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Starr Draws Watergate Parallels

With his own fight over executive privilege raging in secret, Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr today drew parallels between his plight and Watergate prosecutors and declared the law presumes "the public has a right" to critical evidence.
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In a speech delivered to a bar association here, Starr noted he was speaking on the same day 24 years ago that the Nixon White House invoked executive privilege to stop prosecutors from listening to tapes made by a secret Oval Office recording system. Nixon's effort was unsuccessful.

"I have chosen a topic that has currency now, as it did then, the issue of executive privilege," Starr said in 12 pages of remarks that gave a professor's history of an issue that now affects his own criminal investigation.

Starr promised, "I am going to do my best to steer clear of the controversy" he is fighting in secret court hearings over President Clinton's decision to invoke executive privilege to block some aides' testimony before a grand jury.

Click here for an explanation of executive privilege by CBS News Legal Correspondent Kristin Jeannette-Meyers.

But weaving famous quotes from the Watergate era throughout, the prosecutor made clear that a president, except in the most extreme cases, cannot keep information secret from court proceedings.

"As the Supreme Court said in United States vs. Nixon, the public has a right to every man's evidence, except for those persons protected by a constitutional, common-law or statutory privilege," Starr said.

To further make his point, Starr also borrowed a famous quote from a fellow Texan, Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

"Watergate taught the nation two valuable lessons, lessons that are especially appropriate for us to recall," he said. "First, our Constitution works. And second, no one - absolutely no one - is above the law."

Continuing to draw parallels to Watergate, Starr noted that Jaworski spoke to the same Texas bar association 24 years ago.

Jaworski ultimately won his battle in a landmark Supreme Court decision that defined when it was appropriate for a president to evoke executive privilege.

Starr's battle must go on. His lawyers argue that executive privilege should not be allowed to block grand jury testimony by presidential advisers on personal matters such as the president's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The White House counters that a president needs to know that he can seek confidential advice from his aides without risk of it being disclosed.
A federal judge is considering both sides' sealed arguments.

Starr did not tip his hand on the court battle, but said he was encouraged that it has spurred a healthy public dialogue on the issue on talks shows and other venues.

"The recent debate on executive privilege ... has been wide ranging, informative, sometimes contentious," he said.

By PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer