WASHINGTON -- There was some last-minute drama in Washington before yesterday's release of the long-awaited report by Independent Counsel David Barrett. Sources close to the three-judge panel overseeing the report say that the panel's members were furious about leaks to the press previewing the report's contents. The report, detailing an organized attempt by Clinton administration officials to shut down an Internal Revenue Service investigation into possible tax violations by President Bill Clinton's secretary of housing and urban development Henry Cisneros, was to be released at 9:00 a.m. Thursday. The day before, late in the afternoon, word went out from the judges to the Independent Counsel's office that the release would be delayed.
Its delay Thursday morning caused apprehension as to the report's future. It had cost some $23 million in taxpayers' money to produce and a decade to research. It allegedly contained information on the politicization of the IRS and the Justice Department during the Clinton years and now might never see the light of day. The morning of the delay saw the kind of stories that roused the judges' ire. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that the impending report was heavily redacted -- 120 pages, poof! Simultaneously, with Novak's column came a front-page New York Times news story similar to the story published in the New York Sun last Monday that the Barrett Report chronicled a cover-up by the Clinton administration of both IRS and Independent Counsel investigations into Cisneros. But the Times report had a significant omission: no mention of the redacted pages in the final report, which after a three-hour delay did come out -- though with the 120 pages missing.
Had the members of the three-judge panel cooled off about these leaks? I cannot say. I do know that the head of the panel, Judge David Sentelle, is an amiable man, a published author, a cigar smoker. He is a Republican, and his two colleagues are Democrats. There is no reason they, too, could not have a sense of proportion. Leaks take place in Washington all the time. Right now a leaker from the National Security Agency is celebrated in this town as a patriot. The Barrett Report contains a memo from an IRS leaker who apparently first tipped off the Independent Counsel to the Clintonistas' funny business. Perhaps he, too, will become a hero. Throughout the history of special counsels there have been admired leakers. During Iran-Contra, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's office leaked prodigiously. There were even leaks while Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was investigating I. Lewis Libby prior to his indictment. Of course, some of those leaks could have come from the targets' lawyers. Who knows?
It is in the nature of leaks that their origins and purposes are mysterious. Barrett's office has been leakproof for years. He has been as quiet as a church mouse, which is why this week's hullabaloo caught many observers by surprise. Moreover, as in the Libby investigation, people mentioned in the report have very good reason to do the leaking or have their lawyers do it. In fact, throughout the Clinton years, we now know that leaks came more often from targets' lawyers than from Independent Counsels. Clintonistas such as the renowned Lanny Davis have boasted that it was best when bad news was coming to get out in front of the bad news by leaking to the press and putting one's own spin on the story.
The aforementioned New York Times story is a perfect example of the kind of stories confected by the Clintons and their lawyers over the years. It appears to be fair-minded, but read carefully it is interlarded with the Clintons' defenses. The Times' story's first words contain the sullen line "longest independent counsel investigation in history." Soon Barrett's work is described as a "scathing report." Then we have this land mine: Barrett's work "came to be a symbol of the flawed effort to prosecute high-level corruption through the use of independent prosecutors." Later one of the individuals mentioned in the report is quoted as writing that the gravamen of the report is "a scurrilous falsehood."
Finally let us return to the Times' amazing omission, neglecting to mention that the Barrett Report as released yesterday has 120 pages redacted. How do we account for this error? Alas, the Times' leakers lied to the paper. Its story ends saying, "But after Congressional Republicans attached a rider to a Department of Housing and Urban Development spending bill requiring publication of the full report, the judicial panel in November ordered a full disclosure." That was not the end of it. Had a fact checker from the Times called me, I would have pointed out that later, in December, legislation was snuck through Congress that allowed the redactions to stand.
As Novak reports, those 120 pages can be seen by any member of Congress, who can then make them public. The drama continues.