Why the Starr ‘muzzle’ on Monica telling the full story?

Monday, March 8, 1999

Something like 70 million people not yet afflicted with scandal fatigue tuned in to watch Barbara Walter’s two-hour interview with Monica Lewinsky March 3. And as entertained and titillated as they may have been, they did not get the whole story.

One could have wondered what more Monica had to say. She has testified under oath 23 different times. She spent many hours before a grand jury. She made a videotaped deposition for the Senate impeachment hearings. Then there were all those hours of telephone confession that her good friend Linda Tripp surreptitiously taped.

Although the ABC-TV interview was touted as a journalistic coup, some of the questions were more prying and prurient than tough, leading viewers at times to wonder whether the only difference between Barbara Walters and Linda Tripp was that Ms. Walters had better sound equipment.

Nevertheless, Ms. Walters’ interview with the former White House intern who had an affair with the president covered a lot of territory. But there were some places they were not allowed to go. A lawyer stood by during the taping to make sure that didn’t happen.

In fact, the whole interview took place only after negotiations that started last September between Ms. Lewinsky’s lawyers and the Office of Independent Counsel, according to court documents unsealed March 5. At issue was an immunity agreement Ms. Lewinsky signed in order to avoid charges from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Finally, Ms. Lewinsky was allowed to do the interview but only if she agreed “that the tenor of the interview will be emotional rather than factual,” The Washington Post reported March 6.

Ms. Lewinsky’s lawyers now are trying to get Mr. Starr to modify the immunity agreement so that she does not have to get his permission before granting media interviews. The Lewinsky lawyers criticized Starr’s office “for its broad, self-interested and self-perpetuating conception of its control over Lewinsky’s First Amendment rights.”

What are the topics Kenneth Starr does not want a central character in one of this nation’s more dramatic political crises to talk about? Here’s a partial list gleaned from recent press reports:

  • She “will not comment on the good faith of the investigation.”
  • She cannot discuss anything about the day when Starr’s lawyers and the FBI grilled her for 12 hours without a lawyer present.
  • She is not supposed to mention the independent counsel or his staff by name.
  • She cannot talk about how President Clinton treated her.
  • She cannot go beyond her grand jury testimony, or contradict it.
  • She cannot comment on any other investigations the Office of Independent Counsel might be conducting.
  • In addition to general media interviews, she cannot promote her new book without his permission. (Interestingly, Ms. Lewinsky’s lawyers have interpreted the immunity agreement as not being so strict when it comes to her book.)

Prosecutors often include off-limit topics in immunity agreements with witnesses, primarily to make sure an on going case is not compromised, but many experts say the Starr agreement goes beyond what is necessary.

Others say that the immunity agreement does not violate Ms. Lewinsky’s First Amendment rights, comparing the agreement to a contract in which she negotiated those rights away. Putting aside the sticky question of whether a prosecutor can compel such a broad and open-ended relinquishment of fundamental rights, the public and the press were not parties to that agreement.

Some argue that the independent counsel represented the public in those negotiations. If so, it appears that Starr’s interests trumped the public’s because Monica Lewinsky got immunity, Barbara Walters got a scoop, Kenneth Starr got control of the content and “tenor” of the interview, and the public got a less-than-candid, less-than-complete accounting.

The important point is that restrictions on Ms. Lewinsky’s speech translate into restrictions on the press, which translate into restrictions on the people’s right to know — unless, of course, they want to go out and plunk down the bucks for her book.

Why should we care about whether Monica is muzzled or not? Because her version of what happened on Jan. 16, 1998, when she was confronted by Starr’s staff and the FBI is relevant to any informed inquiry into the conduct of the independent counsel’s office. Because it is important to know how she was treated by President Clinton. Because it is helpful to hear her views of the conduct and character of other key players in the scandal.

Further, Monica Lewinsky should be able to freely and fully go beyond how she feels in refuting or at least addressing some of the things reported about her in the press, especially if those reports were based on leaks from the White House, Starr’s office or other self-interested parties.

Mr. Starr’s investigative policies have raised First Amendment concerns before. His seizure of Monica Lewinsky’s bookstore records provoked a court challenge. The relationship between the Office of Independent Counsel and the press have drawn the court’s interest. The immunity agreement has allowed him to force Ms. Lewinsky to be silent as well as to compel her to speak. And he was able to force a TV network to negotiate away some of its rights in order to get that prized first interview with Ms. Lewinsky.

It may well be that Mr. Starr can make his case in a court of law for such influence over the First Amendment rights of Ms. Lewinsky, the press, and the public. But it should be a tougher case to make in the court of public opinion.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.