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Oval Office/TWP
President Clinton in the Oval Office in 1997 (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)

Grand Jury Searches for West Wing Eyewitnesses

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 1998; Page A28

The president's study just off the Oval Office is one of the most exclusive pieces of real estate in the world -- often described but rarely seen. This week it has emerged as a principal focus of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into the relationship between President Clinton and former intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

Starr's attorneys have questioned a succession of witnesses, from former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta and other high-ranking current and former officials to White House interns and White House stewards who wait on the president. Sources with detailed knowledge of the inquiry say the investigators appear to be attempting to determine whether there is any evidence that would put Clinton and Lewinsky alone together, particularly in the presidential study.

Starr's investigators have focused on other questions as well: the circumstances that led to Lewinsky's shift from the White House to the Pentagon; whether it is common for White House interns to receive gifts from the president; and perhaps most important, whether the extensive help Lewinsky received from attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. in trying to find a job after leaving the Pentagon was at all unusual.

But if there is a pattern that has emerged from the list of witnesses called to testify before the 23-member federal grand jury meeting in downtown Washington the past two weeks, it is their knowledge of, or access to, the inner workings of the suite of rooms at the southeast corner of the West Wing that are connected to the Oval Office.

Starr's attorneys handling the testimony before the grand jury have spent hours on detailed questions about the physical layout of the West Wing. The inquiries include such matters as how many doors enter into the Oval Office, the arrangement of the furniture in the anteroom where visitors wait to see the president, where Secret Service agents or other security personnel are posted and whether the president is always in their line of sight.

Starr's investigators have asked witnesses to fill in details on an outline map of the West Wing. They've been asked to explain how visitors would enter the building and which corridors they might follow to get to the Oval Office.

These questions have produced a primer on White House operations for the grand jury. But investigators also have asked sharply focused questions on who might have been able to see something, particularly in the vicinity of the pantry and the study, according to those familiar with the inquiry. One line of inquiry has involved questions about the possibility that Clinton and Lewinsky were in the study together.

The suite of offices that makes up the Oval Office is like a self-contained unit within the already well-protected West Wing. At one end, with windows looking out at the Rose Garden, is the office where Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, sits. Also in that area are Nancy Hernreich, deputy assistant to the president, and the president's personal aide, Kris Engskov.

Currie, who reportedly received packages that Lewinsky sent to the White House from the Pentagon, and who asked Jordan to help Lewinsky find a job, was one of the first White House officials to testify before the grand jury. Engskov, a young Arkansas native who just assumed the post of personal aide late last year, testified on Wednesday.

The Oval Office sits in the southeast corner of the West Wing. There are three doors into the presidential office, in addition to a set of French doors that open to the Rose Garden. The normal entrance for staff and visitors is a door just past Currie's desk. A second door opens at the intersection of two corridors in the West Wing and is directly across from the Roosevelt Room. The third door opens to a small corridor and several other private rooms used by the president, among them the study and the president's private dining room.

At the far end of the dining room is a tiny room that ends the Oval Office suite. The room initially was Hernreich's but later was occupied by then-senior adviser George Stephanopoulos. That office includes a door to the president's dining room, and the door includes a tiny peephole that provides some visual access to that room. Stephanopoulos testified on Tuesday.

Another door leads into the dining room from the corridor that runs from the chief of staff's office at one corner of the West Wing to the Oval Office. Generally, a Secret Service agent is posted by that door, according to officials familiar with West Wing operations.

The president's study is small -- little more than 100 square feet, according to those who know it -- with a window that looks out on a patio. No more than half a dozen people can fit comfortably in the study, if that many.

The study includes a desk, a television, a rocking chair, Clinton's collection of golf clubs and a bookcase holding books about the presidency. Clinton uses the study for everything from naps to making phone calls to monitoring high-stakes votes in Congress.

The study sits near a private bathroom, a small pantry-kitchen that is barely large enough for two people to stand in, and the president's private dining room. Witnesses have been closely questioned about the pantry-kitchen and its physical proximity to the study and what could be seen by someone in the pantry.

A steward often is posted at the pantry, and while the steward does not have a direct view into the presidential study, he could see into it by taking a step or two out of the pantry into the corridor, according to people familiar with the West Wing's layout. There are two doors on the pantry-kitchen, one leading to space that connects the Oval Office with the study and the dining room, the other opening to the rest of the West Wing. Officials said that second door is often kept open.

Among the stewards who have been called before the grand jury is Bayani Nelvis. He testified last week and returned for a second round on Wednesday. He has declined to comment about his appearances.

Other witnesses who have appeared include former deputy chief of staff Evelyn S. Lieberman, who had Lewinsky shifted to the Pentagon after concerns that she was spending too much time around the West Wing. Lieberman was a deputy to Panetta and had responsibility for White House operations.

John D. Podesta, currently one of two deputy chiefs of staff, testified yesterday. Podesta contacted U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson at Currie's request about a possible job for Lewinsky.

At least two interns have testified. Caroline Self, who testified Tuesday, signed for packages sent by Lewinsky to the White House. Justin Coleman testified yesterday. He occupied a small office in the area where Currie and Hernreich sit and handled phone calls and faxes, among other duties.

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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