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Clinton Denounces Leaking of Deposition Information

By Howard Kurtz
The Washington Post

President Clinton Thursday denounced as "illegal" the passing of information to The Washington Post that led to a highly detailed account of his sealed deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

The lengthy front-page story, which did not characterize its sources, said among other things that Clinton had acknowledged that he talked with Vernon E. Jordan Jr. about his friend's efforts to find a new job for Monica S. Lewinsky.

The article set off a heated round of finger-pointing as each side accused the other of leaking the sworn account for tactical advantage. It is the latest in a series of unauthorized disclosures in the Jones case and the Lewinsky investigation in which unnamed sources have put out confidential material in an effort to shape news coverage.

An angry Clinton told reporters at the White House that "the court has made it absolutely clear it is illegal to leak and discuss" the Jan. 17 deposition.

"I think I should follow the law. I have nothing else to say. I'm going to do my job. I'm going to follow the law. That's what I wish everyone else would do. Somebody in this case ought to follow the law."

Clinton's private attorneys - Robert S. Bennett, David E. Kendall and Mickey Kantor - called the leak a "reprehensible and unethical act." In a statement, they accused "antagonists of the president" of leaking his deposition and said they "intend to seek appropriate judicial relief."

Jones's lawyers responded in their own statement that any "implication" that Jones or her team leaked the deposition "is erroneous, irresponsible and fallacious." They said there were "obvious reasons to suspect" that the White House or Clinton allies leaked the material themselves to "pre-empt" Jones's motion for summary judgment next week, and "to educate prospective grand jury witnesses" about Clinton's version of events before they testify.

The key question, they said, is "in whose favor the deposition testimony was "spun' in the article."

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock has placed a gag order on all participants and attorneys in the case, but selected parts of Clinton's deposition have leaked in the past.

Bennett, speaking to reporters, called the disclosure "one of the most reckless, reprehensible and unethical things I've seen in this town for a very, very long time." A source close to the White House said the president's legal team would attempt to learn how many people on the Jones side were given access to the deposition.

The Post story, in addition to being unusually detailed, described Clinton's mood during the five-hour deposition as "generally sober" and noted that he was asked to speak louder at various times.

Legally, said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, "people at The Washington Post cannot be sanctioned. But the people who gave it to The Post, if the judge can find out who they are, can be sanctioned."

A leaker covered by the gag order could be fined or imprisoned, Gillers said, and if that person is a lawyer, he or she could be suspended or disbarred. Wright could also refer the matter to federal prosecutors for criminal investigation.

Presidential spokesman Michael McCurry said only four White House lawyers had access to the transcript and none of them had leaked it. He said that, "as a matter of journalistic principle, most news organizations take seriously the responsibility to alert readers to the identity and motive of anonymous sources . The Post chose not to do this in this case, and you have to ask them why."

Leonard Downie Jr., the paper's executive editor, said: "We just have to let the story speak for itself." At times, he said, "our agreements with sources are such that we're not able to go beyond what a carefully written and edited story says, but we are satisfied with the accuracy and contents of the story. There are occasions when this is the only way we can publish something that is really important."

James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor, said: "The obligation is to be as helpful to the reader as possible in understanding the motivation of the source, but sometimes that's not feasible" depending on the ground rules set by the person furnishing the information.