In a two-story Colonial on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in the quiet, planned community of Columbia late on a chilly Monday afternoon, a woman reached for a telephone. She was probably smoking a cigarette. She often smokes when she is nervous. It was raining, a sullen drizzle. She punched 202-514-8688, the switchboard number of the independent counsel investigating the entanglements collectively known as Whitewater.

The woman said her name was Linda Tripp, and that she worked in the Pentagon, and that she had some information in which the counsel might be interested. It involved the president of the United States, and a young woman, and sex, and important people were pressuring other people to lie, and there were tapes.

It was dusk, Jan. 12, 1998, the point from which there could be no turning back.

If President Clinton falls, it will be Linda Tripp who largely made it happen. She coolly trapped her young friend Monica Lewinsky into describing, on tape, in occasionally crude detail, what Lewinsky had denied under oath and was evidently prepared to continue denying: that she had a sexual affair with the president. Tripp then carried this information to attorneys representing Paula Corbin Jones and then to investigators for independent counsel Kenneth Starr, effectively baiting a second trap. Armed with Tripp's information, which had still not surfaced publicly, lawyers for the Arkansas woman suing the president for sexual harassment were able to ambush Clinton, obtaining an unambiguous denial, under oath, of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

The president's statement -- and the larger question of a possible coverup -- are now part of a criminal investigation by the independent counsel.

Who is Linda Rose Tripp, and why did she do what she did?

The truth about Tripp is complicated, and much of it is still unknown. She is not talking. This account is based on more than 50 interviews with Tripp's friends, associates, lawyers, neighbors and other participants in the ongoing drama. The portrait of Tripp that emerges can be understood as part of a story of Washington, a place largely run by career civil servants, faceless thousands who outlast their politically appointed bosses, who are often undervalued and misused, who daily see and hear secrets they are expected, as loyal foot soldiers, to protect.

Tripp, 48, was a smart and skillful worker, older than many of her colleagues and her bosses, cannier than most of them, working at jobs that were often beneath her abilities, with a chip on her shoulder that may date to her childhood as an ungainly adolescent teased about her size. She was wounded by a marriage that friends say squashed her chance for a formidable career and then dissolved much as her own parents' had: in loveless acrimony. She is, according to friends and associates, a moralist but not a prig. She is conservative but not political. She is nurturing to people she likes, cold and contemptuous to those she does not. She is not known for her tact, but can be diplomatic when it suits her purpose. She is often judgmental but seldom cruel. She can be manipulative and aggressive about advancing her own interests. She is self-aggrandizing but oddly shy, arrogant but not pompous. She'll laugh at herself. She is a good mother, a bad dresser, a coddler of animals. She is daring but not impulsive. When she makes a decision, it is often after long and careful planning.

What brought her to that telephone on a January night in 1998 was a series of events, many beyond her control, that began in 1990. There were seven crucial steps. One led to another. In the end, she acted with cunning self-interest, but the end was at no point inevitable or even foreseeable. Each step is dependent on the one that preceded it. Eliminate any one and the ultimate event cannot occur.

Sometimes, Washington resembles a Ouija board. Many hands are laid upon a moving, slippery planchette. There is tugging and pushing, and then the mysteries of vector physics take over. Inexorably the pointer assumes a life of its own, heading in directions no one planned. It looks like the hand of God. But it is just a bunch of people, fighting for control.

In the days after the scandal broke, Tripp's public image was reduced, cartoonishly, to a single six-second TV film clip: a large, broad-shouldered woman with unfortunate hair, trudging disconsolately from her front door to her car. Here she is again, in slo-mo. Here the angle is a little different; there were multiple camera crews camped on her lawn. The 30-foot walk turned out to be her final public appearance before she disappeared from view into what was colorfully reported to be an FBI "safe house," but was actually a series of hotel rooms. She has been spotted in one hotel gym, wearing a black wig. The hair has been coiffed as part of a sweeping make-over.

