no longer argue the point.

Washington journalism has become a scandal in its own right, worse than any movie portrayal. In combination with aggressive conservatives determined to negate the results of the last two presidential elections, the media now is threatening the very democratic system that a free press was meant to safeguard.

Driven by competition and baited to prove it's not "liberal," the Washington press corps has joined a kind of a coup d'etat for the Information Age. New evidence shows just how successful President Clinton's enemies have been in manipulating this "scandal" and turning reporters into collaborators.

In an account published on June 22, an associate editor of U.S. News & World Report reviewed two hours of previously undisclosed tapes made by Linda Tripp of her conversations with Lewinsky. The tapes revealed Tripp trying to lead Lewinsky into damaging admissions and suggesting actions that the press would later interpret as evidence of Clinton obstructing justice. Tripp, for instance, urges Lewinsky to ask Clinton for a job, the very action that rests at the center of ongoing impeachment speculation.

According to the U.S. News account, the two hours of tapes do indicate that Lewinsky was infatuated with Clinton but only support suspicions that Lewinsky engaged in suggestive phone conversations with the president. Complimenting Lewinsky on her sultry voice, Tripp declared, "No wonder the president likes to have phone sex with you." Lewinsky doesn't answer.


The U.S. News story comes on the heels of a 29-page report in the new magazine, Brill's Content, in which editor Steven Brill supplies other details on how the media was used, wittingly or not, as a political weapon. Tracing the first three weeks of the Lewinsky "scandal," sometimes hour by hour, Brill exposes how thoroughly two Clinton-hating operatives -- Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp -- stage-managed the opening acts and how conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr then directed the press hysteria that followed.

"What makes the media's performance a true scandal, a true example of an institution being corrupted to its core, is that the competition for scoops so bewitched almost everyone that they let the man in power [Starr] write the story -- once Tripp and Goldberg put it together for him," Brill wrote as a lead-in to the article called "Pressgate." [Brill's Content, Aug. 1998]

Brill concluded that many of the disclosures to Starr's favored reporters -- The Washington Post's Susan Schmidt, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and ABC News' Jackie Judd -- came from a combination of the Goldberg-Tripp duo and Starr's office. Brill used tough language, calling some reporters "lap dogs" and others "stenographers."

"I have personally seen internal memos from inside three news organizations that cite Starr's office as a source," Brill wrote. "For an internal publication circulated to New York Times employees in April, Washington editor Jill Abramson is quoted in a discussion about problems covering the Lewinsky story as saying, '[T]his story was very much driven in the beginning on sensitive information that was coming out of the prosecutor's office'."

What is less clear, however, is whether Starr's office helped on some of the wildly erroneous accounts, such as the Lewinsky's semen-stained dress love trophy and the president caught-in-the-act tale. William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's lawyer, has alleged that Starr leaked some sensitive stories as a tactic to pressure Lewinsky into providing testimony that Starr wanted.

With fresh details, Brill's article explained how conservative book agent Goldberg and her wannabe book author Tripp primed the scandal pump. Both wanted to damage the Clinton administration for political and financial reasons. Goldberg also had experience in dirty tricks having worked for Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign as a spy posing as a journalist inside the McGovern campaign.

It's been known for months that Goldberg urged Tripp to begin taping her young friend, Monica Lewinsky, and that Tripp had been toying with the idea of writing a tell-all White House book. But Brill uncovered new elements of the Goldberg-Tripp manipulation.

According to Brill's article, Goldberg even arranged for her brother's courier service to handle letters and packages that Lewinsky allegedly sent to Clinton. "We told Linda [Tripp] to suggest that Monica use a courier service to send love letters to the president," Goldberg said. "And we told her what courier service to use. Then, we told Spikey [Goldberg's nickname for Newsweek's Isikoff] to call the service."

Further, Tripp and Goldberg told Isikoff that one of the packages contained a lurid sex tape. As corroboration for that claim, the Goldberg family courier service made available the courier who delivered the tape. He helpfully confirmed to Isikoff that one package appeared to contain a tape.

