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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Stonewall Strategy Steers White House

Charges: Even data that is normally available is secret these days. The tactic is common in court of law, but not in court of public opinion.

January 29, 1998|GLENN F. BUNTING and ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Asked to explain his relationship with a former White House intern, President Clinton last week vigorously denied having sex with her but agreed that "the American people have a right to get answers."

The president vowed to provide "as many answers as we can, as soon as we can" about the relationship before adding: "And that's not a dodge . . . I want to do that."

But in the week since allegations of sexual misconduct and possible perjury erupted, the White House has tried to cut off the flow of information, including records that are commonly available, and taken steps to ensure that few facts emerge.

Visitor logs that were provided before are now off-limits. White House videotapes that were available in an earlier investigation are now withheld. Officials who normally are free to talk to the press have been silenced, even the president's two private lawyers--Robert S. Bennett and David E. Kendall.

White House Under Siege

The stonewall strategy has been employed to varying degrees in previous Clinton crises, ranging from Whitewater to the controversy over improper campaign donations. But rarely, if ever, has it been applied so aggressively.

The result is a siege between Fortress Clinton, the press and others seeking to learn about the nature of the president's relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

These tough tactics are standard procedure in court battles to prevent giving an opponent anything of possible advantage. But on the presidential battlefield, such maneuvers run the risk of creating the impression that the commander-in-chief has something to hide.

Releasing information to the public "is not something we are concerned about," said one member of the president's legal team. "The stakes are too high."

Indeed, aides said the Clintons' legal team has adopted a strategy of riding out the avalanche of accusations by keeping a tight seal on all relevant facts in coming weeks--and perhaps months--as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr investigates claims that the president engaged in sexual misconduct with the then-22-year-old Lewinsky and allegedly lied about it.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters that "there are a number of different reasons why the president feels like he can't address this matter as fully as he would love to at this point."

These included, McCurry said, "the fact that we are in a hostile proceeding right now with a very determined independent counsel."

Without doubt, the sexual misconduct and perjury allegations present problems of a greater magnitude than anything the White House has faced before. And, unlike past controversies, the lawyers working on Clinton's behalf have few ways on their own of learning information that is mostly inside the president's head, aides said.

One former White House official who managed previous controversies and has been consulted on this crisis said that, unlike previous scandals, the White House was poorly prepared to deal with the Lewinsky matter.

"Something like this hits and it consumes the whole White House because nobody is prepared to deal with this," the former official said. "The rules are different. The nature of the scandal is different and the apparatus to handle it internally is not in place."

Moreover, the political strategists who in the past have argued in favor of getting unfavorable information out early, so the White House could get beyond it, have been excluded from the current strategy discussions.

"Not only are they outside the loop, there is no loop," said one senior White House official.

Gone is the special "scandal management" unit that won high praise within the White House for quick, public responses to Starr's efforts to investigate the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas and for containing fallout from the travel office and FBI files controversies.

The White House spokesman on the campaign-finance controversy and other sensitive matters for the last year, Special Counsel Lanny J. Davis, refused to speak to a reporter for this story. A White House receptionist said he is prohibited from discussing anything connected with the Lewinsky matter.

Visitor Logs Are Off-Limits

Since news of the sexual-misconduct allegations broke last week, the administration has refused media requests for White House visitor logs documenting each time Lewinsky entered and departed the White House grounds, as well as the staffers who cleared her in.

Lewinsky visited the White House numerous times after the period when she began her job at the Pentagon in April 1996.

Rather than be accused of stonewalling, the White House had released such information for dozens of foreign-linked donors, Democratic fund-raisers and other participants who were connected to the campaign fund-raising controversy.

Asked Wednesday if there was a legal reason for not providing the records in the Lewinsky case, McCurry said, "No, I'm just suggesting that we elect not to because the independent counsel has a proceeding underway and we choose not to release them at this time."

The White House also refused to provide reporters with biographical information for Betty Currie, the personal secretary to the president, who was called before a grand jury this week that is looking into Lewinsky's White House visits.

Times staff writers David Lauter, Robert L. Jackson and David Willman contributed to this story.

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