Leery About Leaks

Three threads stand out in the tangled controversy over leaks from the investigation run by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. First: a legal one, concerning damage to the justice system from porous grand jury proceedings. Second: a political one, related to why people leak information. Third, a moral one. The leaking is deceitful, and judgments based on it are ill-founded.

President Clinton's lawyers are invoking the legal issues of fairness and confidentiality in their attacks on Mr. Starr's team of prosecutors. Their assumption is that leaks like those springing from the grand jury testimony of White House employees had to have come from that team. The main substantiation for that assumption is the hint provided by news story attributions, such as "sources in Starr's office," or "people close to the investigation."

But there are, of course, lots of people close to the investigation. Monica Lewinsky's lawyers have inside information, as do lawyers representing the various White House staffers being subpoenaed. The president's own legal team has had a hand in choosing the latter attorneys, and regularly debriefs them after their clients' grand jury testimony.

The leaking, and spinning of what's leaked, are likely to intensify in the wake of Ms. Lewinsky's anticipated grand jury testimony.

No matter who is doing the leaking the result is damage to a tool that relies on secure testimony. The grand jury is a powerful means of sweeping together an array of information - including much that is speculative and questionable - in order to assess whether a criminal case should proceed to trial. Officers of the court, such as lawyers, are forbidden by law to divulge grand jury testimony. Raw bits from such testimony can all too easily ruin reputations.

If prosecutors are leaking this material, they are hurting the system they're sworn to uphold. If they can ever be identified, strict discipline should follow. Starr knows that as well as anyone, and he has every interest in ensuring the integrity of the grand jury process.

So why would anyone from his side leak? To hurt a target they might not be able to nail otherwise? To generate news coverage that pressures potential witnesses?

Why would the other side - the president's team - leak? To defuse allegations that might arise in a more creditable context later? To create an environment where leaks, more than what's leaked, become the issue?

The speculation in Washington sees strategic and political calculations at work here that are nothing short of Machiavellian. But what's actually going on in lawyers' offices in Washington may, in fact, warrant that description. Ultimately, all this has one goal: to shape public opinion, which in turn could shape the outcome of the larger controversy over leadership, ethics, and morality.

The public, for its part, appears reluctant to jump to any conclusions on the basis of leaked, incomplete information. That's to its credit. It strengthens that third, key thread.

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