Investigating the President, Now and Then

Seven years ago this summer, the nation was transfixed by the continuing spectacle of Kenneth Starr and his grand jury investigation of President Clinton. This year, there's another grand jury looking into potential wrong doing in the White House, but this time the probe is being conducted very differently.

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Since late 2003, a special prosecutor has been investigating a leak from inside the Bush administration. It revealed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. The president and the vice president have been interviewed. Many of their top aides have gone before a grand jury under oath. Yet until this summer most Americans were paying little or no attention. One reason is that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has conducted this investigation as discreetly as possible. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, that is very different from the approach of another special prosecutor not so long ago.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The Fitzgerald investigation, now in its 19th month, has taken place mostly behind closed doors. Special prosecutor Fitzgerald is simply not seen on TV. The average American would be hard-pressed to come up with his name, let alone identify his picture. And most significant, say political analysts, this investigation into a leak has itself been leak-proof; contrast that with the investigation of President Clinton conducted by special prosecutor Ken Starr, which started as a probe of the Whitewater real estate deal and morphed into the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Here's a clip from a story on NPR from February of 1998.

(Soundbite of February 1998 broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter: Over the past few weeks the public has learned in rare detail the twists and turns of the independent counsel's probe. And yesterday the president's attorney, David Kendall, said he had had enough.

Mr. DAVID KENDALL (Clinton's Attorney): These leaks make a mockery of the traditional rules of grand jury secrecy.

GONYEA: The Starr investigation was a long-running TV show with reporters aware of who was appearing before the grand jury each day. Hordes of media would camp out at the courthouse on what became known as `Monica Beach,' with TV shots of each witness entering and leaving the building and with details of testimony quickly making it into news reports.

With the CIA leak case, some of those who testified are certainly known, but it's impossible to draw up anything close to a complete list. Administration officials who have testified--some confirmed, some compiled from press reports--include some big names. There's top aide Karl Rove, who did talk about the CIA agent to at least one reporter. Testimony has come from press secretary Scott McClellan, former press secretary Ari Fleischer, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, also former Secretary of State Colin Powell and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But little is known about what they said.

The White House faces questions about the investigation almost daily, but the response from the press secretary is always something like this.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): I thank you for wanting to proceed ahead with the investigation from this room. But I think that the appropriate place for that to happen is through those who are overseeing the investigation.

GONYEA: Same from the president.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't know all the facts. I want to know all the facts. Best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who's spending time investigating it.

GONYEA: The president himself has spoken with investigators in this case, but it was at the White House and not under oath. Again, compare that with President Clinton's videotaped, sworn testimony in 1998.

(Soundbite of 1998 videotape)

President BILL CLINTON: I was trying to remember the first person, other than Mr. Bennett--I don't think Mr. Bennett--who the first person told me Paula Jones had--I mean, excuse me, Monica Lewinsky had a subpoena. And I thought that Bruce Lindsey was the first person.

GONYEA: Of course, President Clinton was himself the target of that investigation. It's not known who Mr. Fitzgerald's target is, if indeed he has one. Critics of President Bush say it's an injustice that the Clinton White House faced such scrutiny over a private behavior scandal, adding that the current investigation involves national security, a case for war based on weapons of mass destruction that have never been found. Go to any anti-Bush rally and you'll see this argument summed up in the protest sign that reads, `When Bush lied, people died.' But analysts caution that it's not yet known whether a crime was committed in the leaking of Valerie Plame's name; in part, that's because Fitzgerald keeps his cards so close to the vest. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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