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Drip Drip Drip

Leaks swamp the White House, which fights back by blaming the flood on (that's right) Ken Starr

By Nancy Gibbs/TIME

Time cover

As midnight came and went on Thursday at the White House, the honored guests, all starched and silked, indulged in some good food and stargazing-- at the President and the men who want to be President and the men who play Presidents in the movies. For one brief shining moment, the capital's obsession melted away. There was gentle encouragement from Elton John: "Can you feel the love tonight?" Bill and Hillary Clinton, told they should retire by 12, danced well past their bedtime to old favorites with new meanings: I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

America may be on the brink of war, the Asian markets may be leaning off a ledge, but when the beepers started going off in the East Room, it was not the Secretaries of State and Defense who leaped from their tables and made for the doors. It was newsman Peter Jennings who "shot out of his seat like a rocket," a Clinton aide recalls. White House staff members had heard rumors all afternoon that something big, something bad was about to break. The blow came when printouts of a story from the next day's New York Times began to circulate suggesting that Clinton had coached his secretary, Betty Currie, to make sure her version of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky matched his. The latest leak in a fully liquid story sent reporters and politicos scrambling to find out just how much further the President's credibility might be diluted by the testimony of one of his most loyal aides.

For three weeks now, the leaks have come so fast and steady that they feel like an official daily briefing. But they are an underground river in which fact and gossip and memory spin past the truth and flow straight through any number of agendas. Lewinsky's lawyers want to keep their client out of jail. The President's men want to keep their man in office. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr wants to keep his investigation moving, and the leaks have a way of flushing out witnesses he may not know about. And all sorts of other lawyers and witnesses, dreaming of fame and fortune, have an interest in telling their own stories their own way.

By the end of last week, the accounts had done so much to dissolve the President's denials that the White House unrolled a new strategy. Its best hope was to make a story out of The Story, implicitly strike at the press for trafficking in confidential material while attacking Starr's prosecutors for leaking it--whether they actually had or not. Though the reports may have come from many directions, it served Clinton's purpose to focus his fire on his most powerful, least popular enemy, Ken Starr. The prosecutor's tactics have never been popular with a public increasingly sensitive to invasions of privacy, especially by unaccountable officials with unlimited resources and an army of FBI agents to do their bidding. And if this whole case were to wind up in an impeachment proceeding in Congress, it would become a political fight as much as a legal one, with public perception carrying nearly as much weight as actual evidence.

Clinton knows this. In fact the President had so much to gain by sliming Starr that there were even some who privately wondered whether the White House might have staged a particularly cynical scenario: knowing that evidence of obstruction of justice was going to be disclosed anyway, why not leak some of it, finger Starr for the disclosure and at least profit from his loss? Either way, the lead story on the news Friday night was of David Kendall, the President's normally invisible personal lawyer, brandishing a 15-page letter charging Starr with an "appalling disregard" for the law and rules of confidentiality. Kendall plans to file a motion in federal court asking for contempt sanctions against Starr.

Starr fired back within a few hours. Noting that Clinton and his team had had most of the information about Currie for several days, they might well have leaked it themselves "in order to lessen the painful impact of such evidence when it is revealed through official proceedings." Since the content of the leaks hurt the President, and the fact of them hurt the prosecutor, it was hard to measure who had the most to gain--or lose--by each disclosure.

The first blistering revelation came Tuesday morning, when the New York Times, citing "officials familiar with the White House logs," revealed that Lewinsky had visited the White House 37 times in the 20 months after she left her job there to work at the Pentagon. An Administration lawyer conceded that the number was about right, but noted that just because Lewinsky was cleared by security doesn't mean she actually visited the Oval Office. She could have gone to see friends elsewhere, even across the driveway at the Old Executive Office Building. But 14 of the visits were directly to Currie; of those, 11 occurred while Clinton was around. The other visits remain unexplained.

That flight pattern looked suspect to anyone who knows the protocol of the West Wing. The corridor that passes the Oval Office is the route least traveled by low-level officials. No one goes without a very good reason to be there. It is library quiet, the carpet is a little thicker, the air a little heavier, and if the President is in town that day, the Secret Service agents stand outside his door, on the balls of their feet, watching everything and everyone who comes anywhere near the most powerful 1,000 square feet in the world. There is not a lot of horsing around in the hallways, not a lot of casual chatting from desk to desk. And secretaries certainly don't entertain their friends during office hours.