In her absence, the media did what they could. Reporters fanned out to interview everyone who ever knew Tripp. No fact was too trivial, no opinion too reckless or absurd. Her son once teased a neighbor's child. She could be darned demanding, said a service station attendant near her house. A neighbor down the street said she was grumpy and standoffish. A neighbor next door found her uncommonly friendly. Anonymous co-workers described her, variously, as a consummate professional, a trusted colleague, a warm and caring confidante, a shrewd operator, a shrew, a sanctimonious prude, an embittered quisling, a greedy mercenary, a hit man, a spy, a witch.

"She was a strong, solid friend -- all she cared about was good government," said one former co-worker.

"I avoided her like the plague," said another colleague. "She was such a horrible human being."

Mary Worth or Broom Hilda. Take your pick. A cartoon either way.

The dueling portraiture is not surprising. Tripp has emerged as an instrument of political vengeance, or of political comeuppance, depending on which side you are on. Opinions are likely to be strong, without nuance and, sometimes, nakedly partisan.

Much of what has been aired and published about Linda Tripp has been accurate; some has not. The mistakes are both trivial and substantial. Her dog is a golden retriever, not a Labrador. (Its name, for the record, is Cleo.) Tripp's father did not abandon the family, as was widely reported; there was a divorce, but according to Tripp's mother he stayed in touch and remained financially responsible. When Tripp was transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, she went to a new job for which she was neither unqualified nor overpaid -- as has been alleged by some detractors who saw it as a payoff for her silence. She was undeniably good at her job, with a string of laudatory evaluations, and her Pentagon salary was in line with those of others who did similar work. Also, it appears she simply didn't know much that the White House considered damaging.

She is extraordinarily complicated. People who like her tend to love her. One former colleague discovered that she can be a terrific, loyal friend.

In 1996, while he was detailed to Tripp's Pentagon office as a uniformed member of the armed services, the colleague blurted out that he was gay. Telling her was a violation of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It could have cost him his job.

"We were on a plane, and she was asking me what I was going to do after I retired, and answering her just got too complicated," he said. "I wanted to stay in D.C. because my partner was there. I had a gut feeling I could trust her, so I told her that. She said, So what?' She was extremely accepting of this, and never, ever divulged it to anyone."

Eventually, of course, she would betray another friend in a spectacularly public fashion.

She grew up in an ordinary house on Adams Drive in Whippany, N.J., 30 miles from New York City. Whippany was built around a paper mill and later was home to Bell Labs during the years when ballistic missile guidance systems were designed there. Whippany dads walked around with slide rules bouncing on their hips. The moms did not work.

Linda Tripp's mother answers the door, welcomes you in politely, then informs you, in no uncertain terms, that she will say nothing because Linda has asked her not to. Inge Carotenuto has a light German accent: She was a German national when she met and married Linda's father, Albert Carotenuto, in Frankfurt in 1948. She is unshakable in her silence -- gracious, smiling, obstinate, firmly in control. She is Linda's mom.

Like all senior class yearbooks, the Hanover Park Pathways mythologizes the seniors. Most students' photos are in the books several times, first their official portraits, and then in pages on clubs and societies, receiving awards, mugging for the camera. Not Linda Carotenuto. She has the one obligatory portrait, period. She is not Most Likely to Succeed, Best Dressed, Most Athletic, Most Scientific, Class Individualist, Class Wit, Class Daydreamer, Senior with the Nicest Smile, or Most Popular. That last award went to Leslie Ann Skurla, the knockout blonde with whom Linda often hung out. Girls like Linda sometimes hang out with girls like Leslie.

"She was just there," says Skurla, laughing. "The girl you sort of remember from home ec class." Skurla is a dentist in Whippany, one of a few women of the Class of '68 who stuck around. Whippany wasn't a great place for young women who wanted careers. "It was the last year of the Beaver Cleaver era," says Skurla. "As a woman you could be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher. I became a dental hygienist. I was 27 when I went to dental school. Linda took the business route."

