October 20, 1998

The Clinton/Lewinsky Story

Third Party Witnesses

Third Party Witnesses

From the earliest days of the Lewinsky story, reports were broadcast and published that Starr was investigating the existence of eyewitnesses to the intimate encounters between the President and Monica Lewinsky. Several stories named potential eyewitnesse s. But in the Starr Report and supporting material, there are no eyewitnesses.

On Jan. 26, both the New York Post and the Daily News led with the headline "Caught in the Act" following the ABC report of a secret service agent or White House staffer catching Clinton and Lewinsky in an "intimate encounter." For the next week, speculat ion swirled about the witness or witnesses with news organizations issuing and retracting reports. And in the months that followed the supposed witnesses surfaced and disappeared with little coming of predictions that the case was to be blown open.

This case appears to raise several concerns. One is whether the press was relying on second-hand sourcing in reporting about the alleged eyewitnesses. Journalists have acknowledged privately that at least some of the sources for some of these press accounts were not those directly involved either in seeing the president and Lewinsky or even the investigators or prosecutors directly involved in the case. While a news organization may have two sources on a story, how much direct knowledge do those sources needs to have before one can trust that a story has been verified?

Second, this also appears to be a case where investigators and prosecutors suspicions or suppositions made their way into the media coverage. The fact that these suppositions proved wrong raises questions about whether prosecutors theories should be treat ed as news or should be handled with more restraint. It may well be that these investigative sources used the press to float rumors, to put pressure on potential witnesses including Lewinsky, and to try out a prosecution theory that included a possible c onspiracy to cover up the affair. This all suggests that the press was not sufficiently skeptical in the case of the third party witness thread about its sources and their motives

A Chronology of Stories Concerning the "Third Party Witness":

  1. On 1/25, ABC's "This Week" reported: "ABC News has learned that Ken Starr's investigation has moved well beyond Monica Lewinsky's claims and taped conversations that she had an affair with President Clinton. Several sources have told us that in the Spring of 1996 the President and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House. It is not clear whether the witnesses were Secret Service agents or White House Staff.This development underscores how Ken Starr is collecting evidence and witnesses to build a case against the President — a case that would not hinge entirely on the word of Monica Lewinsky." Sam Donaldson treated the report as a fact and sought comment on it from guest Rep. Henry Hyde. Hyde declined to comment on the report, calling it "an allegation." And at the conclusion of the show, Donaldson again mentioned the report, saying, "Corroborating witnesses have been found who caught the president and Miss Lewinsky in an intimate act in the White House."