In his conspicuous choice of witnesses, Starr seemed to be focusing on that particular bit of real estate, especially the rooms and hallways adjoining the Oval Office and the President's private study, where his encounters with Lewinsky allegedly occurred. And so he called White House steward Bayani Nelvis, whose post in the tiny pantry would put him within sight lines of the office, the study and the private dining room. When the President is in the office, the steward shuttles between the dining room and the White House mess down the stairs. And when the President is eating, the steward waits in the hallway outside--right beside the agents.

Like generations of stewards before him, Nelvis was Philippine-born, Navy-trained and chosen for his discretion, efficiency and reserve. Though he made no public comment after his grand-jury appearance last week, on Wednesday afternoon the Wall Street Journal posted a story on its Website claiming that Nelvis had told the grand jury that he saw Clinton and Lewinsky alone together in the study--a fact that Clinton had denied in his own deposition to Paula Jones' lawyers. He also reportedly cleaned up tissues with lipstick and other stains on them and told Secret Service agents about the encounter because he was "personally offended" by it. Nelvis' lawyer, Joseph Small, however, called the Journal's report "absolutely false and irresponsible," claiming that his client had told the grand jury no such thing, a rebuttal that the Journal included when it ran the story in the next morning's paper.

But it is the story of Betty Currie that has the potential to do the greatest damage. Of all the vivid images of the past three weeks, few were more disturbing than the sight of an exhausted, frightened Currie emerging into the flashbulbs after her hours before the grand jury two weeks ago. She had already been cast as a central player in this drama, this woman who is among the most beloved in the White House. It was Currie who cleared Lewinsky into the West Wing, who signed for some of the packages Lewinsky sent over between October and December, who asked White House aide John Podesta and Clinton friend Vernon Jordan to help Lewinsky get a job. And it was Currie who, when the storm broke, was one of the first to tell the prosecutors what she knew.

Clinton's personal secretary arrives at work at 7:45 a.m. and leaves at 8 p.m. six days a week; so Sundays are a precious day off, time for church and visits with family. But on occasion the President has to call her in for business that cannot wait, and that's what he did on Jan. 17. Clinton had spent six long hours being deposed by Jones' lawyers, who probed his relationship with a variety of women--and, in particular, with Monica Lewinsky. Was he ever alone with her? Had he given her gifts, called her at home. Had they had an affair? He said there had been no sexual relationship; any gifts were innocent souvenirs; and he could not remember ever being alone with her.

When he got back to the White House, he called Currie and asked her to come in the next day. According to the Times' account, Clinton proceeded to run through his story in detail, laced with leading questions: "We were never alone, right?" The implication was that he was coaching a witness so she could back up his story; the White House responded that he was innocently testing his recollection, to make sure he had testified accurately. Currie's lawyer denied "any implication or suggestion that Mrs. Currie was aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone."

But that was not all. The Times also reported that when Lewinsky was subpoenaed by Jones' lawyers in December, she was worried about having to turn over the gifts Clinton had given her. She reportedly told Starr that the President had offered some incriminating advice: If you don't have the gifts, he said, you can't very well hand them over, can you? A box from Lewinsky containing a dress, a hatpin and a brooch later found its way into Currie's possession. She also reportedly told investigators that Clinton and Lewinsky had indeed been alone together.

White House aides may portray Starr as a leaker and a bully, but he doesn't really have to answer to anyone; he just has to build a case. And it may have been a calculated gamble he was making. "He's trying to lock in all the other witnesses and figure out all the other stuff they know," says a former prosecutor familiar with the case. "That way, he can question Monica. If you're a little bit dubious about the trustworthiness of your star witness, it's not a bad strategy to lock down everything she might not recall."

Thus the parade of witnesses: Nelvis the steward, who is in the White House day and night; and Currie the personal secretary, who works long hours; and George Stephanopoulos, who was Clinton's alter ego; and Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff; and then Kris Engskov, the body man who carries Clinton's coat. Starr has subpoenaed the phone logs and entrance logs and sought the testimony of Secret Service agents. And he has done all this in the same 10-day period during which he was searching Monica's apartment, questioning relatives, pursuing leads from her proffer and all the while refusing to grant her immunity.