Skurla likes and respects Tripp: "People don't push her around. Maybe it is the German in her." She speculates that whatever Tripp did, she did because of moral outrage. In the days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, Tripp's old high school friends -- whom she kept in touch with through reunions -- formed a protective knot. When others elsewhere were savaging Tripp, the high school friends offered the media compliments and platitudes. Reporters asked about Linda's nickname, "Gus," mentioned in the yearbook, but no one was talking.

The nickname was a humiliating put-down. Gus was a reference to Gus Johnson, a big NBA basketball star. Linda was 5 feet 10 and solidly built. She hated cameras. She wanted to blend in, and disappear, according to several high school classmates. She wanted to be petite. She loathed the nickname Gus. Her social life consisted of weekend sleepovers with girlfriends. She was a good and loyal friend, part of a group, ingratiating, perhaps a little oversensitive to slights.

"Linda was savvy," says Skurla. "In any situation she could scope out how things were, a sixth sense of what is going on around her."

The final line of Linda's yearbook entry lists her pet peeve: "A certain fair-weather friend." The irony has not passed unnoticed. The press pounced, pursuing it with vigor. No answer has emerged.

"Wouldn't you know," laughed Inge Carotenuto in a brief telephone interview, "that a comment like that could haunt you the rest of your life?"

During Linda's senior year, her mother divorced her father, who was a local high school math and science teacher; divorces in Whippany were rare. Linda never spoke of it to her friends. One day her father was home, and one day he was not, and that was that.

The divorce is the one thing Linda's mother will speak about, and even then she is guarded: "Any marriage that appears normal and happy, in general terms, when it breaks up, it deeply affects the children."

But the repercussions, in this case, may have been singular. Linda was never close to her father; their relationship was testy at best. According to an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, he was a philanderer who carried on a public affair with a fellow teacher, humiliating Linda. She developed an intense distaste for marital infidelity.

She also ran into some trouble. In May 1969, a year after graduating from high school, she was arrested for grand larceny in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. Police found stolen goods -- watches and cash -- in her possession, according to authorities in Greenwood Lake. The disposition of the case remains unclear, although Tripp's current lawyer, James Moody, says Tripp was "set up" by acquaintances and that criminal charges were dropped. A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that the Defense Department will investigate whether Tripp lied on a security clearance form in 1987 in failing to disclose the incident, which was first reported in the New Yorker.

Tripp ultimately peeled out for secretarial school. And then, suddenly, news came back that Linda, who never had a boyfriend, who never had a date, was married.

Linda Tripp's ex-husband, with whom she lived for two decades, lives in a homely town house in Columbia, the digs of a divorced man.

There are picture windows, but they might as well be bricked up. The curtains are perpetually drawn these days; not a sliver of light comes through. When Lt. Col. Bruce Tripp, U.S. Army retired, comes to the door, the first thing you notice is his size. He is 5 feet 6, four inches shorter than Linda, 20 pounds lighter: a small, spare man with a sour smile. The sour smile is understandable. "You are the 75th person to come here," he says, executes a crisp about-face, and slams the door.

Not much is publicly known about the 20 years Linda spent with Bruce Tripp. Tripp's resume reveals only that she took a series of secretarial jobs in support of her husband's career. There was a long string of assignments, in Germany and elsewhere. Linda got a top-secret security clearance. At one point, according to her resume, she was doing secretarial work for Delta Force, the super-secret counterterrorist unit that does not, officially, exist. There were two children. Daughter Allison is now 19; son Ryan is 22.

In 1990, the Tripps' marriage came undone. They separated and the divorce would be final two years later. By then, Linda had embarked on a new life, one that would lead her, ultimately, through the seven distinct steps, to the sort of spotlight in which she was never at ease. Step 1: Falling in Love (With the Bush White House)

At the most emotionally vulnerable point in her life, as her marriage disintegrated, Tripp got the job of her life. It was April 1990 when she joined the Bush White House. Ellen Strichartz, a neighbor who worked as a White House correspondence analyst, had sponsored her. Tripp started as a "floater," filling in answering phones or taking dictation whenever there was a secretarial vacancy.

Tripp had worked mostly for the military, in austere operations that were high in discipline and rigor but low in pomp and stature. This changed. Her 32-month tenure in the Bush White House was a bath in power and privilege and prestige. She revered President Bush, according to friends, more out of an appreciation for his personal style than because of political ardor.

After years as a government secretary, Linda Tripp had reached the pinnacle. She was doing significant support work for important people in the hallowed halls of the world's most famous residence. The top of the world. Step 2: Enter the Philistines

When Clinton replaced Bush in early 1993, Tripp was kept on.

Her holdover was not that unusual. She was, at the time, a low-level career employee without political affiliation.

Tripp's friend and literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, would later say that Tripp was appalled at what she saw in the Clinton White House: the messy, unkempt nature of certain members of the staff, the lack of reverence for the institution itself. Jeans. Walkmans. Dirty hair.

But more serious matters bothered her, too. Her friend Strichartz lost her job in a purge of White House employees fired to make way for Clinton supporters. If dependable career people like Strichartz could go, who was safe?

People who worked with Tripp in the Clinton White House remember her more harshly than Bush White House people do. Some of it may be partisan; some of it may reflect her growing disenchantment.

If she was disenchanted, it didn't appear to affect her performance. By 1993, she had become special assistant to the counsel to the president, with a salary of $47,920. She sat outside the offices of White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and deputy counsel Vincent Foster, the men who dealt with the White House's most sensitive internal matters.

Nussbaum had asked for her personally: "As you know, considering the extremely sensitive matters the White House Counsel's office handles on a daily basis, I desperately need a substantive, savvy and experienced professional to play a leading role on my support staff," he wrote in a June 1993 memo. "Linda Tripp meets this need. She has proven to be a valuable addition to my staff."

She was at the seat of power, though quietly disaffected with the Clinton White House. But she was a long way from posing any threat to the president of the United States. Step 3: An Office Tragedy

Tripp served Vince Foster his last meal -- a cheeseburger with some M&M's she scooped up and put on his lunch tray -- and, by her account to investigators, she was deeply shaken by his suicide on July 20, 1993.

It fed her growing disaffection. A person who'd talked to Tripp about the suicide said Tripp felt that Clinton officials acted as though they had a lot to hide: rifling Foster's office, looking for God-knows-what. The whole thing seemed disrespectful to her, almost sordid.

Vince Foster's suicide also led to Tripp's fateful first contact with Lucianne Goldberg in early 1994. Goldberg was looking for sources for a possible book about Foster's death, and a mutual friend, conservative commentator Tony Snow, said he knew the woman who served Foster his last meal. Snow and Tripp worked together at the Bush White House. But Tripp did not want to be a source and she did not propose a book of her own, Goldberg told The Washington Post.

When Nussbaum left the White House and was replaced by Lloyd Cutler, Tripp and a friend, White House volunteer Kathleen Willey, went to Cutler and boldly proposed that they be his secretarial team. Cutler turned them down. He found Tripp abrasive and overbearing, and preferred his own secretary. Soon Tripp would be looking for work elsewhere.

She did not want to leave the White House. And a certain bitterness lingered. To Tripp, the White House had become a place were loyal people were canned, where good people died and bad people picked at their bones. Step 4: A Military Maneuver

The next major step for Linda Tripp was her move from the White House to a good job at the Pentagon in August 1994 as a public affairs officer. Much has been made of this: Was she being paid off for being silent about what she knew of Foster's death? How did Tripp, a White House civil servant making $47,000 a year, end up as a Clinton administration political appointee eventually making $88,000 at the Pentagon?

On closer examination, the mystery seems a little less mysterious.

Tripp's salary jumped to $69,000 when she joined the Pentagon, but a Defense Department official said her pay and subsequent raises were "completely comparable" to those of employees who have similar jobs and backgrounds. Salary records of another employee with a comparable job and background prove the point: Her pay and raises parallel Tripp's.

As for buying her silence, the available evidence suggests there wasn't much to be bought.

Linda Tripp appears not to have known much that was particularly damaging to the Clinton administration. Senate investigators discovered this when they probed the death of Foster in 1995.

