An affidavit by an aide to former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr suggests that Starr's office may have facilitated the leak of one of Linda Tripp's surreptitious tape recordings to Newsweek magazine.

At a midnight meeting at a Howard Johnson's on Friday, Jan. 16, 1998, two Starr deputies gave Tripp's lawyer a copy of one of the tapes she had made of her conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky. Within an hour the attorney, James Moody, handed the tape to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, a day before the magazine had to decide whether to publish the story that would make public the Lewinsky scandal.

The Starr deputies, Jackie Bennett Jr. and Bruce Udolf, knew that Isikoff had been pressing Moody for a copy of the Tripp tapes, according to the affidavit by Starr aide Stephen Bates. Bates's account was filed in Howard County as part of the wiretapping case against Tripp brought by Maryland prosecutors. The affidavit's contents were first reported by the Baltimore Sun yesterday.

At the White House, which has long accused Starr of improper leaking, spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday that "the mysterious midnight rendezvous at HoJo's raises important questions that deserve to be answered."

Deputy independent counsel Edward J. Page noted that his office had "attempted to persuade Isikoff not to run the story that he was working on." He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing Maryland case.

The leak to Newsweek came at a crucial point in the unfolding drama. That day, Starr's office had confronted Lewinsky about her sexual relationship with President Clinton; the next day, Jan. 17, the president was to be questioned under oath about his sexual activities by attorneys for Paula Jones.

After Isikoff played the Tripp tape for his editors, Newsweek held the story on Jan. 17. But its contents were quickly reported by Internet columnist Matt Drudge.

In his affidavit, Bates said Moody had given him 16 Tripp tapes in a meeting on the afternoon of Jan. 16 and had said that one tape--from Dec. 22, 1997--"would especially interest" the prosecutors. Moody had not kept copies of the tapes and asked for copies of transcripts as soon as Starr's office made them, Bates said.

Bates said Moody also told him that he "had received many messages from Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, who said that Mr. Moody ought to call him because he was preparing an article highly damaging to Ms. Tripp."

Some attorneys say it is not unusual for prosecutors to obtain evidence from a cooperating witness by agreeing to hand back copies, rather than waiting to obtain a grand jury subpoena in a time-sensitive investigation.

In the prepublication galleys of his book "Uncovering Clinton," Isikoff said that "about 12:30 a.m."--or shortly after Moody received the tape from Starr's deputies--"Jim Moody showed up at Newsweek's Washington bureau with one of the tapes." In the published version, however, Isikoff wrote that Moody had come "late that afternoon, Linda Tripp later testified."

But the time change was apparently an editing error; Newsweek had already reported that Moody had come at 12:30 a.m. Isikoff said the revised attribution to Tripp's testimony was made "to make it clear I was referring to information that was already a matter of public record."