ON FEBRUARY 26 LAST, my old friend Sidney Blumenthal emerged from the grand jury and made a bravura appearance on the courthouse steps in Washington, DC. He denounced the inquisitorial tactics of Judge Starr, said he could hardly believe he was living in America, and proclaimed: "Today I was forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job, with, and I wrote this down, the New York Times, CNN, CBS, Time magazine, US News, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Observer, and there may have been a few others I don't remember right now. Ken Starr's prosecutors demanded to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had told me about Ken Starr's prosecutors."
This speech was a success. It bought Clinton some time with the press and added to the standard caricature of Starr as a tyrannical monster. It almost, but not quite, worked with me (see Conspiracies With Sidney, March 30, 1998). It certainly suckered The Nation, which published an editorial asking: Has Kenneth Starr lost his mind? and printed a petition inviting signatures from those who had upheld the First and Fourth Amendments by talking to Sidney.
The grand-jury transcript might never have been made public. I suppose Sidney assumed it wouldn't be. He wasn't asked any of those questions, let alone "forced to answer" them. He was asked if the White House had produced any "talking points" about Monica Lewinsky, and he replied:
"If reporters called me or I spoke with reporters, I would tell them to call the DNC to get those talking points. And those included news organizations ranging from CNN, CBS, ABC, New York Times, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, New York Observer, Los Angeles Times."
This is the only moment at which those news organizations are mentioned in the transcript. If Sidney "wrote them down," he was taking notes on his own testimony. The forewoman of the grand jury admonished him in the strongest terms at the end of his subsequent appearance, expressing the anger of her fellows at the misrepresentation he had offered to the cameras as soon as he emerged.
When I found this out, I was depressed. It's one thing to exaggerate in your own defense, but another to falsify your own rather cowardly testimony in order to pose as an upholder of the First and Fourth Amendments. And Sidney had repeated the same stuff to me when I had called to offer him sympathy. At the beginning of February, therefore, I decided that I would have to write a column showing how easily the White House had fooled the press and correcting what we at The Nation had written. This would involve saying that my differences with Sidney had stopped being merely political. This would also involve retelling a story about Clinton's nasty scheme to defame and blackmail a woman who was of no further use to him. Of this I had learned, without being asked to keep it to myself, from the same source.
In the course of getting hold of the transcripts and so forth, I had a number of conversations with staffers at various House committees. One of them evidently called the House Judiciary Committee, which contacted me on Friday, February 5, while this column was being written. These matters are often decided in the first few minutes: The counsel quite clearly knew the answer to the first question she asked me, which was whether I had ever heard Mr. Blumenthal relay the President's version of events. Having often told the story, and having already put it in print last September under my own name in the London Independent, I was in a weak position to say no, as the trial of the President had one day to run. Some say, however, that I should have been prepared to call myself a liar and a fabricator in order to safeguard Clinton, and his attempted obstruction of justice, and his use of yet another friend to take the fall for him. No thanks.
The essential point is not obscure to me. Having tried to keep Lewinsky sweet with various job searches, and having induced her to perjure herself in his own interest, the President lost contact with his former comfort woman. He occasionally signaled her through the media, for instance by his choice of neckwear. And, within days of the affair becoming public, he had "told" her what would happen if she didn't stay perjured. She would be called a blackmailer and a stalker. The effect such a strategy would have had on such a girl is not difficult to imagine. (And you, hypocrite lecteur, you would probably have believed it, and called her a "stalker" yourself.) Had she not had Clinton's horrid leavings on her garments, she would now be in a world of pain and distress. I don't so much blame Sidney for passing on this filthy story or for accidentally forwarding this even filthier strategy, because I have reason to think that he actually believed his President. And it is Clinton, not Sidney, who should be risking perjury by denying that such a cynical policy of blackmail and defamation (and therefore obstruction) was pursued, on government time and with public money.
So I wish I had overcome my reluctance a little earlier and written that column last month. It would have done Sidney a favor, because I had no idea that he would take the risk of disputing such a well-known fact under oath. He should never have been put in such a position. As matters now stand, I have told the House Judiciary Committee (whose staffers have properly advised me that my testimony may be compelled) that I will not name the other reporters who can confirm my story and will decline to testify if they—or anyone else—make this a case against Sidney and not an obstruction case against the President. In the present fetid atmosphere of unprincipled bipartisan compromise and cover-up, it is just thinkable that this could end with Clinton walking free, with his subordinates made to suffer for him yet again and with C. Hitchens cited for contempt. If there is a "perjury" trap of any kind here, it is Clinton who baited it.