After months of indignant denials from Kenneth Starr, we now learn from his own lips, via Steven Brill in his new magazine Brill’s Content , that the independent counsel and his deputies are indeed providing information about the Monica Lewinsky case to selected reporters. Who’d have thought Mr. Starr-excuse me, “Judge Starr”-that hymn-singing arbiter of truth, would mislead the public and the court about such a grave matter?
Just about anyone who’s been paying attention since January, that’s who. For, as Mr. Brill’s thorough exegesis of the wild first weeks of scandal coverage demonstrates, that journalistic stampede was directed by the independent counsel, often known as “sources close to.” (Are you following, Madam Attorney General?)
In retrospect, Mr. Starr and his blustering deputies seem like characters from a classical satire, posturing righteously while sinning outrageously. The tale opens with the gusher of Lewinsky leaks on Jan. 21. Two weeks later, the President’s lawyer, David Kendall, files a formal complaint, citing as the latest offense a front-page report in The New York Times about the impending grand jury testimony of the President’s personal secretary, Betty Currie.
Of course, Mr. Starr’s Feb. 6 answering letter carries the scorch marks of affronted innocence. Upbraiding Mr. Kendall, it complains: “First, you elevate mere suspicion to specific accusation without any facts other than the press’s often misleading attribution of sources. Second, the timing of your letter-arriving in the midst of what appears to be an orchestrated plan to deflect and distract this investigation-undermines your expression of outrage. Third, we are aware that as of several days ago, the President’s defense attorneys had most, if not all, of the material information … set forth in today’s New York Times article.” In short, we didn’t leak and we bet you did.
“In my service as independent counsel,” Mr. Starr continues, “particularly with regard to the secrecy of the grand jury, I have insisted on a high commitment to professional conduct.” Still, he pledges, “In light of the unclear press attributions in some examples cited in your letter, I have undertaken an investigation to determine whether, despite my persistent admonitions, someone in this office may be culpable.”
While a fruitless search for the culprits ensues, Stuart Taylor Jr. and other commentators hint loudly that the guilty leakers are in “the Clinton camp.”
Exactly three months later, when Mr. Kendall files a motion citing fresh leaks, Mr. Starr’s deputy, Jackie Bennett Jr., faxes back another angry missive. Setting a High Noon -style deadline for withdrawal of the Kendall motion, Mr. Bennett warns he is “highly confident” the independent counsel can prove the latest leak has emanated from the White House.
The mystery is solved when Mr. Brill arrives on stage to interview Mr. Starr. Asked who has blabbed to the media, Mr. Starr points to Mr. Bennett, who growls, “I don’t think it’s any of your business.” Mr. Starr explains that his gruff deputy “has spent much of his time talking to individual reporters,” including “much of the day” of Jan. 21. And it also turns out that both Mr. Starr and Mr. Bennett discussed Ms. Currie with Times reporters before that article appeared on Feb. 6.
As a courtier in the Starr chambers, the august Times plays a supporting role in this comedy of media manners. Replying to Mr. Brill’s exposé, the paper’s June 16 lead editorial echoes Mr. Starr’s argument that he did nothing wrong. (He just shouldn’t have opened his big fat mouth, The Times scolds.) “There are … Federal court decisions that support Mr. Starr’s contention that he can discuss matters that do not come directly from grand jury testimony,” the editorial insists.
Sure, except that Mr. Starr toils within the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia circuit, which issued a clear opinion in May. Prosecutors are forbidden to discuss “not only what has occurred and what is occurring, but also what is likely to occur,” that ruling states, quoting prior opinions. “Encompassed within the rule of secrecy are ‘the identities of witnesses [and] the substance of testimony … the strategy or direction of the investigation … and the like.'”
Overlooked in the uproar over the Brill article is a May 19 speech by author Dan Moldea, in which he revealed an encounter with another Starr deputy, Hickman Ewing Jr. During his research for A Washington Tragedy , his new book on the Vincent Foster suicide, Mr. Moldea said Mr. Ewing told him that the Office of the Independent Counsel “freely provides nonpublic information on an off-the-record basis to reporters and book reviewers who are personally approved by Kenneth Starr and whose work is in sync with [his] positions on key issues.” So far, Mr. Moldea’s remarks have not been reported in The Times or other elite newspapers.
But, as Mr. Brill put it, “there is a lot more evidence of Starr and some of his deputies committing this felony”-that is, illegal leaking-“than there is of the President or Vernon Jordan committing a felony.” Perhaps Attorney General Janet Reno should demand that Michael Shaheen, the lawyer investigating the David Hale controversy, be allowed to probe these allegations of misconduct as well.