By Dan Balz and Amy Goldstein
White House aide Sidney Blumenthal told a federal grand jury yesterday he discussed information about prosecutors working for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr with reporters but denied there was any White House plot to spread damaging information about Starr's team, according to sources familiar with his testimony.
Blumenthal, according to these sources, answered all questions about his contacts with the press -- and named specific reporters and news organizations with which he had talked. But the sources said Blumenthal declined to answer other questions about confidential conversations within the White House, citing the ongoing dispute about what presidential communications are covered by executive privilege.
Starr, who has defended the new turn in his investigation as a "legitimate" inquiry into "an avalanche of lies" being spread about his office, made a rare appearance himself at the federal courthouse after Blumenthal's testimony. Starr met privately for an hour with Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversees the Starr grand jury. There was no indication of what they discussed.
After emerging from more than two hours of testimony, Blumenthal told reporters, "Ken Starr's prosecutors demanded to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had said to me about Ken Starr's prosecutors. If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed. And if any journalist here, or elsewhere, wants to talk to me, I'll be glad to talk to you."
One of his attorneys, William A. McDaniel, later denounced Starr's decision to subpoena his client. "These questions [asked of Blumenthal] suggest these people have this grandiose idea that there is a conspiracy afoot by the president and the first lady and Sidney and the president's attorneys to disseminate information" about Starr's office, he said. "That is absolutely false. They just made it up. It was a fantasy. They subpoenaed him to come down there and testify about their fantasies."
In addition to Blumenthal, the grand jury yesterday heard from Nancy Hernreich, director of Oval Office operations at the White House. Hernreich works just outside the Oval Office and has unique access to the comings and goings there, a vantage point that could make her testimony relevant to the main focus of Starr's investigation into whether President Clinton had a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about it under oath.
It was the second day in a row that Hernreich, who has worked for Clinton since his days as governor of Arkansas, appeared at the grand jury. Her attorney, Gerard F. Treanor Jr., told reporters she had answered all questions but would not comment further.
Later in the day, the grand jury listened to tape recordings, according to sources. It was unclear whether the tapes were those made by the FBI last month, when Lewinsky was lured by her friend, Linda R. Tripp, to a sting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, or recordings of earlier conversations with Lewinsky that Tripp secretly had made on her own, then delivered to Starr.
In recent weeks Tripp has been listening to the more than 20 hours of tape recordings and correcting transcripts under the direction of prosecutors, a source familiar with her activities said yesterday. The night that Lewinsky was first questioned by Starr's staff, she was shown some of the transcripts, but her lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, has not seen any of the transcripts or listened to the tapes, sources said.
Blumenthal's subpoena earlier this week prompted protests from White House officials and other presidential allies, who denounced the latest twist in Starr's investigation as an attempt to chill the working relationship between government officials and the press. Starr on Wednesday called the inquiry necessary to determine "whether there is an effort to impede our investigation."
Blumenthal's effort to have the subpoena quashed was rejected on Tuesday, but he succeeded in having questions limited to his time as a White House employee. He joined the White House staff last summer after a previous career as a journalist for The Washington Post and the New Yorker, among other organizations.
Blumenthal, according to sources, was asked a series of questions about his conversations with reporters having to do with several of Starr's prosecutors, including Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick. In recent weeks, media reports have appeared criticizing Emmick and Udolf for their conduct in cases they tried earlier in their prosecutorial careers. The White House has acknowledged circulating this previously published information about the two.
The sources declined to identify the reporters cited in Blumenthal's testimony, but said the news organizations he identified included The Washington Post, New York Times, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, New York Observer, Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report, CBS and CNN.
"He was asked did you ever talk to people about these prosecutors and did people in the media ever talk to you about these prosecutors?" a source said. "They also tied that in to, did the first lady ever direct you to disseminate information about the OIC staff and did the president ever ask you to do that? The answer was, 'Absolutely not,' in both cases."
Blumenthal was also asked about any contacts he may have had with three private investigators: Terry F. Lenzner, who heads the Investigative Group Inc. (IGI) and who has been hired by the law firm of Williams & Connolly, Clinton's private attorneys in the broad Whitewater investigation; Jack Palladino, who is based in San Francisco; and Anthony J. Pellicano, who is based in Los Angeles.
Blumenthal said he met Lenzner for the first time this week, at the federal courthouse where both had been called to testify on Tuesday. He told the grand jury he did not know either of the other two men.
In an interview this week, Pellicano denied he has been doing background investigations on Starr or his staff. He refused to say whether he is doing other work on the Lewinsky investigation. Palladino looked into Clinton's relationships with other women for the 1992 Clinton campaign.
Sources said the questions Blumenthal declined to answer covered "conversations in the White House." The sources refused to describe the nature of those conversations or whether they involved Clinton.
Blumenthal testified that in all but one case, the information he discussed with reporters involving prosecutors came from previously published reports. The only exception was information relayed to Blumenthal from a source involved in law enforcement.
He was asked about some information involving the prosecutors that has not appeared in print. In one case, Blumenthal said he was aware of the information and had gotten it from a reporter but did not pass it along to anyone else. In the case of another prosecutor, Blumenthal said he had knowledge of information prior to publication, but the prosecutor questioning Blumenthal, Robert J. Bittman, did not pursue the matter further.
He was also asked whether he or anyone at the White House had leaked earlier testimony from the grand jury in an effort to damage the independent counsel's office. Blumenthal, said a source, responded, "Absolutely not."
At the end of his testimony, a source said, Blumenthal was asked whether he had ever said anything positive about Starr. "I can't recall," he replied, according to the source.
Blumenthal's attorney said his client had spent only a fraction of his time recently talking to reporters about Starr's activities. He said the independent counsel's office had "attempted to blow this up into something it didn't resemble. It was not a major activity."
Sources familiar with the testimony said Starr's team had "a fundamental misconception about journalists, about how government officials speak to journalists and journalists talk to journalists and how things float around and that it's very natural."
In another development yesterday, The Washington Post and other major news organizations filed a motion with Judge Johnson seeking to make public the legal dispute involving the White House's efforts to block testimony by various Clinton aides.
The motion, which was filed with the New York Times and the three TV networks, asserts that legal proceedings over "executive privilege" are "of immediate and enduring public importance." It says that questions such as the relative power of the White House, the independent counsel and the judiciary "go to the heart of our constitutional structure" and can be revealed without disclosing the contents of grand jury proceedings themselves.
Clinton, according to sources familiar with the talks, has indicated that he is prepared to assert executive privilege, but apparently has not formally done so.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, tried to bolster the White House's position that Starr has overstepped his bounds by summoning Blumenthal. They dispatched a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, asking her to restrict Starr and contending that he has exceeded his authority in the Whitewater inquiry.
The letter, signed by all but one of the committee's Democrats, said that only Reno has the legal authority to instruct the independent counsel to "drop his campaign of intimidation of those who are engaged in legitimate criticism of his activities."
Staff writers Toni Locy and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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