WASHINGTON — In a ruling made public on Wednesday, a federal judge said two senior White House officials must testify about conversations they had with President or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton regarding the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy because the aides could possess "some of the most relevant and important evidence" showing whether the president committed a crime.
Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson decided earlier this month that executive privilege and attorney-client privilege could not be used to block the aides' testimony. The newly unsealed documents contained the explanation of her decision and also provided new details on the potential significance of the aides' testimony.
Barring a successful appeal, Johnson's ruling means that the two White House aides--Deputy Counsel Bruce R. Lindsey and political strategist Sidney Blumenthal--must answer questions that they had averted earlier before a federal grand jury.
According to the ruling, the issues the aides had refused to discuss before the grand jury included "possible impeachment proceedings" and Lindsey's interviewing of grand jury witnesses. Lindsey is considered the president's closest confidant on the White House staff.
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has been investigating since January whether Clinton or others lied or sought to cover up any intimate dealings between the president and Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
In speaking to grand jury witnesses or their lawyers, Lindsey was performing an important--and delicate--function for the president. Such interviews can elicit the specific questions asked by prosecutors and shed light on a probe's scope or direction.
On the other hand, lawyers in his position must be careful not to implicitly coach the person's testimony or to take actions that could be interpreted as obstructing justice.
White House officials defended Lindsey's actions. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one White House lawyer said they were "entirely appropriate."
"What you're trying to do is assess the situation--figure out whether or not you need to make a [public] statement or not, figure out how it's going to affect the president, officially," the lawyer said. "One of the ways you help to gather information and facts is to talk to, more often than not, I think, lawyers for witnesses, rather than the witnesses themselves. . . . That's exactly what Bruce Lindsey was doing here."
The lawyer said that conditions of secrecy imposed by Johnson prevents presidential aides from saying whether the decision made public on Wednesday will be appealed.
Meanwhile, Lewinsky's lead lawyer, William H. Ginsburg of Los Angeles, stirred a new commotion by appearing to raise the possibility that his client and Clinton engaged in consensual sex.
Ginsburg drew a torrent of attention with a first-person account in the June issue of California Lawyer, a trade publication.
In what the publication titled, "An Open Letter to Kenneth Starr," Ginsburg levied numerous incendiary criticisms of the independent counsel, including this:
"Congratulations, Mr. Starr! As a result of your callous disregard for cherished constitutional rights, you may [the italics are Ginsburg's] have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults. In doing so, of course, you've also ruined the lives of several people, including Monica and her family. . . . "
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was among a number of lawyers who criticized the article, saying Ginsburg seemed to be making comments counter to his client's interests.
Ginsburg quickly tried to clarify his remarks, maintaining that the reference to consensual sex was "not saying anything about Monica."
Lewinsky signed a sworn affidavit on Jan. 7, denying that she ever had sexual relations with Clinton.
That has remained her official position, although in earlier negotiations with Starr's office she signaled that, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, she would be willing to testify to having engaged in oral sex with Clinton.
Clinton testified in a deposition in a civil suit brought by a former Arkansas government employee that he never had sex with Lewinsky. Lewinsky's affidavit also was provided in connection with that suit.
Johnson, in her ruling on the White House aides' testimony, concluded that Starr was entitled to the evidence in part because it "cannot feasibly be obtained elsewhere." The judge also underscored that Starr is examining whether Clinton helped lead a cover-up by encouraging Lewinsky to testify falsely about the nature of their dealings.
"If there were instructions from the president to obstruct justice or efforts to suborn perjury, such actions likely took the form of conversations involving the president's closest advisors," Johnson wrote.