Starr Draws Parallels Between His Investigation, Watergate
'No one -- absolutely no one -- is above the law,' he says, quoting Watergate's Leon Jaworski
SAN ANTONIO (AllPolitics, May 1) -- In a rare public speech, Independent Counsel Ken Starr drew parallels Friday between his fight with the White House over executive privilege and a similar showdown during the Watergate scandal.
Starr indirectly linked President Bill Clinton's claim of executive privilege with the failed attempts of former President Richard Nixon to do the same during the Watergate investigation.
Starr said in giving his talk, he was following in the footsteps of Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who gave a Law Day address in Texas in 1974 in the midst of Watergate.
Although Starr said he would "do my best to steer clear of controversy,"
the last line of the prosecutor's speech, a quote from Jaworski, sounded like a warning to Clinton.
"No one -- absolutely no one -- is above the law," Jaworski once wrote, referring to lessons learned from Watergate. (640K wav sound)
Constrained by the secrecy of his grand jury proceedings, Starr couched his opposition to Clinton's claim in what he called "general, historical, and perhaps -- not to alarm you -- professorial," language. (416K wav sound)
Starr has been looking for ways to put out his message without running afoul of grand jury rules. "I can not, in conscience, talk about the unfolding work of the grand jury," Starr forewarned his audience of the San Antonio Bar Association. (544K wav sound)
Instead, he used a history lesson, leading up to the landmark Supreme Court decision during the Watergate investigation, to make his case that the president, except in the most extreme cases, cannot keep information secret from the court. (288K wav sound)
"As the Supreme Court said in United States vs. Nixon ... 'the public has a right to every man's evidence, except for those persons protected by a constitutional, statutory or common-law privilege,'" Starr said.
Linking Clinton's claim of executive privilege with the disgraced Nixon, the Whitewater prosecutor said, "No 20th century president tried the privilege in court. Until President Nixon, in what came to be known as Watergate." (640K wav sound)
Twenty-four years ago today, Nixon's White House announced that they would invoke executive privilege to stop prosecutors from listening to tapes made by a secret Oval Office recording system. (288K wav sound)
That claim was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court in United States vs. Nixon. Starr pointed to key parts of the high court's unanimous decision that might be applicable to Clinton's current claim. Starr said the justices ruled that executive privilege was "reviewable" by the judiciary, but evidence related to a criminal investigation must be turned over.
Starr said, "The court went on to acknowledge that where military or diplomatic secrets are at issue, the president's claim to secrecy is especially strong. But where the president asserts merely 'a generalized interest in confidentiality,' the privilege must give way to 'the fair administration of criminal justice.'"
Clinton has claimed privilege in his conversations with top aides concerning Starr's investigation of sex and perjury charges involving the president and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The president has denied he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky or that he lied under oath or urged anyone else to do so.
The White House, armed with an advance text of the speech, called the independent counsel's attempt to align Clinton with Nixon a cheap shot, arguing that as an appeals court judge, Starr had written that executive privilege claims should not be rejected as Watergate-like but considered instead on their individual merits.
Starr's supporters claim that the various privilege assertions put forth by the president and his aides are simply stalling tactics.
The question of executive privilege, argued in sealed filings by both sides, is currently under consideration by a federal judge.
It has been a busy week for Starr. In the last six days, he has questioned first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton under oath, and persuaded a judge that Lewinsky did not have an immunity deal.
On Thursday, he won an indictment against former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell, a lifelong friend of the president and former law partner of the first lady.