Keeping the Jones Up

Having gotten Newsweek's attention, the Goldberg-Tripp duo then made sure that Paula Jones's legal team knew about Lewinsky. In October 1997, the Jones's lawyers began receiving anonymous phone calls from an unidentified woman -- apparently Tripp. With that information, the Jones's lawyers knew enough to subpoena Lewinsky and Tripp.

With Lewinsky and Tripp subpoenaed -- and with a tape recorder rolling -- Tripp then drew Lewinsky into conversations about what they should say to the Jones lawyers. Tripp apparently hoped to use the conversations to create the legal basis for an obstruction of justice case against Clinton. But, as Brill reported, Lewinsky instead provided exculpatory evidence on this point.

When the Goldberg-Tripp team selected the two most incriminating tapes to play for Newsweek correspondents, the reporters heard no evidence that Clinton tried to make Lewinsky lie about the purported affair. "In fact," Isikoff said, "there is one passage where Linda, knowing the tape is going, says, 'He knows you're going to lie; you've told him, haven't you?' She seems like she's trying to get Monica to say it. But Monica says no."

So Newsweek remained skeptical about this story that was being served up on a silver platter. But Tripp forced the issue by taking her information to Starr's office, too. On Jan. 12-13, Starr's investigators debriefed Tripp and then insisted that she wear a wire for a scripted conversation with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton in the Pentagon City section of Arlington, Va.

On Jan. 14, Goldberg brought Isikoff up to speed about Starr's entrance into the case. Then, on Jan. 16, Tripp lured Lewinsky to another meeting at the Ritz-Carlton. Starr's investigators surrounded the young woman and pressured her to cooperate.

Those efforts went on into the evening, when Tripp excused herself and returned home. There, she briefed Paula Jones's lawyers who were scheduled to depose the president under oath the next day. Armed with that information, Jones's lawyers surprised Clinton with detailed questions about Lewinsky. He denied a sexual relationship.

Meanwhile, Starr's office was urging Newsweek to hold its story to give the prosecutors more time to build their case. Newsweek did, but Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge received a tip about the spiked story, again most likely from the Goldberg-Tripp duo.

On Jan. 21, the story broke with full force in a front-page Washington Post account by Susan Schmidt, Peter Baker and Toni Locy. That story quoted "sources" as saying that "in some of the conversations -- including one in recent days -- Lewinsky described Clinton and [his friend Vernon] Jordan directing her to testify falsely" in the Jones case.

Brill noted that the perjury claim, which the Post article reported that sources heard on the tapes, was exactly what "had been missing from the tapes that Newsweek heard. This is not a minor point. The charge that Lewinsky had been instructed to lie was not only the linchpin of Starr's expanded jurisdiction, but would be the nub of any impeachment action against the president -- and the premise of all of the front-page stories and hours of talk show dialogue that would follow."

Still, with the Post story setting the city abuzz and the Ginsberg-Tripp team handing out hot tips to friendly reporters, the Washington media scrambled to get in line. The reporters, who had curried favor with Starr's office during the long Whitewater investigation, had choice spots.

One sloppy story followed the next, with news outlets rushing out thinly sourced allegations which were then "matched" or simply repeated by pundits who took the dubious information to the next level by commenting on the greater meaning. The talking heads opined that Clinton likely would resign within days.

But often the stories turned out to be wrong. Goldberg later boasted about planting the infamous story about Lewinsky saving a dress stained with the president's semen. Goldberg said she had heard the bizarre tale from Tripp, though it might not have been on any tape, and Goldberg admitted that she might have embroidered the story. "I might have added the part about it being saved," Goldberg said. The FBI found no semen on Lewinsky's clothes.

Illegal Leaks?

Though Brill's story concentrated on the reckless reporting, most of the press reaction has centered on Starr's admission that he and a senior deputy, Jackie Bennett Jr., routinely briefed selected reporters about the investigation. "I have talked with reporters on background on some occasions," Starr said, "but Jackie has been the primary person involved in that. He has spent much of his time talking to individual reporters."

