WASHINGTON -- For three hours Thursday, prosecutors for independent counsel Kenneth Starr grilled senior White House aide Sidney Blumenthal about an alleged White House plot to obstruct his Whitewater investigation, insinuating it was ordered by President Clinton, refined by Hillary Rodham Clinton and implemented by a cadre of Clinton lawyers, their private investigators and Blumenthal's favorite reporters.
"They asked me if the president had ordered this," Blumenthal told Salon. "They asked me if Hillary Clinton had asked me to disseminate negative information about prosecutors. They asked me if I knew all these private eyes and if I had met with them and talked with them and whether the president's attorneys had given me information from the private eyes." In each instance, Blumenthal said, he replied, "Absolutely not."
Blumenthal's appearance before the grand jury investigating President Clinton's alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky opened up a new front in the probe as Starr seeks to halt growing public criticism of his investigation and the tactics he has employed. In explaining why he had subpoenaed Blumenthal and his telephone records, Starr told reporters that he suspected that the White House was behind "an avalanche of lies" designed to besmirch his investigation and his staff.
Starr's anger was sparked by a slew of unflattering stories that appeared in the media earlier this week about two of his prosecutors, Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick. On Tuesday, Salon reported that in 1988, Udolf, a former Georgia district attorney, was penalized $50,000 by a federal jury for violating the civil rights of a man whom Udolf held in jail for four days without a lawyer or bail hearing on a misdemeanor gun charge. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Los Angeles threw out a tax charge that Emmick, a former assistant U.S. attorney, had brought against a woman, ruling that his intent was "coercive" and "vindictive" and that he violated the due process clause of the Constitution.
The White House has pointed to these incidents to question the caliber of the people prosecuting the president. Clinton's supporters also have questioned Starr's decision to secretly tape-record Lewinsky and his attempt to make Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, testify against her daughter.
Under the law, witnesses in grand jury proceedings are free to reveal anything about the proceedings that they choose. An indignant Blumenthal, a former journalist, told reporters afterward, "I never imagined that in America I would be hauled before a federal grand jury to answer questions about my conversations with members of the media. But today I was forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job, with the New York Times, CNN, CBS, Time magazine, U.S. News, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Observer and there may have been a few others I don't remember right now."
Blumenthal added: "Ken Starr's prosecutors demanded to know what I told reporters and what reporters had told me about Ken Starr's prosecutors. If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed. And if any journalist here or elsewhere wants to talk to me, I'll be glad to talk to you."
Speaking to Salon afterward in a telephone interview, Blumenthal said Starr's chief prosecutors, Jackie Bennett and Robert Bittman, bore down on him, trying to show that Blumenthal had conspired with the president, the first lady, Clinton's lawyers, private investigators and reporters to tarnish the image of Starr's investigation.
Blumenthal said he was asked whether he knew any of the private investigators working for Clinton's legal team and whether they were the source of his information about Udolf and Emmick. "In the case of Udolf, I told them that the source of my information was a column about him that ran recently in the Atlanta Journal Constitution," Blumenthal said. The columnist, Martha Ezzard, said she never talked to anyone at the White House about this piece.
"In the case of Emmick, I told them a story had appeared in the Daily Journal of L.A., a legal journal, and that further information came from Stanley Sheinbaum. And they asked, 'Who's that?' And I said, 'He's the former commissioner of the LAPD.' After that, they never asked me to answer their earlier question about what was the dirt that I'm supposedly spreading. They totally backed down.
"But my favorite question came at the end," a clearly energized Blumenthal said. "It was, 'Do you have anything positive to say about Ken Starr?' My answer was: 'I don't recall.' So that's how it ended up. The entire Whitewater scandal comes down to a self-esteem problem."
While his style is more refined and intellectual, Blumenthal has matched former Clinton campaign manager James Carville in the ferocity of his defense of the president and first lady. He is known to believe that a cabal of right-wing Clinton opponents and journalists are working tirelessly to bring down the president, a conviction that has earned him in the media the nickname "Grassy Knoll" -- an allusion to the second-gunman conspiracy theory in the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Blumenthal dismisses the nickname as "childish nonsense for silly people in the press." He says he gets his pugnacity from his father, Hy Blumenthal, who used to drop by neo-Nazi Bund gatherings in Chicago during the late 1930s with a lead pipe. "I play by Chicago rules," he says proudly. "You come after me with a knife, I come after you with a gun. You come after me with a gun, I come after you with howitzer."
There was an ironic historical footnote to this bizarre legal proceeding. Bittman, Starr's chief prosecutor, is the son of William Bittman, a Republican lawyer who served as President Richard Nixon's bag man in delivering hush money to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. On Tuesday, prosecutors questioned Terry Lenzner, a private detective working for Clinton's lawyers. During the Watergate hearings, Lenzner was the Senate counsel who dealt with the hush money matter, which resulted in the elder Bittman being fired from his Washington firm.
"They asked me if I knew Terry Lenzner," Blumenthal recalled. "I said I had never met him before we met in the hallway outside the grand jury room on Tuesday.
"They were trying to prove a big plot -- that the president's attorneys worked with the private eyes and gave me this stuff on the prosecutors and I was disseminating it," Blumenthal said. "They were trying to prove that I hatched the whole thing with the first lady and that maybe even the president was ordering it. I don't think they got very far with that theory."
Asked if he will have to return to give more testimony before the grand jury, Blumenthal replied, "Who knows? Maybe they want to prosecute me for obstructing justice because I can't recall saying anything nice about Ken Starr. Now there's a crime."