Gloves come off in Starr-Brill slugfest

The war of words escalates as independent counsel fires off a 19-page letter and the content editor shoots back.

Published June 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Last weekend, when Steven Brill, editor of the new media watchdog magazine Content, reported that independent counsel Kenneth Starr had admitted leaking information from his Monica Lewinsky investigation to favored reporters, there were gasps from the White House, growls from the journalists Brill had identified and a gathering sense that a fuse had been lit inside the independent counsel's office. The explosion came Tuesday as Starr lashed back, angrily accusing Brill of publishing an article that "borders on the libelous."

"You challenge this office at a fundamental level -- alleging that we would commit crimes to uncover crime," Starr wrote in a single-spaced, 19-page letter to Brill. "This challenge goes so deeply to the integrity of this investigation that it cannot go unanswered."

Dripping with indignation, Starr's letter disputed more than a dozen instances cited by Brill as examples of possible leaks to reporters by prosecutors in Starr's office. "I categorically and unequivocally reject the charge that this office has, in any way, violated any precept of law, policy or ethics," Starr wrote.

Brill fired back a few hours later with a statement that took note of the fact that Starr "does not dispute any of the quotes attributed by me to him." Referring to Starr's insistence that his background conversations with reporters were entirely proper, Brill added, "I am sure that Judge Starr sincerely believes in his view of the law -- just as I believe that other lawyers and judges have and will continue to disagree with him."

Then, addressing complaints from reporters who have challenged Brill's assertion that they were fed by Starr or his deputy, the magazine editor challenged Starr to release logs of the independent counsel's telephone calls and in-person conversations with reporters. "Also, assuming, as Judge Starr states in his letter, that there was no significance to these briefings having been done on background as opposed to on the record, Judge Starr might consider releasing all reporters from any pledges of confidentiality that were extracted by him and his deputies," Brill wrote.

David Kendall, President Clinton's personal lawyer, jumped into the fray earlier Tuesday in a letter to Starr pointing out the "breathtaking variance" between Starr's previous denials of leaks from the independent counsel's office and his quoted remarks in Brill's article. Quoting from a Feb. 6 letter Starr wrote to Kendall, the president's lawyer noted: "You stated 'leaks are utterly intolerable' (your words, not mine) and you went on to say, 'I have made the prohibition of leaks a principle priority of the office. It is a firing offense, as well as one that leads to criminal prosecution.'

"What is so astonishing about your comments in the Brill article," Kendall wrote, "is that they contradict ... 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."

In his letter to Brill, Starr rejected the accusation that his background briefings with reporters constituted illegal leaks and defended those conversations as legitimate attempts to keep the public informed about his investigations. He also said prosecutors were permitted to speak to the press to counter misinformation being spread about their investigation by the defense. In January, after Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, accused Starr's investigators of intimidating his client during her initial questioning, Starr said his office issued a press release and then spoke to Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt to dispel Ginsburg's claim that his investigators had violated Lewinksy's constitutional rights. "For you to characterize as a 'leak' material that was part of a public press release is simply wrong," Starr wrote.

Starr pointedly suggested that whatever leaks came out of the Lewinsky investigation originated from Clinton's camp. "It takes little imagination to divine that the strategies of gathering and leaking incriminating information could be used to maximum advantage ... particularly if the leaks were blamed falsely on the OIC as part of an orchestrated public attack," Starr wrote.

In his defense, Starr also quoted several of his favored journalists as denying they received information from the independent counsel's office. In his article, Brill quoted the Post's Schmidt as recalling that on Jan. 16, a few days after the Lewinsky story broke, she had "heard from sources in Starr's office something about Vernon Jordan and coaching a witness." Schmidt wrote to Brill Monday claiming, "I never said (what is attributed to me) and it is false. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never discuss my sources with anyone other than my editors. I did not receive information from anyone in Starr's office ... By claiming I have disclosed my sources to you, you have defamed me and damaged my reputation. I demand an immediate and public correction of this false assertion by you."

On Sunday, in a story by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, Schmidt also disputed another quote that Brill attributed to her, relating to a controversial Post story she wrote about former Secret Service agent Lewis Fox. In that story, Schmidt had quoted Fox as saying he saw President Clinton and Lewinsky meet alone in the Oval Office in 1995. In earlier newspaper accounts, Fox had been quoted as saying there was no way the president could have had sexual relations with Lewinsky without others noticing. Asked why she didn't press Fox on this point, Schmidt is quoted by Brill as saying, "I wasn't interested in his opinion ... Clinton testified that he was never alone with her, and this guy makes him a liar. Period."

"That is not the type of thing I would ever say, and I never said that to Mr. Brill," Schmidt told Kurtz.

Brill responded to Schmidt's denials in a letter that he released on Tuesday after sending it to her. "Dear Sue," it began collegially. "Thank you for your letter of June 15. I specifically remember your having made both the statements you now dispute. And my notes clearly reflect that. I should add that when Howard Kurtz first spoke to me on Saturday about your disputing the second quote, I specifically asked him if you had disputed the first Vernon Jordan quote, because I, too, thought it might be particularly embarrassing to you. And Howie specifically said you had not mentioned it. Similarly, in Howie's Sunday piece you get lots of space, but don't dispute the Vernon Jordan quote. I'm sorry you now feel you have to."

From the ferocity of the exchanges between Starr, Brill and reporters like Schmidt, it is clear that the months-long tensions in Washington are now boiling over. When the firefight ends, there will certainly be casualties on all sides, including the press, which has long considered itself above the fray.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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