A Question Of Privilege

Even in Africa, President Clinton can't escape questions about the grand jury inquiry into his relationship with a former White House intern.

CBS New White House correspondent Bill Plante, reports that just before the president entered a meeting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni Tuesday, he was questioned by reporters about his legal difficulties in Washington.

Click here for our
Special Report
"I don't believe I should be discussing that here," Mr. Clinton said when asked whether the White House will invoke executive privilege to keep prosecutors from getting grand jury testimony about advice he got in the Monica Lewinsky case.

Asked whether his conversations with Hillary Rodham Clinton might be protected by such executive privilege, an exasperated Mr. Clinton said, "I don't know," and referred questions to his lawyers in Washington, 7,000 miles away.

Another White House reporter asked whether he was glad to be out of Washington for nearly two weeks to escape his legal woes. The president said, "Well, I'm glad to be doing the business of the United States and the people."

As the president tours Ugandan villages Tuesday, a Washington grand jury resumes its investigation into allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice against the president. This is the first time the jury has met since Thursday, when White House efforts to invoke executive privilege were made public.

Sources familiar with the investigation said Monday the White House may rely on two court rulings to bolster its claims that Mrs. Clinton and her aides should be shielded by executve privilege.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House has always maintained that Mrs. Clinton has been a frequent adviser to her husband, and "that is true here as well."

One of Mrs. Clinton's advisers, Sidney Blumenthal, was among two presidential aides who have refused some of prosecutor's questions on executive privilege grounds. Sources have said the White House formally invoked the privilege in court filings last week, although the proceeding was under court seal.

White House officials declined comment late Monday on the reports involving Mrs. Clinton. Likewise, they have not confirmed on the record that executive privilege has been claimed in the case at all.

In making the legal claim that the privilege should be extended to cover any conversations in which the first lady was present, the White House may stand on two court decision from earlier Clinton controversies one giving Mrs. Clinton government status and the other thaextended the privilege generically to "presidential advisers."

In 1993, a federal judge ruled that Mrs. Clinton had to be considered a "de facto official" of the federal government because of her extensive role in overseeing the president's failed health care initiative.

Presidential lawyers also are likely to draw from an appeals court decision unsealed last year involving Clinton's attempt to shield the release of some information in the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy by claiming executive privilege.

In that ruling, the court held that even conversations between two presidential advisers, away from the president, could be covered by executive privilege if the discussion involved formulating advice to the president.

"We believe, therefore, that the public interest is best served by holding that communications made by presidential advisers in the course of preparing advice for the president come under the presidential communications privilege, even when these communications are not made directly to the president," the court ruled.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report