Experts Deflate Dispute Over Blumenthal Lunch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 1999; Page A14
The increasingly bitter dispute between White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and British writer Christopher Hitchens is a cause celebre that has grabbed plenty of inside-the-Beltway media attention. But when the dust clears, does Blumenthal face a serious legal problem?
A number of legal and media experts say the controversy doesn't amount to much, although that could change if the Justice Department follows the request by a number of senators in both parties and begins an investigation. So far, the department has not contacted Blumenthal's attorney. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is not looking into the matter.
Blumenthal faces two problems stemming from the allegation that he told Hitchens last year that Monica S. Lewinsky was a "stalker" pursuing President Clinton. One is whether Hitchens's account sufficiently conflicts with Blumenthal's sworn Senate deposition to expose Blumenthal to a potential perjury charge. The other involves criticism that Blumenthal was part of a White House attack machine trying to help his boss discredit Lewinsky.
"It is difficult to create a scenario – but it is possible – in which what Blumenthal did was wrong," said Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer. "If you view it as an attempt by the president to smear the reputation of someone who may be a hostile witness to him, that would be wrong. But that takes supposition upon supposition. As a lawyer, that would be very hard to prove."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, put it this way: "He's going to go to jail for spin doctoring? If it's against the law for political aides and public officials in Washington to pass along self-serving information to try to get it into the press, I fear that two-thirds to three-quarters of the political community should be put in the slammer. It's a novel way of criminalizing interactions between reporters and sources."
In his videotaped deposition, Blumenthal reaffirmed that Clinton told him Lewinsky was a "stalker" on Jan. 21, 1998, the day the allegations of the president's affair with the former White House intern became public. But, Blumenthal said, "I never mentioned my conversation . . . I didn't mention it to my colleagues, I didn't mention it to my friends, I didn't mention it to my family, besides my wife."
Asked about specific news accounts that described Lewinsky as a stalker, Blumenthal said: "I have no idea how anything came to be attributed to a White House source." And, he explained, "I talked about Monica Lewinsky with all sorts of people, my mother, my friends, about what was in the news stories every day, just like everyone else, but when it came to talking about her personally, I drew a line."
Blumenthal's veracity was challenged when Hitchens, a longtime friend who writes for Vanity Fair and the Nation, gave House investigators an affidavit about their lunch at the Occidental Grill last March 19. Hitchens is one of the president's harshest critics in the press.
"Mr. Blumenthal stated that, Monica Lewinsky had been a 'stalker' and that the president was 'the victim' of a predatory and unstable sexually demanding young woman," Hitchens said. "Referring to Ms. Lewinsky, Mr. Blumenthal used the word 'stalker' several times."
Blumenthal initially said he couldn't recall the lunch, but a credit card receipt shows it took place. He and his attorney, William McDaniel, maintain there is no significant difference between the two accounts. "I don't think there's any basis whatsoever to bring a perjury charge," McDaniel said.
But McDaniel acknowledged that a subsequent affidavit from Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue, who also attended the lunch, directly contradicts Blumenthal. Blue recalled Blumenthal saying the president had told him Lewinsky was a stalker.
McDaniel and others have noted that before the lunch there were numerous references in the press to Lewinsky as a possible stalker. Lewinsky herself used the term on the tapes secretly recorded by Linda Tripp, as Newsweek reported when the story broke. On Jan. 25, 1998, The Washington Post said that on the tapes Lewinsky "acknowledges that she had become known around the White House as 'the Stalker' because she was always trying to get close to Clinton."
Blumenthal was "just talking about what's been in every newspaper in the country," McDaniel said. "He's not telling Hitchens a scoop; everyone in the world is talking about this."
Hitchens and Blue had been in California and were talking to Blumenthal for the first time since the scandal broke. Blumenthal, who brought two folders of material for Hitchens, also predicted that the popularity of another Clinton accuser, Kathleen Willey, would be dropping soon.
"What Sidney did was not at all unlawful," said Hitchens, who vows not to testify against his former friend. "For him to hear this story from the president and tell others as part of his job of defending the president would break no law." What's more, said Hitchens, "he knew me well enough to know that I would put an incredibly low value on a pro-Clinton interpretation. ... He can't have thought Hitchens will spread that around."
But Barbara Olson, a former prosecutor who was chief counsel to Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), said authorities should be investigating. "If President Clinton told Blumenthal about Monica being a stalker so it would get out there to scare her into not turning on him, that was part of the obstruction," she said. "When they're doing that to a witness in a criminal investigation, it's clearly sending signals. Was the lying under oath to protect someone who was lying under oath? It makes a mockery of our judicial system."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) told NBC that Hitchens's account "quite aggressively suggests [that] what Sidney Blumenthal said on the tape may be perjury."
Much of the dispute turns on just what Blumenthal, a former writer for the New Yorker, the New Republic and The Post, was trying to accomplish. Blumenthal says it is absurd to argue that he was trying to plant an anti-Lewinsky story because Hitchens, as a leading Clinton critic, would hardly be receptive. Hitchens says there were no journalistic ground rules because they were dining as old friends.
For him to be obstructing justice, Abrams said, "Blumenthal has to be doing it for the president and at the president's direction. ... It's an extraordinary reach to say that what on its face looks like a subordinate defending his superior who's in trouble . . . could constitute some kind of crime. If Blumenthal thought it was true, there's nothing wrong with his saying it."
Blumenthal has been a lightning rod for conservative critics who have blamed him, without evidence, for leaking information about the sex lives of Republicans. What's more, "Blumenthal is a former journalist whom other journalists don't look kindly on," Rosenstiel said.
Sanford Ungar, dean of American University's School of Communication, argued that "this is taking a high-powered microscope and looking at a minuscule dot on the landscape that has no profound significance. This is more interesting as a ruptured friendship than as some great, complex, institutional phenomenon."
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