Taking it out on Sid

The frustrated House managers are helping Ken Starr go after one of the president's aides out of revenge.

By Joe Conason
Published February 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

-->When the House impeachment managers identified which three witnesses they would depose last week, many wondered why Sidney Blumenthal's name was on their list. The selection of the presidential assistant was especially puzzling when the prosecution could instead have questioned Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, whose testimony suggested personal knowledge of potential obstructions of justice.

Was their choice influenced by the prosecutors' reluctance to publicly grill a sympathetic, middle-aged African-American woman rather than a controversial, strongly partisan ex-journalist (who, I should declare upfront, is a longtime friend of mine)? Such was the facile assumption made by many observers when Blumenthal was called to testify on Feb. 3.

But evidence that has since emerged suggests at least one other possible motive: to intimidate and perhaps neutralize an effective White House operative, much as independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his associates tried to do last year when they summoned Blumenthal before the grand jury. The questions posed to Blumenthal by House managers James Rogan and Lindsey Graham, as well as some curious amateur detective work conducted by Rep. Asa Hutchinson and Sen. Arlen Specter, indicate that the impeachment prosecutors are in fact pursuing Starr's agenda.

The ostensible reason for interrogating Blumenthal is ridiculous on its face -- namely, that Blumenthal was employed by the president as a conduit for "rumors" that Monica Lewinsky was a "stalker." The truth, set down in the grand jury record and many press accounts, is that White House staffers regarded Lewinsky as a stalker long before her name became known to the public.

That was why the White House deputy chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, removed Lewinsky from the White House and exiled her to the Pentagon. That was why Lewinsky herself referred to the story that she had been "stalking the president" in the so-called talking points she gave Linda Tripp on Jan. 14, 1998 -- the same document quoted on Newsweek's Web site article "Diary of a Scandal," on the night of Jan. 21, when the Lewinsky story broke. And that was why literally hundreds of print and broadcast accounts made similarly unflattering references to Lewinsky, regardless of anything Blumenthal said following his confidential chat with the president.

A careful reading of Blumenthal's Feb. 3 deposition offers an intriguing clue about what was really on the House managers' minds that day. At a certain point, Graham asks Blumenthal whether he knows a Washington private investigator named Terry Lenzner. Blumenthal replies that although he knows who Lenzner is, and that Lenzner has done investigative work for the president's attorneys, he doesn't know Lenzner and first met him outside the grand jury room last year when both men were subpoenaed by Starr.

Graham then asks, "Do you know Mr. Harry Evans?"

Blumenthal answers that he indeed does know Harold Evans, currently the editorial director of several publications owned by Mortimer Zuckerman and husband of Blumenthal's former editor at the New Yorker magazine, Tina Brown.

"Has he ever worked for the New York Daily News?" Graham inquires.

At that point, White House deputy counsel Lanny Breuer objects, pointing out that this question "seems well beyond the scope of this deposition. I have never heard of Mr. Harold Evans ..."

Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who was overseeing the deposition along with North Carolina Democrat John Edwards, asks whether Graham can justify this excursion.

"I'm going to ask Mr. Blumenthal if he has ever at any time passed on to Mr. Evans or anyone else raw notes, notes, work products from a Mr. Terry Lenzner about subjects of White House investigations to members of the press, to include Ms. Lewinsky," Graham replies.

Blumenthal's lawyer, William McDaniel, responds, "That's a good question. I think we don't have any objection to that question."

"All right," drawls Graham. "Now I think I know the answer."

The answer, contrary to much feverish speculation by Clinton haters everywhere, is that Blumenthal never transmitted any information about anybody from Lenzner to any reporter or editor, including Evans. But the question itself, so remote from the Lewinsky affair, only has meaning when placed in the wider context of the media war between the White House and the Office of Independent Counsel -- a war in which Starr correctly saw Blumenthal as one of his principal foes.

