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Latest Issue in Lewinsky Case Centers on Executive Privilege

By Peter Baker and Toni Locy
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A federal judge sent President Clinton's most trusted aide back before a grand jury Thursday to testify in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation as the president and prosecutors escalated their struggle over the limits of White House secrecy.

A team of lawyers for the president descended on the federal courthouse Thursday morning to try to block independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr from asking senior White House official Bruce R. Lindsey about his conversations with Clinton regarding Lewinsky. Although they did not formally invoke a constitutional claim of executive privilege, the lawyers argued in a closed-door hearing that the president's private talks with top aides are out of bounds for Starr, according to people knowledgeable about the session.

The issue was not resolved during the hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson decided Lindsey should return to a grand jury meeting and set parameters for what prosecutors could ask in an effort to define the most controversial areas for possible litigation, one source said.

The day's confrontation presages a possible legal battle that, if the White House and Starr cannot find a workable compromise, could reach the Supreme Court and clarify what have long been murky rules governing presidential confidentiality. While chief executives have periodically asserted that certain conversations should be off limits, the boundaries of that only rarely have been tested in court.

Even as it tried to shield Lindsey, the White House Thursday extended its penchant for secrecy to include the debate over secrecy itself. Officials declined to discuss the issue publicly, to the point where they would not even say whether Clinton had formally claimed privilege.

In a public statement, the White House said it is "continuing to try to resolve the matter regarding the confidentiality of conversations" and was holding further comments because the hearing was sealed.