Whitewater's War of Words Gets Personal
By John F. Harris
The long-standing hostility between Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and President Clinton flared anew yesterday in unusually personal terms. The White House accused the prosecutor of conducting a "fishing expedition" and dismissed his claim that Clinton is blocking his investigation as "nonsense."
The latest round of public sniping began with Starr. In a speech to Arkansas newspaper editors, he said White House lawyers were "duty-bound" to turn over notes of meetings they had with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and complained that their refusal to do so was an "impediment" to his investigation.
Starr also accused Susan McDougal, the president's former business partner, of seeking a "license to lie," by refusing to testify to a grand jury unless she is granted immunity from perjury charges.
The president responded from Barbados, where he is holding a summit with Caribbean leaders. "I think it's been obvious for several years now we've been very cooperative and will continue to be," said Clinton.
Far sharper and far more reflective of the resentful feelings senior Clinton aides harbor toward Starr was a statement released in Washington by White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis.
"Mr. Starr's claim that the White House is somehow impeding his investigation . . . is nonsense," Davis said. He added that Starr "must in good conscience recognize that he created this dispute by subpoenaing White House lawyers' notes, as part of what must be seen as a fishing expedition."
The clash concerns Starr's effort to obtain access to notes from meetings that the first lady had in July 1995 and January 1996 about Starr's investigation into her role in the Whitewater affair. The White House maintains that the notes are "privileged" and do not have to be released because they are protected by the right of people to speak to their attorneys in confidence. Starr said no such protection is due in this case because the notes were taken not by the private criminal defense lawyers representing the Clintons, but by White House attorneys, who represent the public.
In recently unsealed legal papers, Starr has said that Hillary Clinton is a "central figure" in the Whitewater investigation, and that her sworn testimony has changed over time. This buttressed popular speculation that Starr is pursuing a possible obstruction of justice charge against the first lady.
The case of the lawyer's notes has been winding its way through the judicial system, until recently sealed from the public because the dispute involves a grand jury probe. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock agreed with the Clintons that Starr is not entitled to the notes. But a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her in a 2 to 1 decision.
The majority wrote that "to allow any part of the federal government to use its in-house attorneys as a shield against the production of information relevant to a federal criminal investigation would represent a gross misuse of public assets."
White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff on Monday will file papers asking the Supreme Court to review the 8th Circuit decision.
Administration officials yesterday took umbrage at what they said was Starr's suggestion that this tactic amounted to an improper attempt to block his inquiry. "We are pursuing this appeal because we believe the legal issues involved are of critical importance and for no other reason," Davis said.
One aspect of what increasingly has become a feud between the White House and Starr concerns whether it is legitimate for each side to publicly attack the other.
Clinton advisers maintain it is inappropriate for Starr to make public statements about his investigation, as he did last year in a speech at conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Regent University, and as he did again yesterday.
Many conservatives, in the same fashion, were outraged when Clinton aide James Carville, with the tacit approval of the White House, launched a public campaign accusing Starr of bias and unethical tactics. In particular, Carville criticized Starr for taking large legal fees from the tobacco industry at the same time he is serving as a part-time prosecutor.
Mark J. Geragos, Susan McDougal's attorney, likewise attacked the prosecutor's motives. In comments to the Associated Press yesterday, he called Starr's comments "the height of hypocrisy from someone who parades around with his own license to lie."
Starr told the editors, according to an advance text that he made available to news organizations, that he thought because "Ruff and his allies have stated their views in public" on the notes controversy, it was "appropriate for me to say a word."
Asked yesterday if the dispute was becoming personal, Clinton said, "Well, not on my part.
"Perhaps on," Clinton said, halting in mid-sentence before continuing: "You know, you said he's the one that came out strongly.
I'm just over here doing my job in the Caribbean," he added, to applause from island officials in the audience.
Staff writer Peter Baker in Barbados contributed to this report.
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