Among the skirmishes in that war were articles that appeared in various newspapers last year about the checkered careers of certain Starr deputies. The Daily News had been harshly critical of Starr's investigation in its editorial pages and had looked into the past of Michael Emmick, the Starr deputy who questioned Lewinsky when she was first apprehended at the Ritz-Carlton hotel by FBI agents. Blumenthal was questioned closely about the Emmick stories when he testified in the grand jury on Feb. 26, 1998 (although Emmick's name is curiously redacted from the transcript in the volumes of testimony released to the public), and forthrightly said that he had related information about Emmick to various journalists.

"And what was your purpose in disseminating this information [about Emmick] to members of the news media?" asked Robert Bittman, the deputy independent counsel who questioned Blumenthal that day.

"I believe that the public has the right to know about the character and records of public officials," Blumenthal answered.

Starr and his deputies, however, had a different view of Blumenthal's activities, as they explained at the time. They regarded his encouragement of Starr critics in the press as a form of "obstruction of justice."

The only conceivable reason for Lindsey Graham to ask Blumenthal about Harold Evans, who has no connection to the issues of the impeachment trial, is in pursuit of Starr's effort to punish Blumenthal for distributing derogatory material about the Office of Independent Counsel in the media. Displaying his usual level of competence, however, Graham failed to establish anything beyond his own clumsiness.

In their zeal to get Blumenthal and further Starr's agenda, the House managers and a senatorial sympathizer recently took some other extraordinary measures. Aside from obtaining the now-infamous affidavit of journalist Christopher Hitchens about an alleged "stalker" conversation with Blumenthal, they tried to uncover proof that the presidential aide had planted the same idea in the head of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons (a Salon contributor with whom I am writing a book about the Clinton scandals). When he first raised the matter of Blumenthal's conversation with Clinton about Lewinsky several weeks ago, Graham referenced remarks by Lyons on "Meet the Press" in February 1998, when Lyons speculated that the former intern might somehow resemble the love-struck woman who stalked David Letterman.

Seeking corroboration for this theory, Sen. Specter called Lyons at home in Little Rock on Feb. 4, the day after Blumenthal testified in the impeachment trial and the day before his testimony was released. According to Lyons, Specter said that Blumenthal had denied telling reporters about his "stalker" conversation with the president. Was Blumenthal lying? asked Specter. Lyons told the Pennsylvania senator that Blumenthal had never mentioned his conversation with the president about Lewinsky and that to the best of Lyons' knowledge, Blumenthal's testimony was truthful.

The remarkable aspect of that exchange was that Specter, as one of two senators charged with overseeing Blumenthal's examination by Graham and Rogan, apparently broke Senate Rule 29, which forbids him from discussing that testimony with anyone, such as Lyons, who wasn't authorized to read it. That same day, however, Specter also called an old friend of Lyons' in Europe, to ask whether Lyons had discussed Blumenthal and the "stalker" when the friend had visited Lyons in Arkansas last spring.

It seems strange that Specter would know who had visited Gene Lyons, journalist and private citizen, in the spring of 1998. Just as strange was a call on Feb. 7 from Asa Hutchinson to a former University of Arkansas professor named Bill Harrison, another old friend of Lyons', inquiring about the same topic. Explaining that "we're trying to see whether the president used his staff to influence the press," Hutchinson asked Harrison whether Lyons had mentioned Blumenthal and the "stalker" last spring.

And somehow the genial congressman seemed to know that Lyons had attended a late March social gathering at Harrison's home in Fayetteville, which happens to be in Hutchinson's northwest Arkansas district. He refused to reveal how he knew that Lyons and others had visited Harrison in Fayetteville.

Curiouser and curiouser. Why are the House managers attempting to frame a perjury indictment of Sidney Blumenthal, when they already have lost their case against the president? Why was Lindsey Graham asking about Harold Evans, a Starr critic with no connection to the issues in the impeachment trial? Why did Arlen Specter appoint himself to investigate the accusations against Blumenthal, apparently in violation of Senate rules and in obvious violation of his supposed neutrality in the impeachment trial? And why did Asa Hutchinson so blatantly invade the privacy of his own constituents in a futile effort to impugn Blumenthal?

They are trying to punish a critic of Kenneth Starr, and they seem to believe that the Bill of Rights and the rules of due process should pose no obstacles to that vindictive enterprise.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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