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Top White House Attorney Appears Before Grand Jury

By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A top White House lawyer went before the grand jury investigating President Clinton's ties to Monica S. Lewinsky Tuesday but refused to answer certain questions, prompting another round of legal jousting with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, according to sources familiar with the closed proceedings.

White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer showed up at the federal courthouse to testify about two hours after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist refused an emergency White House request to intervene and temporarily block his appearance Tuesday morning.

Breuer, who has coordinated much of the White House damage-control efforts related to the Lewinsky investigation, spent about five hours with the grand jury. He answered some questions related to the case while declining to discuss subjects that he and his colleagues asserted are covered by attorney-client privilege, the sources said.

At the end of the afternoon, Breuer, his private attorney, fellow White House lawyers and a pair of Starr deputies convened for nearly an hour behind closed doors with Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. Johnson, who is overseeing the Starr probe, previously has rejected White House claims of attorney-client privilege in the Lewinsky case and the White House had been braced for another rebuff, likely to be followed by another set of appeals, possibly all the way up to Rehnquist again.

But the day ended without any public indication of additional appeals and a legal source said Breuer plans to be at the courthouse again at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Breuer declined to discuss the situation Tuesday. Asked how he felt being the subject of such a high-profile battle, he joked, "I'm honored."

The developments were the latest in what appear to be increasingly futile attempts by the Clinton administration to prevent Starr from interrogating people close enough to the president to know about his relationship with Lewinsky. One by one, Starr has secured court rulings affirming his right to question senior presidential aides, Secret Service officers and now White House lawyers.

What remains uncertain is how important that testimony will be, especially now that Clinton and Lewinsky have both agreed to provide their own accounts to Starr. The White House suggested in legal papers filed at the Supreme Court on Monday and made public Tuesday that such witnesses may be peripheral at this point.

"The publicly announced recent agreements (Starr's office) has concluded for the testimony of the President and Ms. Lewinsky will ensure that the grand jury will hear the evidence relating to the merits of the investigation while this important legal issue is being resolved," wrote attorney W. Neil Eggleston, the private lawyer who is representing the White House in the attorney-client fight. "Indeed, it is quite likely that (Starr's office) may obtain from the President some, if not all, of the factual information it has sought to date from White House counsel."

On the other hand, third-party witnesses may help resolve what promises to be a fundamental clash between the versions of events provided by Clinton and Lewinsky.

Lewinsky has told prosecutors that she will testify that she had a sexual relationship with the president and that they discussed ways of disguising that during the Paula Jones lawsuit, according to legal sources. Clinton testified in the Jones case and repeated on national television that he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky, and aides said he has no intention of changing his account when he testifies from the White House on Aug. 17.

Still, it is not clear that Clinton would have confided any intimate secrets to Breuer. Starr appears to want to ask Breuer and other White House lawyers about their damage-control strategy sessions early in the investigation and about their attempts to interview grand jury witnesses or their private attorneys.

Starr argued in his own brief filed at the Supreme Court that any further postponements would not be in the national interest. "The costs of delay here extend beyond the adverse effects on an important investigation," he wrote. "The Nation is entitled to its prompt conclusion."

Rehnquist agreed there was no reason to delay Breuer's testimony. In an oral order Tuesday morning, he declined to issue a temporary order blocking Breuer's grand jury appearance while the White House asks the full Supreme Court to hear the question of whether attorney-client privilege applies to government lawyers working for the president. An appeals court agreed with Johnson that it does not.