If Tripp was not yet a major source of damaging White House information by 1995, the Foster-Whitewater hearings may have provided impetus in that direction.

One of the few people in a position to know Tripp's state of mind during this period is Maggie Gallagher, a conservative columnist who was to be her ghostwriter on a book. Gallagher believes that the sworn testimony Tripp gave about Foster's death heightened an internal conflict between her loyalty to her government employer and her desire to talk about the negative things she saw at the Clinton White House.

"She felt public officials who she worked with personally were lying to the public," Gallagher said in an interview. "She wanted to set the record straight about what she saw."

It was a bad time. Tripp gained a great deal of weight, and was putting herself down over it, according to one close friend. She was becoming an angry woman who wanted to blow the whistle. Step 5: A Book of Her Own

In July 1996, "Unlimited Access," a book about the Clinton White House by retired FBI agent Gary Aldrich, appeared with a maelstrom of publicity, much of it negative. Aldrich told tales of a slackly run White House populated with staffers of questionable backgrounds and motives, a vindictive first lady and a president who stole off for trysts at a downtown hotel. The tryst allegation was never substantiated.

Tripp has been widely rumored as a source for Aldrich and other conservative authors attacking the Clintons. But the available evidence suggests that she was not.

"I wish she had been a source of mine," Aldrich says. Tripp at the time possessed one bombshell that she almost certainly would have told Aldrich, had she been his source. But it does not appear in the book: On Nov. 29, 1993, Kathleen Willey told Tripp that the president had just made a pass at her inside the Oval Office.

Tripp thought Aldrich had gotten one or two things wrong but had gotten a lot of things right, according to Gallagher. His book prompted Tripp to consider writing a book of her own.

She called Lucianne Goldberg in the summer of 1996 and proposed "a factual account" of her life and work under Bush and Clinton. Tripp and Goldberg proceeded with cloak-and-dagger secrecy, pitching the idea based on a few notes of Tripp's to an executive for Regnery Publishing, Aldrich's publisher. But Regnery wasn't interested enough to make an offer.

Goldberg then linked Tripp up with Gallagher, a nationally syndicated conservative columnist, to produce a proposal that could be offered to New York publishers.

Citing a confidentiality agreement, Gallagher refused to discuss the exact details of Tripp's book proposal. But in extensive interviews with The Post, she outlined Tripp's motivation.

Gallagher interviewed Tripp for 20 hours by telephone. Then the ghostwriter started putting Tripp's recollections down on paper, using a first-person voice and coming up with chapter titles such as "The President's Women." Tripp was finally willing to go semi-public with the Kathleen Willey story. Goldberg said the "President's Women" chapter includes descriptions of the president's relations with two pseudonymous women, one of whom appears to be a stand-in for Willey.

But Tripp soon dropped the book project. She would later say she didn't like how Gallagher was writing it, but Gallagher says Tripp simply got scared of losing her job.

"When she told me she couldn't go through with this book, I told her, If you don't do this, you're going to regret it for the rest of your life.' And she said, I know.' " Step 6: Monica

Almost immediately after killing the book idea in August 1996, Tripp started hearing Monica Lewinsky's stories about sex with President Clinton, fodder for the book of the decade. But Tripp kept Lewinsky's confidence for more than a year.

Many have speculated about the suspicious coincidence that Tripp met Monica Lewinsky when Lewinsky was moved out of the White House, and into the Pentagon, in 1996. The two women worked on different floors, and they were a generation apart in age. But their similarities drew them together.

Both were disgruntled White House outcasts adrift in the Pentagon, two loud, sometimes brassy women in a world of button-down, salute-your-superiors bureaucrats.

And Linda Tripp had always been a magnet for young female interns like Monica Lewinsky.

"Young interns who were away from their families, who needed advice, sought her out," says one former associate of Tripp's who considers her a friend. "Interns would sit next to her at the computer, and spill out their troubles with boyfriends or parents, and Linda would continue to work, and say, Uh huh, uh huh.' She was very motherly." One intern asked Linda to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. "Linda couldn't believe it! A bridesmaid, at her age! She did it. She was in the wedding party."

