WASHINGTON — While it seems infinitely long ago, there was once a time when Monica Lewinsky wasn't a household name and news reports out of Washington mostly came with named sources. But since the Lewinsky story broke, leaks by anonymous sources have turned into torrents.
Indeed, in the early days of the story, independent counsel Kenneth Starr was heard to say for the cameras, "I can't comment on the investigation as a matter of practice and law. I just can't be making comments about the specific activity."
But behind the camera, Mr. Starr now admits he and deputy Jackie Bennett had lots to say to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis about a probe of a sitting president. Like good-tasting fat-free ice cream, it turns out, there may be no such thing as a leak-free independent counsel.
But in fact, there are few Washington entities with secrets that are leak-proof. Leaking is not only a regularly used device, it has expanded as media coverage has gotten more microscopic.
And for Washington insiders, the fact that Starr admitted to leaking says as much about the evolution of Washington culture as it does about the character of this independent counsel.
"When an independent counsel can unabashedly admit he has off-the-record conversations with the press about an investigation, it shows you how institutionalized and mainstream leaking has become," says prominent Washington attorney Abbe Lowell.
Stung by Brill
Starr has defend himself twice in recent days over disclosures he made in an interview with Stephen Brill, publisher of Brill's Content magazine. In it, Starr justified speaking to reporters, saying it was necessary to counter misinformation about his probe.
"Starr thought he was explaining, and Brill thought he was confessing," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "The irony is Starr has been leaking but still has a terrible media image. He leaks on background but no one defends him on record for the evening news," he observes.
But leaking by independent counsels isn't new. Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh openly admits to keeping a channel open to reporters. Given the length and cost of his probe, Mr. Walsh even created a staff position to deal with the media. Both Mr. Walsh and the staff liaison briefed reporters, usually weekly, speaking generally about the direction of the investigation.
Briefing reporters on active grand jury investigations is a delicate undertaking. Under Justice Department regulations, prosecutors are prohibited from disclosing "matters occurring before the grand jury." While Starr insists he didn't violate any rules, the confession gives the average news consumer a rare glimpse into the secretive ways in which information is distributed in Washington.
"People leak to gain advantage in media coverage, or are annoyed and want to get their side of the story out. They leak to see how the public will react to policy or ideas," explains Georgetown University Prof. Stephen Wayne.
"The only thing that seems a little outrageous about this is when people get outraged at it," Wayne adds.
Inside the Beltway, the other thing that seems unexplainable if not outrageous is Starr's disclosure in the first place. Even sources long gone from high-power offices don't want to be known as leakers.
"I had dinner the other night with Bob Woodward," says a former Bush administration official who occasionally provided information to the press. "And he was telling a few people there about some of our discussions. I turned to everyone and said 'I have never met Bob Woodward in my life!' " he says grinning.
Even the White House admits it leaks. "Clearly discussions with the media are done in a variety of ways, from on the record, to deep background," says White House spokesman Jim Kennedy. "But it's one thing for someone in the administration to leak a copy of a presidential speech before it's delivered or give hints about policy changes in the works. It's very different than a prosecutor releasing information that is part of an ongoing investigation."
Other observers say both Starr and Clinton have escalated the leak to a high art form.
Pot calls the kettle black?
"It is shockingly disingenuous for this White House, which has leaked stuff, to make it look like Starr is the only one leaking," says the Bush official.
"The Clinton administration has utilized the leak as a science," agrees Professor Wayne.
Nevertheless, the White House is calling for an independent investigation of the matter. The Justice Department is considering its course, watching to see the direction US District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson takes.
Judge Johnson met Monday with the cast of lawyers in the case including prosecutors from Starr's office, the president's private attorney David Kendall, and White House Counsel Charles Ruff.
The meeting reportedly centered on a request by Mr. Kendall to determine the status of a previous motion filed months ago seeking sanctions against the Starr investigation for illegally leaking information. Another hearing on the matter is expected in July.