WASHINGTON -- Striking back at a magazine article that accused him of illegal leaks to the press, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr fired off an irate 19-page letter yesterday, asserting that the author's "reckless and irresponsible attack borders on the libelous."
The letter signaled an extraordinary effort by the special prosecutor to control damage from what is widely regarded as a public relations blunder. In an article published in Brill's Content, a new magazine about the media, Starr acknowledged that he and his deputies had leaked information about the Monica Lewinsky investigation to reporters.
In the article, Steve Brill, the magazine's editor and publisher, characterized Starr's admitted activities as a violation of federal grand jury secrecy laws and Justice Department guidelines. Starr, however, has said that his leaks were not illegal because the information he disclosed was not part of grand jury proceedings.
Starr, in his third response to the Brill article in four days, said, "You challenge this office at a fundamental level -- alleging that we would commit crimes to uncover crime. I categorically and unequivocally reject the charge that this office has, in any way, violated any precept of law, policy or ethics."
Starr's effort to quiet the storm over his interview with Brill came as Clinton allies stepped up their attacks on the Whitewater independent counsel. Before Starr's letter was made public yesterday, President Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, wrote a three-page letter to Starr, accusing him of violating the law and ethics rules for federal prosecutors.
Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who is overseeing the Lewinsky grand jury, is expected to hold a hearing in early July to address a complaint filed by Kendall four months ago in which he accused Starr of illegal leaks and sought sanctions.
Brill, responding to Starr's letter in a statement, noted that Starr did not dispute "any of the quotes attributed by me to him." Brill pledged to publish the prosecutor's letter in his magazine's next issue.
He called on Starr to release records of his office's telephone calls and face-to-face conversations with reporters.
"Judge Starr might consider releasing all reporters from any pledges of confidentiality that were extracted by him and his deputies," Brill said.
In his 19-page letter -- seeming, in parts, like a legal brief -- Starr told Brill that his office avoids disclosures of information "sought from or provided by witnesses -- whether in the form of investigative interviews, grand jury appearances or documents provided to this office. We have not disclosed this information to the media, and your claim that I have admitted doing so is false."
But the independent counsel listed a number of "legal and policy issues" -- such as the staffing of his office and the timetable for his investigation -- that he said were appropriate for discussions with the news media. He insisted that all the disclosures have been not only legal, but "part and parcel" of the duties of a prosecutor.
And in a statement about the federal law that bars prosecutors from disclosing grand jury matters -- known as Rule 6(e) -- Starr made a claim that is disputed by some lawyers, including Kendall.
"Contrary to the view you adopted," Starr wrote to Brill, "Rule 6(e) does not encompass all facts that can somehow be associated with a grand jury investigation."
Kendall, in his letter yesterday, said the prosecutor's comments in the Brill article were "at breathtaking variance" with his previous public statements about his duties and actions.
The president's lawyer pointed out some of Starr's own words from letters and news conferences in which the prosecutor has said that leaks of information from his office would be "a firing offense" and "utterly intolerable."
"What is so astonishing about your comments in the Brill article," Kendall wrote, "is that they contradict not simply our view but your own frequently and publicly expressed views both about the need to put a stop to leaking and your own protestations about your and your own staff's utter innocence in that regard."
Kendall also said Starr's view of the grand jury secrecy law "is demonstrably not the governing law." He said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia -- on which Starr once served -- has stressed that Rule 6(e) "is to be given a broad meaning to encompass much more than simply what transpires within the four walls of the grand jury room."
In a point-by-point outline, Starr described what he said were 14 factual errors in the Brill article. In some instances, Starr said, Brill incorrectly identified Starr's office as the source of leaked information.
Starr suggested that others, such as White House officials, could have been the source.
"There are abundant sources of information outside the [Office of the Independent Counsel] available to the media," Starr wrote. He noted that the White House might leak damaging information about itself to blunt its effect, or to falsely accuse Starr's office of the leak "as part of an orchestrated public attack."
In one case, Starr denied Brill's assertion that Starr's office was the source of an article in the New York Times about Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.
The Times reported that Currie told investigators about presidential gifts she had retrieved from Lewinsky and how Clinton had gone over with Currie her own recollections of Lewinsky's visits to see him. But the article said Currie's grand jury testimony "remains a secret."
Brill reported in his article that "Starr acknowledges that he personally" had met with the Times reporters who wrote the February article, as did his deputy, Jackie Bennett.
In yesterday's letter, Starr wrote, "The article does not reveal matters occurring before the grand jury; nor did the information it contains come from the OIC."
Pub Date: 6/17/98