Lewinsky was no longer an intern. But she was young and had boy problems. And she wanted to talk. Step 7: Linda Tripp Is Not to be Believed'

The final step that would lead Tripp to tape Monica Lewinsky came through the most circuitous of routes. The full story depicts a nervous Linda Tripp slowly and reluctantly pulled into a media storm that was not, at least initially, of her own making.

In January 1997, Joseph Cammarata, one of the lawyers for Paula Jones, gave Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff a vague tip about an alleged sexual incident between Clinton and a female staffer in the White House. Isikoff had no name but he knew that the woman's husband had committed suicide.

On his own, Isikoff found the woman's name, Kathleen Willey, and went to see her. Tripp would later say that Willey gave Tripp's name to Isikoff as someone who could back up Willey's story that Clinton had sexually harassed her.

In March 1997, Isikoff surprised Tripp at her desk in the Pentagon. They chatted in a nearby courtyard, while Tripp smoked cigarettes. Isikoff describes Tripp as wary and very reluctant to talk.

Isikoff contacted Tripp again in July. That same month, Tripp had a conversation about Willey with Bruce Lindsey, the president's closest adviser, who had handled previous allegations about women and Clinton. What they talked about remains a mystery.

James Moody, Tripp's attorney, said Tripp was seeking Lindsey's advice on how to deal with Isikoff, an indication that she was trying to protect the president at the time. "That's the reason Linda called -- for guidance," Moody said. "What to do." Lindsey declined to comment for this article.

Isikoff eventually persuaded Tripp to go on the record about the Willey incident. Tripp said the lipstick-smeared Willey was "flustered, happy and joyful" after the encounter. Tripp added that she agreed to speak "to make it clear" there was no sexual harassment by Clinton.

As the Newsweek story neared publication, Tripp got nervous about her statement and turned to her lawyer, Kirby Behre, who asked Isikoff to delete Tripp's name from the story. By then it was too late. Tripp was on the record. She was going in. If Isikoff had honored Behre's request, the whole thing might have stopped right there.

Tripp was right to worry. In the published story, she is left hanging: She is on the record describing the Willey incident, while Willey -- the person who Tripp says led Isikoff to her -- is not; a lawyer responds for Willey with an vague statement about how "outraged" Willey is to be drawn into the matter.

In the Newsweek story, Robert Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones lawsuit, went after Tripp: "Linda Tripp is not to be believed."

Everyone has hot buttons. Tripp was infuriated at having her honesty called into question.

The story and its aftermath was a disaster for Tripp, who was apparently trying to walk a thin line: asserting that she was telling the truth while apparently trying to protect the president. But she ended up painting Clinton as a lecher.

How could Tripp, a bureaucrat accustomed to dealing with the media, make such a mistake? Maggie Gallagher refers back to Linda Tripp's ongoing internal conflict over what to do about what she knew.

Perhaps she was like a cat burglar who carelessly leaves a clue at the scene of a crime. Sometimes it's not carelessness but a cry for help. Linda Tripp wanted to talk. "She wanted to be made to come forward," Gallagher said.

The rest of the Linda Tripp saga is a complex and confusing endgame with several unresolved mysteries.

In the version put forth by those people closest to Tripp, the events of the last few months were chaotic, following no set plan. Tripp, for the first time, went on the offensive. She became a provocateur: a source for Newsweek, a witness for the Jones lawyers and, in the end, a gold mine for federal investigators. It all came together that second week in January. It appeared to be well orchestrated, but Tripp's friends say it wasn't.

"It was all very formless," Lucianne Goldberg told The Post last week. "We didn't know where it was going, what was going to happen."

To Tripp's opponents, it all smacks of a well-oiled right-wing conspiracy involving lawyers for Paula Jones, prosecutors for Kenneth Starr, and Goldberg, a well-known adversary of Clinton and the Democrats.

Was a scared woman trying to spread information to protect herself? Were conservative forces marshaling and plotting to fell the president? The final verdict is not yet in.

