By Dan Balz
For the past two weeks, President Clinton's legal and political advisers argued over the best way to combat independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into the relationship between the president and Monica Lewinsky. Yesterday those differences dissolved with a volley of attacks designed to discredit the Starr inquiry.
Until yesterday, Clinton's political advisers had urged an aggressive campaign to brand Starr as a partisan prosecutor attempting to bring down the president. Clinton's lawyers, however, urged a more cautious approach.
But when Clinton's personal attorney David E. Kendall stepped before the cameras yesterday afternoon to denounce "a deluge of leaks" from Starr's office, the interests of the often-divided camps around the president merged. As one official said, "Now we're in a different atmosphere."
"Normally one would say you don't mess around with a rattlesnake," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "But we're well beyond that at this point."
If Kendall made a rare public appearance to attack Starr yesterday, however, he and the president's legal team have been privately aggressive in attempting to counter the independent counsel's efforts.
The president's lawyers have been systematic in debriefing grand jury witnesses all through legal methods, they are quick to note. Starr made reference to those efforts in an acerbic letter of response to Kendall yesterday afternoon, noting that the White House already had most of the information about the testimony of Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, that was reported publicly yesterday.
The parallel investigations and the careful monitoring of each side by the other creates a kind of spy vs. spy situation, and as the exchange of letters yesterday made clear, both Starr and Kendall are determined to answer any criticism with a sharp rebuttal.
All of this raises the stakes for both Starr and the White House. The allegations of leaks have thrown Starr on the defensive. Even before Kendall announced that he would seek legal relief, the independent counsel had announced he was asking for an investigation of possible leaks.
But the White House and the president also risk further damage if it turns out that Starr has solid evidence that Clinton has not told the truth about Lewinsky and urged her to lie about their relationship under oath. In that case, the strategy could easily backfire as an effort to divert public attention from the facts of the case.
One friend of the president acknowledged that the attacks on Starr represent a knowing diversion by the White House. As he put it, "When you have problems domestically, you start a foreign war."
But after a number of recent incidents, including two reports this week about grand jury testimony that were sharply disputed by the attorneys for the two witnesses cited, White House officials have been moving toward a more aggressive posture toward both the news media and Starr's team.
With Kendall leading the attack, not only other White House officials but a number of Democrats joined in the campaign to denounce Starr. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asked Attorney General Janet Reno to open a formal inquiry to determine whether Starr "should be removed or disciplined" for "repeated instances of alleged misconduct and abuses of power."
Contacted in his Detroit district office, Conyers said he had been distressed with Starr's efforts for "quite a while," because he believed Starr was partisan, had conflicts of interest and had "exceeded his responsibility" repeatedly.
Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), a senior committee Democrat, agreed with Conyers's assessment. "These last couple of days, with grand jury testimony leaking out, have been terribly abusive," Frank said. "It sounds like he's [Starr's] trying to win a public relations war. Leaking has no investigatory role."
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said anger over Starr and the leaks is "beginning to boil" among Senate Democrats and that he is seeking to advance the date for an appearance before the committee by Reno to discuss Starr's conduct.
"Occasional leaks are understood, but the pattern and level of purposefully leaking information is raising this to the level where a criminal investigation may be required," Torricelli said in a telephone interview.
Not all information that emerges from a grand jury represents an illegal leak, however, and the White House has been energetic in trying to obtain information about the testimony Starr's team is assembling. It is not illegal for a grand jury witness to talk about his or her testimony, or to authorize an attorney to share it with others.
As a result, one Clinton strategist said the president's attorneys are conducting "an aggressive parallel investigation" of the allegations relating to Lewinsky and testimony before the Starr grand jury. White House officials contrasted their use of the information with what they said were efforts by the president's opponents to twist grand jury testimony for their own purposes.
Most of those called to testify are current or former White House officials who have said publicly they know of no improper relationship between the president and Lewinsky. Clinton's lawyers are attempting to debrief as many of those witnesses as possible, an official acknowledged yesterday.
For example, on the day after former White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos testified before the grand jury, his attorney, Stanley W. Brand, called Kendall and described "the essential elements" of the questions Stephanopoulos was asked and the answers he provided. Brand called the practice of sharing information "fairly routine," especially when witnesses are not hostile.
In addition, the White House counsel's office has helped a number of witnesses find lawyers. A White House spokesman confirmed that the counsel's office helped obtain the attorney representing Currie, as well as attorneys for several White House stewards who have testified.
"It's one of the functions of the counsel's office," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "When someone on the staff here needs an attorney, the counsel's office may recommend someone or put them in touch with someone." Lockhart said the White House is not paying the legal bills for employees called to testify.
The fact that Clinton's attorneys are in regular communication with these attorneys has been helpful on a number of occasions. When the Wall Street Journal posted a damaging article on its Web site on Wednesday afternoon, presidential assistant Bruce Lindsey instantly took exception to the description of steward Bayani Nelvis's testimony, according to one source. Soon after, Nelvis's lawyer, Joseph T. Small Jr., issued a denial that White House officials were quoting before it arrived in many newsrooms of major newspapers and television networks.
On Thursday night, when a report surfaced that Clinton had reviewed his testimony about Lewinsky in the Paula Jones case with Currie, the president's legal team contacted Currie's lawyer, Lawrence Wechsler.
According to one senior official, the president's lawyer encouraged Wech sler to provide, in addition to a denial, further information about Currie's testimony to dispute the damaging description of the conversation. Still, the White House was slow to provide the information.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Helen Dewar, Guy Gugliotta, Susan Schmidt and Bob Woodward contributed to this report.
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