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Sources of the Leaks: Anonymous
Tipsters Duel It Out in the Newspapers

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page B06

The New York Times, in a bombshell that exploded Thursday night, reports that President Clinton's secretary told investigators that he "led her through an account of his relationship" with Monica Lewinsky that differs in part "from her own recollections." The source: "lawyers familiar with her account."

The Washington Post, scrambling to catch up, confirms the report after midnight -- "according to a person familiar with her account" -- but uses milder language. The story says the secretary, Betty Currie, told investigators "that Clinton probed her memories of his contacts with Lewinsky to see whether they matched his own." Among other things, says The Post, "a source close to Clinton" describes Currie's account as "more ambiguous than prosecutors apparently see it."

What are readers to make of these dueling leaks? Who's giving reporters this information? And is there some journalistic obligation to tell readers which side the unnamed sources are on, particularly during a criminal investigation?

Jeffrey Toobin, a legal reporter for ABC and the New Yorker, said the Times story was "written with extraordinary care" but "struck me as characterizing her statements in the most accusatory fashion. You have to be especially aware that what she said is subject to various interpretations. That doesn't mean the story is wrong."

The Times story appears to have come in large measure from the office of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel in the Whitewater case. Currie is a Clinton loyalist, and it is difficult to imagine that her lawyers would have leaked a damaging story suggesting she had told prosecutors that Clinton in effect coached her on what to say about Lewinsky.

The article was written by Jeff Gerth, who broke the Whitewater story in 1992, and Stephen Labaton, who has been covering Starr's Whitewater probe for years, and Don Van Natta Jr. Starr recently expanded his probe to include allegations that Clinton had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and lied about it under oath.

Currie, who testified before a grand jury last week, took issue with the stories through her attorney, Lawrence Wechsler. He said in a statement yesterday that it was "absolutely false" that his client believed that Clinton "tried to influence her recollection." The president yesterday questioned "whether someone else is leaking unlawfully out of the grand jury proceeding."

Michael Oreskes, the Times bureau chief in Washington, said he could not discuss the paper's confidential sources. But, he said, "whenever you use unidentified sources, there is an even higher threshold than when you name your sources to be certain you've checked the information and you're certain you're not being used, and we do it."

Asked about the differences with the Post account, Oreskes said: "We called the White House early in the day and gave them plenty of time to react and we published every word of that reaction. We would have published every word of this further explanation they have since offered, but they never offered it to us."

Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, said that "as the story itself makes clear, there is still only some knowledge about what Betty Currie has said to investigators. I feel very confident about what it was that we published. . . . As more is found out about her knowledge and her testimony, this story will stand up."

Asked if the paper was simply adopting the version of its primary source, Downie said the Post account was "pretty close to down the middle."

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart contended that "no reporter was willing to step up and cover" the real story: "Dozens of leaks that looked like they were coming from the prosecutor's office, which is a violation of criminal law."

Starr, for his part, said yesterday he is "very concerned" about possible leaks from his office. "If there was an act of unprofessional activity, I am confident we will find it out," he said.

The Currie story was a major coup for the Times, whose editor, Joseph Lelyveld, has said the paper was caught "flat-footed" by the Lewinsky controversy. The sex and perjury allegations were disclosed Jan. 21 by The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ABC, and the New York Times has since flown in reporters from as far away as Moscow to buttress its coverage.

Soon after the Times report appeared on its Web site, "Nightline" scrapped a planned program on the International Monetary Fund and devoted a half-hour to the story, which ABC said it had independently confirmed.

Yesterday's front page Times story was dramatic because it described Clinton summoning Currie to the White House on Sunday, Jan. 18, the day after he is said to have denied a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in a deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. The story also said Clinton told Currie that he had resisted Lewinsky's advances.

These unnamed lawyers, according to the Times, said Currie recalled Clinton "asking a series of leading questions [about Lewinsky], such as: We were never alone, right?"

"Mrs. Currie has told investigators that the president and Ms. Lewinsky were sometimes alone, the lawyers said."

Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio's legal correspondent, said that "sources always have an agenda. This has all the earmarks of a Starr leak. It is clearly the worst-case interpretation. . . . It just comes screaming at you out of the Times story."

Said Toobin: "Here you have people talking about whether the president committed perjury in a deposition that no human being in the press has seen."

In the edition of yesterday's Times that carried the Currie story, another article focused on White House complaints about "one-sided coverage based on leaked information from Kenneth W. Starr."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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