But the known facts suggest a more twisted, complicated, haphazard process. Here is what is known so far:

After the Newsweek article appeared in August, Linda Tripp called Goldberg. They had not spoken in months. Tripp told Goldberg about Lewinsky. Tripp said she was afraid the Willey incident would drag her into the Paula Jones lawsuit, where she would be forced to testify about Lewinsky. The White House had spanked her over Willey; they would destroy her over Lewinsky.

"She was in a state," Goldberg said. "She was alone. She had these two children. Who of us can say what we would do under those circumstances?"

Goldberg and Tripp mulled the possibility of a book, Goldberg said. But their primary goal, Goldberg said, was to safeguard Tripp.

"I think that was the main thing that was driving her," Goldberg said. "To get this out as a story and protect herself by going public."

At the same time she was consulting with Goldberg, Tripp continued to talk with Isikoff. She told the Newsweek reporter there was a former staffer in the White House having an affair with the president. But she withheld the name.

In late September, Goldberg told Tripp she needed to get tapes of Monica Lewinsky to convince Isikoff that she was telling the truth.

"It took her a while to get used to the idea," said Goldberg. "She didn't want to do it. She was very uncomfortable with it."

Around this time, someone was trying to spread the story in a different direction. An anonymous woman reportedly called the Rutherford Institute, the underwriter of the Paula Jones legal team, and suggested that the organization look into "a woman named Monica."

Goldberg emphatically denies making the call. She said she wanted an exclusive story on Lewinsky in Newsweek; she and Tripp had been talking with Isikoff for "weeks and weeks and weeks" and felt they had a rapport with him, Goldberg said.

So who made the call? Did Tripp?

Tripp did eventually start talking to the Jones lawyers. But at first she refused to tell them about Lewinsky, a source close to Jones said. Why would she drop a dime to Rutherford and then play coy?

As the conversations between the Jones attorneys and Tripp continued, a reluctant Tripp, after much prodding and prying, finally revealed what she knew about Lewinsky. Tripp eventually told them of the tapes -- and she recounted quotes that Lewinsky made on them, the source said.

In mid-December, the legal machinery cranked up a notch.

On Dec. 19, Lewinsky got her subpoena from the Jones lawyers. She would be asked about sex with the president, and deny it.

Sometime after mid-December -- exactly when is not yet clear -- Tripp and Goldberg realized that Maryland law does not allow someone to secretly tape another person. It is not clear whether Tripp made any tapes on her own after learning such taping was illegal.

"It never occurred to either of us that they wouldn't be completely legal," Goldberg said. "She had a lawyer, Kirby Behre, who really scared her about those tapes. Got her very nervous about having made them."

Tripp apparently lost confidence in Behre. Using her network of conservative legal contacts, Goldberg helped Tripp find a new lawyer, James Moody. Tripp called Moody on Jan. 9. Moody advised her to go to Kenneth Starr.

"Her concern was retaliation," Moody said. "A preemptive strike, if you will. It was important to get this investigation launched quickly, to get whatever whistleblower protection we could get out of federal law."

It was Jan. 12. Tripp reached for the phone. CAPTION: Linda Tripp at the Pentagon with Monica Lewinsky, whose friendship she would later betray. Below, Tripp leaves her home in Columbia, besieged by reporters. CAPTION: THE MANY FACES OF LINDA TRIPP: Counterclockwise from top: the newly made-over Linda Tripp; "Gus," as her classmates called her, in a high school yearbook photo; facing and fleeing the media at her Columbia home after the Lewinsky story broke; and testifying before the Senate Whitewater committee in 1995. CAPTION: THE PLAYERS: Clockwise from top left: Newsweek's Michael Isikoff; columnist Maggie Gallagher, who was to be Tripp's ghostwriter; retired FBI agent Gary Aldrich, who says Tripp was not a source for his book; and Tripp's confidante and literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg. Below, a 1993 memo from former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum calling Tripp "a valuable addition to my staff," and a 1997 Pentagon job evaluation rating Tripp as "superior."