A Question for Ken Starr

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Nov. 18 1998 3:30 AM

A Question for Ken Starr

And remember, sir, you're under oath.

When Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday morning, the committee could surprise everyone and accomplish something tangible in the first minute. Chairman Henry Hyde--or, as is more likely, a committee member from the Democratic side--should ask him the following:

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"Mr. Starr, I want to give you a chance to clear your name on the serious accusation made against you by the judge presiding over your grand jury. As you know, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson has ruled that there is a prima facie case that you or your office illegally leaked information to the press in 24 instances involving 11 different news organizations, and you have filed a sworn affidavit denying those leaks. You have maintained that any communications from you or your deputy, Jackie Bennett--who has been identified as your conduit to the press--were completely proper. You've argued strenuously that neither you nor Mr. Bennett released any information pertaining to grand jury proceedings.

W"e all appreciate the need for reporters to keep their sources of information confidential if they have promised confidentiality. But news sources are free to release reporters from this obligation, and that is what I am asking you to do today. "

So, would you be willing, right here today, under oath, to tell all the reporters, producers, and editors for each of the 11 news organizations with whom you or Mr. Bennett are alleged to have spoken that you hereby release them from any promises they or people working with them made to you or to Mr. Bennett to keep any communications between them and you confidential? And will you, right here, right now, direct Mr. Bennett to release them from any such promises made to him?

"Finally, I would like your assurance, under oath, that neither you nor Mr. Bennett have ever discussed with these reporters how they might protect your confidentiality even if you did have to release them publicly from any promises. This way, these reporters could be asked exactly what Mr. Bennett and you told them and they could answer honestly without violating any pledges of confidentiality.

"If you've been unfairly accused, as you insist, sir, you should want these reporters to talk freely and honestly about what you and Mr. Bennett did or did not tell them. And, of course, if you never leaked anything illegally to them and never swore them to confidentiality, there is no harm in releasing them from a promise they never made."

If Starr hems and haws (or refuses to address the pivotal question of Bennett), we'll know that he and Bennett are not willing to put their denials to the test. If Starr agrees and is willing to follow up with a letter to these reporters, the committee--or the investigator Judge Johnson has appointed to find out about the leaks--could then question the reporters. The questioning would not be the kind of "who were your sources" fishing expedition that should trouble anyone who worries about a free press. Rather, the only question would be "What did Mr. Bennett and Mr. Starr tell you in connection with each of these stories?"

Starr and Bennett have repeatedly claimed that they have nothing to worry about if these or any other reporters reveal their conversations.

This would be a quick, simple, and (unless Starr and Bennett are lying) harmless way to settle a troublesome issue.

Steven Brill responds to a flood of anonymous e-mail generated by this piece in "E-Mail to the Editors."

Steven Brill is founder and editor in chief of Brill's Content magazine.