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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

Starr Isn't Nuts--but He Is Dangerous

His role as grand inquisitor threatens more than just the 1st Amendment.

March 03, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

I'm starting to develop subpoena envy. How come Kenneth Starr hasn't hauled me before a grand jury, as he did White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal last week, to ask what I know about the source of unflattering reports about him in the media? If writing critically about czar Starr is a crime, then let me freely admit guilt.

As I have written, Starr and his staff are acting like bullies attempting to intimidate witnesses and their families in a far-reaching effort to destroy the president of the United States by any means necessary. That's my opinion, based on a study of the independent counsel's four-year, $35-million public record. I didn't need secret sources in the White House; Starr has done the damage to himself.

I would have thought that my right to print an unflattering portrait of the work of Starr's office is protected by the 1st Amendment. Starr disagrees, declaring that the 1st Amendment exists only to protect what he deems the "truth," but not those spreading "misinformation and distorted information" about members of his staff.

In grilling Blumenthal last week, the Starr team took the position that it alone had the power to define what is "misinformation" concerning its work, and that those who spread what Starr considers to be "distorted information" can be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Even being less than totally positive about Starr might be judged a crime.

According to Blumenthal, he was asked by Starr representative Robert Bittman, "Have you ever said anything positive about Ken Starr?" Blumenthal said he didn't recall any positive comments. Not surprising that an assistant to Bill Clinton lacks positive thoughts about Starr. But when in this nation's history has any government official had the audacity to suggest that a failure to celebrate said official might constitute a criminal offense? And if that is not the threat, why is Blumenthal being interrogated on the subject before a federal grand jury?

I quickly searched my own columns and, not finding any comments that a man as paranoid as Starr would find truly positive, I began to be concerned. Does it help that I didn't call him "simply nuts" and suggest that "men in white suits" might be needed to haul him away, as did columnist Frank Rich in the New York Times? On the contrary, I think Starr is all too focused in performing the hatchet job on the president that Jesse Helms had in mind when he engineered Starr's selection. So let the record show that I don't think the man is nuts, just extremely dangerous to our liberty in a quite cold and calculating way.

I didn't tell Blumenthal any of that in our Sunday afternoon chat (my first with him on the subject), since he is now under a Starr-imposed obligation to share with the special prosecutor the content of all of his conversations with anyone. Even someone who sends a letter to Blumenthal will fall into the prosecutor's net. That's what happened to my friend, Stanley Sheinbaum, who dared to send Blumenthal a clipping from the L.A. Daily Journal reporting on the possible intimidation of witnesses by key Starr staffer Michael Emmick during his years as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.

"Who is this Sheinbaum?" prosecutor Bittman demanded of Blumenthal, evidentially sensing a plot. Sheinbaum, a past president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, routinely follows law-enforcement matters. Might clipping newspapers now be judged a crime?

Bittman is entitled to be sensitive to presidential plotting, since his father, William O. Bittman, was the lawyer for Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. But why should Emmick's record be beyond public scrutiny? Emmick was selected by Starr to cut a deal with Susan McDougal, who complained about his reputation for intimidation. Since Emmick also cajoled and possibly intimidated Monica Lewinsky without counsel during her nine hours alone with 10 government agents, it would seem relevant to ask, as Starr has of Clinton, is there a pattern here? But a journalist seeking background information on Emmick from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, where he worked, or at the USC Law School, where he taught, risks an obstruction of justice charge.

Starr is creating a precedent that, if allowed to stand, will destroy not only the meaning of the 1st Amendment but the very notion of limits on government. The Constitution does not establish the position of grand inquisitor, and if Starr insists on playing that role, it is time that he move on to become a dean at some college desperate enough to indulge his fantasies.

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@aol.com

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