Midnight rendezvous

Did attorneys for Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp arrange a secret tape exchange to leak information to Newsweek?

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Ever since resigning as independent counsel, Ken Starr has been making the rounds of official Washington, showing up on C-SPAN, Larry King and even a special tribute dinner hosted in his honor last month. Starr's message, as he has repeatedly stressed, is that President Clinton should square himself with the truth.

But now, another bit of truth appears to be catching up with Starr himself.

Starr and his office have long denied playing any role in leaking the notorious tapes Linda Tripp made of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, thereby triggering one of the largest political scandals in American history.

But documents and testimony surfacing in Maryland's illegal taping case against Tripp now cast new doubt on Starr's claims.

According to a deposition filed by former Starr aide Stephen Bates, on Jan. 16, 1998, Tripp attorney James A. Moody delivered 17 of the tapes to Starr's office.

Later that evening, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, Va., Bates turned over 16 of the same 17 tapes to an FBI agent working for the Office of the Independent Counsel. The other tape, or a copy of it, was handed back to Moody by deputy independent counsels Jackie Bennett Jr. and Bruce Udolf, at a midnight meeting with Moody and another lawyer, George Conway, that was held at a Howard Johnson's near the Watergate hotel.

Bates' deposition makes no explicit mention of the Howard Johnson's meeting. But the meeting is noted in a separate letter that Starr's successor, Robert Ray, wrote to Udolf, authorizing him to testify about "the delivery of an audio tape to James Moody at a Howard Johnson's in Washington D.C. on the evening of January 16-17, 1998."

The question here is why Bennett and Udolf, two of the most senior officials in Starr's office, would have arranged a midnight meeting with Tripp's attorney, Moody and Conway, another attorney who had already been working as a conduit between the OIC and the Paula Jones legal team. The answer can be found in Bates' deposition. Moody had asked to get back "copies of the tape transcripts once the OIC prepared" them, because "he had received many messages from Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, who said that Mr. Moody ought to call him because he was preparing an article highly damaging to Ms. Tripp."

In other words, Moody needed the key tape back that night because he had to get it to Isikoff before his deadline so that Isikoff would either moderate or change the tone of the "highly damaging" story which he was then allegedly writing.

Immediately after he got the tape back, Moody took it to Newsweek's offices and allowed Isikoff and three of his colleagues from the magazine to listen to it.

So what does this all mean? Essentially that the OIC, and Starr in particular, have been much less than truthful in their long-maintained assertions that they played no part in leaking the notorious Tripp tapes to Newsweek in those critical days of mid-January 1998.

But there's yet another new wrinkle to the story.

As the Baltimore Sun first reported this week, the original galleys of Isikoff's book, "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," presented a timeline for these events that matched perfectly with the information now emerging from the documents from the Tripp proceedings. In the pre-publication galleys, Isikoff wrote, "About twelve-thirty a.m., Jim Moody showed up at Newsweek's Washington bureau with one of the tapes."

But the version published in the book reads rather differently: "Late that afternoon, Linda Tripp later testified, Jim Moody showed up at Newsweek's Washington bureau with one of the tapes."

Why the difference? Some of Starr's critics have speculated that Isikoff changed the timing of the meeting to cover up for Linda Tripp's perjured testimony and perhaps, by extension, Starr's false denials about the chain of events leading to the eventual release of the details from the tapes.

Isikoff's most detailed response appeared in Howard Kurtz's column in Wednesday's Washington Post, in which Isikoff was quoted as saying that he had revised the section "to make it clear I was referring to information that was already a matter of public record."

When Salon News asked Isikoff what he meant by this quote, he referred us back to the quote he gave Kurtz.

On the face of it, that explanation doesn't make any sense. It's quite clear that the meeting in question took place in the middle of the night of Jan. 16-17. Newsweek originally published the story with that time and date. And Ann McDaniel, who was present when the tape was played, told Salon News Wednesday that though she could not remember the specific date, it was "definitely the middle of the night, and not the afternoon."

So what did Isikoff mean? Reading between the lines of Isikoff's remark, he seems to be saying that he still felt himself bound by some agreement of confidentiality with Moody, or some other party, and thought that he could not describe the event from his own notes, but instead used Tripp's description of events because they were already on the public record. Kurtz, presumably relying on an off-the-record conversation with Isikoff, attributes the difference of time to an editing error. Whether one accepts that explanation depends largely on how much benefit of the doubt one is inclined to give Isikoff.

But none of this affects the underlying implication of these new revelations: that Starr's office knowingly went out of its way to provide James Moody with a copy of the incriminating tape in order that he would be able to play it for Isikoff before Isikoff's deadline, and thus make the material available for Isikoff's story.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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