By Howard Kurtz
Starr's effort "truly deserves the Academy Award for Chutzpah," attorney David E. Kendall said in a recent letter.
"It's not a public relations campaign," countered Charles G. Bakaly III, Starr's new counselor and spokesman. "I'm not a public relations person. . . . I think there's a new offensive to respond to misinformation and inaccurate information, and I'm the one who does that."
The rhetorical exchange is part of the continuing finger-pointing in which Starr's office and Clinton aides and lawyers have blamed each other for leaks to the media in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation. In February, Kendall asked a federal judge to impose sanctions on Starr's office for what he called "a deluge of illegal leaks." Starr accused Kendall of "an orchestrated plan to deflect and distract this investigation" but launched an inquiry into whether anyone on his staff was leaking.
The difficulty in following the sometimes convoluted charges is that leaks to the news media are difficult to pinpoint because reporters are determined to protect their confidential sources. Many articles are pieced together with information from multiple sources rather than passively received from a single person.
The Lewinsky case has featured particularly surreal allegations that one side or the other leaked information under court seal and then blamed it on the opposition.
Kendall's broadside came in response to a letter from National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. Taylor said in his letter he had been told by Starr's deputy, Jackie Bennett, that Kendall was blaming the independent counsel's office for leaks that actually came from the White House.
Kendall returned fire in his May 14 letter to Taylor, which was made available by the White House. Kendall blamed these accusations on Bakaly. Citing attributions in several past news reports ("a source close to Starr said," "sources in Starr's office told me"), Kendall wrote: "The Bakaly PR offensive has leveled many charges at us, but I'm not aware that ventriloquism is (yet) among them."
Taylor, who recently turned down a job offer from Starr, said in an interview that he has never spoken to Bakaly and that he is continuing to pursue the issues raised in Kendall's letter.
The latest controversy was triggered by a May 5 report on Fox News that U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had ruled against the White House claim of executive privilege to shield the testimony of two Clinton aides in the Lewinsky case. All arguments in that proceeding are under seal.
The Fox News story said that "the office of independent counsel [is] reporting that they have received a favorable ruling from the judge against the White House."
Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, said that "the original attribution was a mistake" and was corrected in subsequent reports. But he did not say the attribution was wrong, only that the network had been too specific because of a miscommunication between reporter David Shuster and another staffer.
"We have to be vague about it. . . . You can't tell where you got it," Hume said. "You simply are trapped."
But Starr's office says Shuster told Kendall that the leak originated with the White House, according to Taylor. Kendall denied this, and Shuster recalls saying only that the White House and Kendall himself have leaked information in the past.
Kendall told Starr's office he would seek contempt of court charges after the Fox story. Bennett, Starr's deputy, responded that the allegations "are reckless, irresponsible and false. . . . Their exquisitely timed disclosure to the media follow a now-familiar pattern of the White House deflecting attention from bad news . . . by accusing this office of misconduct."
In his letter to Taylor, Kendall also scoffed at the notion that the president's side had leaked a story to the CBS Evening News. The May 1 report quoted from sealed documents in which Starr accused the White House of invoking executive privilege to shield evidence of "obstruction of justice and intimidation of witnesses."
"It is totally implausible that the White House would leak inflammatory buzzwords from an OIC brief . . . to buttress and illustrate an unfavorable story about the president's supposed legal position," Kendall said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company