He was certainly building the pressure on the only other person who knows what did or did not occur when the doors were closed. Lewinsky and her lawyers began the week thinking they were about to tell their story at last. Ginsburg sent in his written proffer on Monday along with the agreement written by Starr's office granting Monica immunity. The two sides, Ginsburg claims, agreed on a schedule of interviews in which Lewinsky would sit down through the week with FBI agents in California. Satisfied that the immunity dance was finally over, the whole traveling circus left town for a brief reprieve and a visit with Lewinsky's father in Los Angeles.

But nothing resembling peace awaited her there. Christened the "stir-crazy sexgate siren" by the New York Post, Lewinsky was greeted by tour buses cruising past on their way to O.J. Simpson's house; by T-shirt vendors selling ZIPPERGATE '98 shirts; by stalker photographers snapping every move; and finally by word on Wednesday that any deal she may have thought she had with Starr was off.

Ginsburg got a call from Starr's office that "they had changed their minds." The Washington Post reported that Starr had rejected Ginsburg's proffer as too full of contradictions and too vague in its recollection of the behavior of the President and his friend Jordan, who was suspected of trying to help Lewinsky get a job to keep her quiet. Starr was now refusing to do a deal before talking to her face to face: "There is no substitute," he said, "for looking a witness in the eye, asking detailed questions, matching the answers against verifiable facts and, if appropriate, giving a polygraph test."

This sent Ginsburg round the bend. From the start he felt that Starr had been squeezing Lewinsky without mercy, threatening her family with subpoenas, intimidating, misleading, baiting and switching. Under the terms of the deal Ginsburg thought had been reached, Starr could spend all the time he liked with Lewinsky and even give her a lie-detector test if he chose. Any implication that she was avoiding interrogation, Ginsburg charged, was nonsense.

What Ginsburg could not realize, however, was how much less dependent on Lewinsky Starr became with each passing day. As late as Thursday, before the Times story broke, Ginsburg still argued that his client was the only hope Starr had. That, within a few hours, proved to be wrong. Last week Starr subpoenaed attorneys working for Paula Jones for notes, pleadings and depositions involving other women linked to Bill Clinton. One possible line of inquiry: Were the women asked by any agents of Clinton to soften their testimony regarding their former relationships with him?"

If it couldn't stop him, the White House hoped at least to slow Starr down a bit. Legal experts say that Kendall's action in court this week is no small matter; it will at the very least cause a fair bit of heartburn for the independent counsel. A senior Justice official went so far as to suggest to TIME that given the thick conflicts of interest in the case, a special prosecutor might have to be appointed to probe an independent counsel. As a lawyer on the case put it, "This isn't exactly charted territory." Ginsburg, meanwhile, announced plans to take Starr to court to enforce the immunity deal.

The President remained his own best witness, as his joint press conference with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear. Press conferences with foreign leaders are normally awkward affairs in which the questions and the answers arrive in separate languages, on separate topics, with separate translators. So Friday's performance was downright surreal: the two golden boys of the Third way, Bill and Tony, speaking the same language, practicing a style of politics one had virtually copied from the other, both touting the virtues of a middle class that works hard and plays by the rules. Except that Clinton had somehow got very far out of bounds.

The President was "nervous as a cat" before the press conference, says one who was with him at the time. Clinton stuck with a safe "I'm honoring the rules of the investigation" line, even though the rules don't apply to him: he can say whatever he likes. But twice reporters broke through the glaze, first when he was asked if he would resign. Clinton's answer captured his entire attitude about this crisis: he sidestepped the question of whether he had done anything wrong and said instead that the people looked past his character to his performance. His single answer is the only one a President can ever give: "Never."

And when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked if Clinton would like to say anything to Monica Lewinsky, whose life has been changed forever, a question so gently wrapped that it all but hid the sharp knife within, Clinton just narrowed his eyes and smiled and waited, until the room laughed and he said, "That's good." And then he thought for a long moment. "That's good. But at this minute, I'm going to stick with my position of not commenting." Coming after all the Talmudically glossed questions about the nature of his relationship and all the parsed notions of when sex wasn't sex and the almost nationwide realization that he splits hairs on the heads of bald men, this was as close as he had come to saying, "Can't fool you, can I?" It was the only moment of the morning that worried White House aides--because, as one low-level handler put it, "he left the mask off for a minute."

--Reported by James Carney, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak and Karen Tumulty/Washington, and Cathy Booth/Los Angeles
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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