Salon Exclusive: Starr vs. Tripp

The inside story of how there came to be so many copies of the Monica Lewinsky tapes.

Published September 25, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's all just a misunderstanding, say the friends of Linda Tripp.

It's all just a misunderstanding, says Kenneth Starr, according, again, to the friends of Linda Tripp. (Starr himself is not yet talking.)

Whatever the truth, the big hubbub this week over another few lines in the special prosecutor's report left another dent in Kenneth Starr's sagging credibility -- this time with the right wing.

Neither of the two principals -- Starr and Tripp -- are saying anything publicly, but as usual, their spinners were at work Thursday trying to un-spin the little whirlwind that gave rise to speculation that the special Whitewater prosecutor had turned on his star witness, Linda Tripp, the former friend of Monica Lewinsky.

It all began with a footnote. At the bottom of a page in the special prosecutor's report to Congress was a little zinger that lifted editorial eyebrows all over Washington: Of Tripp's 17 tapes of Lewinsky's confessions, nine "exhibit signs of duplication" or may have been altered, the report said. If Linda Tripp "knew of their duplication," the footnote went on, "then she has lied under oath before the grand jury."

And then, ominously: "The [Office of Independent Counsel] continues to investigate this matter." Tripp is also facing an investigation in Maryland into whether she taped Lewinsky in violation of state laws.

News that the indomitable Starr was now investigating Tripp buoyed friends of the embattled president, who are quick to add their own denunciations of the onetime White House secretary who's been portrayed as a very low creature indeed -- an embittered ideologue and snitch who stabbed her young friend in the back.

But there may be less to Starr's "investigation" of tape-tampering than meets the eye, according to insiders involved in Trippgate. According to one Tripp friend, so many copies of the tapes were made by Tripp's lawyers that Tripp herself lost track of them. And she never lied about that to Starr, who for reasons known only to himself failed to include Tripp's full explanation of the tapes in his report.

"Linda's a real techno-spaz," says New York literary agent-turned anti-Clinton crusader Lucianne Goldberg, who set the sex scandal in motion last December when she delivered two of her friend's first tapes to the special prosecutor. "She didn't even label these things. She didn't know anything about taping. She just made these things and flipped them into baskets and drawers. At one point she found one in her bread box and one in the valance of her drapes. I mean, she's a real basket case."

Tripp gave tapes to her various lawyers, who made an unknown number of copies that to this day remain unaccounted for, Goldberg says. And that's where the trouble with the tapes began -- and continues -- according to Goldberg: with the lawyers.

Tripp's first lawyer was Kirby Behr, who Goldberg said had a "hissy fit" when another lawyer showed up in his office last January, announced he was Tripp's new counsel and demanded the tapes. "He ran around the office screaming and said, 'How do I know you're not a criminal?' and 'Your client is a wack-job' and 'You cannot have the tapes because' -- get this -- 'we're not through transcribing them,'" Goldberg said.

Behr could not be reached for comment by Salon late Thursday, but he told the Washington Times Wednesday, "I did not copy any of the tapes that were in my possession, and I'm not aware of any copies being made by anyone, anywhere, at any time."

Tripp fired Behr because he was a friend of former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who had recommended Behr to her, Goldberg said. "That made Linda very uncomfortable." But the end came when Tripp showed up at Behr's office with a tape of Lewinsky implicating President Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan in the affair.

"Behr went ballistic and said, 'I'm calling Bob Bennett right now,'" Goldberg recalled. Bennett was -- and still is -- Clinton's personal lawyer. Tripp, according to Goldberg, said coolly: "I don't think so." Behr was gone, but nobody knew how many tapes he might have copied.

Next to represent her was James Moody, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency whom Goldberg recommended. Tripp soon replaced him, too, but not before he had made his own copies of the tapes. "Jim Moody did a lot of copying and didn't tell her," Goldberg charged. "She fired him because he's a loon. And he was too much of a player with the media."

Moody wasn't available for comment either. A message on his answering machine said, "I'm going to take a couple of days off here -- I need to review all of these documents and evidence that have been released and get some peace and quiet."

"Linda gave Moody the copies that she got back from Kirby Behr," Goldberg continued. "And then we suspect there were other copies made. She gave Starr what she thought were originals when the FBI agents drove out to her house -- altogether 14 tapes," Goldberg said.

Tripp's lawyers, she sighed, were "klutzes."

Since the office of the special prosecutor knew about all the copying, says Goldberg and other sources, they are mystified why Starr planted a land mine under Tripp in the footnote. Tripp explained the copying to the grand jury, they say, yet Starr mysteriously failed to note that in his report.

Tripp's lawyers didn't take it lying down, though. They banged on the prosecutor's door demanding an explanation. Starr's office told them they were in such a rush to get their report to Congress they put in the footnote to blunt prospective questions about the reliability of the tapes from the Democrats.

"They said, 'Well, we didn't have time to check it out because we had to get the report up to Congress, and we knew if we sent up the tapes and the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee found out they were copied or tampered with that there would be all sorts of political bitching and screaming and we would be blamed,'" according to one source. "'So we put that in there to cover ourselves.'"

Asked if the prosecutor's explanation made sense, a Tripp colleague paused and then said, "No." But they had no other explanation for it yet. The bottom line is that there were so many copies made nobody knows what happened to them, including the FBI.

"They want a solution to their dilemma about what happened to the tapes," which could be a problem comparable to O.J. Simpson's mishandled blood samples for the prosecutors, a source close to Tripp said. "They see her as a convenient answer, but unfortunately for them, she's not the answer."

Tripp "told the grand jury that 'I have reason to believe that Mr. Moody, my second attorney, may in fact have made copies,'" the source added. "She did not have personal knowledge -- that came from a third-party source. Starr elected not to include that in the referral to Congress. In fact, he stated, incorrectly, that she had no knowledge of anybody (copying them), which is not true."

Why would Starr do that?

"That's a hell of a good question," said a Tripp friend, once a close ally of the conservative special prosecutor. To him, it looked like the political alliance behind the $40 million investigation is collapsing, replaced by prosecutors vs. witnesses. And when the witness has been pumped dry, she's cast overboard.

"Try being a star witness and have a prosecutor not return your calls one day after the case ends."

The Office of the Independent Counsel did not return two calls asking for comment.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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