  2. On 1/26, the New York Post and the New York Daily News bannered the Sunday ABC report with front pages that said "CAUGHT IN THE ACT.'' The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and others carried front page stories attributed to ABC News saying Clinton and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter.
  3. On 1/26, ABC changed the Sunday report on Good Morning America, saying that several sources said Starr was "investigating claims that in the Spring of 1996 the President and Lewinsky were discovered in an intimate encounter" and that shortly afterwards, Lewinsky was moved out of the White House to the Pentagon. The network also carried White House Press secretary Mike McCurry's sweeping denial of the earlier ABC report.
  4. On 1/26, CBS News reported that sources say Starr is investigating reports of White House staffers who saw Clinton and Lewinsky alone together at various places in the mansion. "including the White House theater and a study off the Oval office."
  5. On 1/26, the Washington Post reported Starr's office would seek to interview Secret Service agents to ask if they personally observed Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in any "intimate acts."
  6. On 1/26, the Dallas Morning News website reported and then, hours later, retracted a report that a Secret Service agent would testify he saw Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation. Before the retraction, MSNBC and CNN's Larry King Live carried the report and speculated on its consequences. Nightline also had carried the report.
  7. On 1/27, the print edition of Dallas Morning News reported "an intermediary for one or more witnesses who report having seen an ambiguous incident involving" Clinton and Lewinsky were talking about possible cooperation with Starr.
  8. On 1/28, NBC News quoted "legal sources" saying a Secret Service agent claimed to have seen Lewinsky and Clinton in "unusual circumstances" but Williams added, "the Secret Service insists it knows of no agent who witnessed any compromising behavior involving the President.
  9. On 2/3, CBS News reported "the Secret Service has conducted an internal inquiry and now believes that no agents saw any liaison between the President and Monica Lewinsky."
  10. On 2/4, the Wall Street Journal website reported that White House Steward Bayani Nelvis testified before the grand jury that he saw Clinton and Lewinsky together in the White House, and that he found a stained tissue afterwards. Bureau C hief Alan Murray then told the story on CNBC.
  11. In its 2/5, edition the Wall Street Journal changed its story to say Nelvis had told this not to the grand jury but to Secret Service agents because he was personally offended when he "found and disposed of tissues with lipstick and othe r stains on them following a meeting between" Clinton and Lewinsky.
  12. On 2/9, the Wall Street Journal retracted its story and reported Nelvis was questioned for three hours during two grand jury appearances and said he didn't see Clinton alone with Lewinsky.
  13. On 2/11, the Washington Post reported that former Secret Service officer Lewis Fox said that Clinton and Lewinsky "spent at least 40 minutes alone" while Fox was posted outside the Oval Office door. "She had arrived with papers for the president, he said, and Clinton instructed Fox to usher her into his office," the account said. "[H]is statement could be critical to independent counsel Kenneth Starr's attempt to determine whether" Clinton and Lewinsky had a relationship and tried to conceal it.
  14. In its 4/6 issue, Time reported Starr had set his sight on two eyewitnesses. One is a Secret Service agent who has told colleagues he saw Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation. The second is Lewinsky herself.
  15. On 4/14, ABC reported that "sources" said Starr had "subpoenaed seven Secret Service uniformed guards to find out what they know of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, and that Starr believes Bayani Nelvis, the steward, did indeed tell so me of these agents he found lipstick-stained towels in the Oval Office study after a Clinton-Lewinsky meeting." ABC added, "But a lawyer close to the case says that Nelvis has denied the story to the grand jury.
  16. On 7/7, ABC reported that the Federal Appeals Court had ruled that Secret Service agents must testify in Starr's case. The report said, "This decision means that Ken Starr could have access to witnesses who could have seen something betw een the President and Monica Lewinsky, instead of just having heard of their alleged relationship."
  17. On 7/17, Starr said publicly that the Office of Independent Counsel "is in possession of information that Secret Service personnel may have observed evidence of possible crimes while stationed in and around the White House." The L.A. Times quoted Michael Leibig, attorney for some agents; "The areas that he's (Starr's) interested in, I think, are much more specific than some of the press stories have been. They're not generally 'Did you see a crime?' They're generally 'On January 23, whe re were you, Where were other people?' "
  18. By 7/19, many news organizations were reporting, based on named sources representing the subpoenaed agents, that no agent claimed to have seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising position, but several would testify they saw Lewinsky join Clinton alone in the Oval Office for periods of private time.

Starr Report and Supporting Documents

The Starr Report is mute on the quest for third party witnesses to the Clinton-Lewinsky meetings. It does, however, use the testimony of the Secret Service agents to build the case that Lewinsky's version of the affair is credible because these witnesses saw her arrive in the President's office.

And the supporting documents to the Starr Report, show that Secret Service agent Gary J. Byrne testified steward Bayani Nelvis told him about lipstick-stained towels that the President had left in his study, and that Nelvis complained he was tired of clea ning up that stuff. Byrne said he thought the stains had been left by another woman who worked in the White House, not Monica Lewinsky, and that he suggested to Nelvis the steward should discard the towels rather than send them to the White House laundry were they might "give anybody any more fuel for any more rumors about the President."

Byrne testified that agent John Muskett told him of discovering Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising moment. Muskett denies it.