Brill noted that Starr's statement conflicted with the special prosecutor's own public utterances decrying leaks. On Feb. 5, for instance, Starr told an impromptu news conference that he could not comment "about the status of someone who might be a witness [because] that goes to the heart of the grand jury process."

Early on, Starr also engaged in a testy exchange with Clinton's lawyers over their complaints about leaks from his office. Calling "leaks utterly intolerable," Starr declared that "I have made the prohibition of leaks a principal priority of this office. It is a firing offense, as well as one that leads to criminal prosecution."

But even before publication of Starr's admission, investigator reporter Dan Moldea had disclosed that another Starr deputy, Hickman Ewing, had acknowledged that "despite [Starr's] statements to the contrary, [Starr] is the person who is actually approving which reporters receive what information." [CNN's Burden of Proof, May 27, 1998]

Faced with the leak revelations, Starr did not deny that he had talked to favored reporters on "background" -- that is, on a not-for-attribution basis. But he mounted a spirited defense of the legality of his actions.

On June 16, in a 19-page rebuttal to Brill's article, Starr insisted that he scrupulously abided by a criminal statute, known as Rule 6(e), which prohibits disclosure of testimony given before a grand jury. Starr added further that his office "does not and has not released information provided by witnesses during witness interviews, except as authorized by law." (Italics added.)

The key part of that second sentence is the phrase "except as authorized by law." In effect, the wording acknowledges that Starr had released confidential witness information to the press but that he considers his disclosures "authorized by law."

Starr argued that the leak guidelines have big loopholes that allow wide-ranging briefings of reporters. "We should discuss the causes of delay in our investigation," Starr wrote. "We should correct public misinformation about the legal views, strategy and tactics of this office to the extent we can without interfering with the investigation or violating Rule 6(e) -- lest the public, courts, witnesses and jurors receive misimpressions about the integrity of the office. Our dealings with other public and government agencies are proper topics of discussion with reporters."

Yet, given that the Lewinsky investigation has dominated Washington debate for months, has been filled with "misinformation," and involves the White House as well as other government agencies, Starr's loopholes would seem to give him a virtual carte blanche for leaking.

Other legal experts simply don't agree with Starr's reading of the law. They note that recent court rulings suggest that Rule 6(e) extends to pre-interviews that are done with witnesses who may be called before a grand jury or to other evidence that might affect the grand jury deliberations. Justice Department guidelines also prohibit unofficial release of information that might prejudice a case or infringe on the privacy rights of a prospective defendant.

Former Reagan-Bush lawyer Ronald K. Noble noted that Starr's "denials beg the question of what Mr. Starr considers grand jury material, what he believes is authorized by law and what he and Mr. Bennett actually said to reporters." Noting that Starr promised a leak inquiry last February (whose results have never been divulged), Noble added that the inquiry must now be put in the hands of an independent investigator. [NYT, June 19, 1998]

Zeal or Prejudice?

Whatever the outcome of the leak dispute, Brill's article contributes to a growing body of evidence that Starr's investigation has never been a dispassionate, even-handed pursuit of wrongdoing. From his controversial appointment by a conservative-dominated three-judge panel in August 1994, Starr has approached his job with an apparent determination to pin some crime on Clinton, even if one needed to be contrived.

After nearly four years of that quest, Starr has gone down numerous dead ends, finding no case against Clinton on Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Vincent Foster's suicide and Mena drug trafficking. Yet, Starr has cleared Clinton of suspicion only on the false rumors about Foster's death. The rest are still in play despite a lack of evidence.

Now, Starr appears determined to build a report urging Clinton's impeachment around an alleged cover-up of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Starr is threatening the young woman with a criminal indictment if she will not testify as he wants. The Washington pundits are already arguing that the stories about apparent abuses of power by the prosecutor should not distract from the grander issue of Clinton's guilt.

Copyright (c) 1998

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