Presidential Crisis: Tripp and her agent now have problems of their own

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The Independent Online
LINDA TRIPP was a key figure both in starting the inquiry into President Bill Clinton's sex life, and in accumulating evidence against him. But it is increasingly clear from documents released in the past two days that the former White House secretary faces plenty of problems of her own.

For the President's supporters, Ms Tripp, her tapes, personal connections and activities are further proof of the "vast right-wing conspiracy". For Mr Clinton's enemies, Ms Tripp is a vulnerable and honourable person who has been mercilessly hounded and vilified by the President, his lawyers and the press as part of a systematic campaign to blacken the opponents of the White House.

Ms Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Monica Lewinsky from 3 October last year until 15 January. Those tapes helped to kick off the probe of Mr Clinton's handling of his relationship with Ms Lewinsky. They suggested that the President was seeking to conceal the relationship from the lawyers representing Paula Jones, a former Arkansas employee who alleged sexual harassment by the President.

But nine of the 27 tapes which Ms Tripp handed over to the inquiry by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, did not appear to be originals, suggesting that they had been duplicated and perhaps even edited. The tapes were examined the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Audio Signal Analysis Unit, which found that the tapes were not consistent with the machine which she claimed had been used to record them. Because of suspicions about these tapes, they were not used in the case: only tapes which Ms Lewinsky herself authenticated were used.

It was notable when the Starr report first came out that - despite all the initial fuss about Ms Tripp's evidence - it made little use of her tapes. That may be partly because of the concerns about the provenance of the tapes, or it may be because the Starr inquiry itself had extensively debriefed Ms Lewinsky about the affair.

But it may reflect a broader uneasiness about Ms Tripp, who is in a very difficult position. She is already the subject of an investigation by a Maryland grand jury on wiretapping charges. Recording another person on a telephone line without their knowledge is illegal in Maryland, and Ms Tripp could face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Ms Lewinsky herself has made it clear what she thinks about her former confidant. "I'm really sorry for everything that happened," she told a grand jury in August. "And I hate Linda Tripp."

Since she first emerged on the scene Ms Tripp has been a controversial figure. In a 1994 book proposal, she raised suspicions about the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster. In August 1997, by then working at the Pentagon, she told Newsweek magazine she had seen a White House employee, Kathleen Willey, emerging from the Oval Office looking dishevelled and claiming the President had groped her.

Mr Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennet, said she was not a credible witness. That episode prompted her New York literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, to suggest that she should get irrefutable proof, through tape recordings. On 12 January 1997, she contacted the Starr inquiry with her tapes and, wired up by the FBI, then met Ms Lewinsky in a Virginia hotel.

She has been given a tough time. She is not regarded as a sympathetic character because her primary role was as a woman who had secretly recorded conversations with a friend.

Ms Tripp was also a target for the President in his video testimony. She had gone straight from talking to the Starr prosecutors to advising the lawyers for Ms Jones, he noted. "It now appears ... that there had been some communication between you and Ms Tripp and them and they were trying to set me up and trick me," he said.

She has thus been further depicted as a tainted witness, one who was actively trying to shift the burden of evidence against the President. Now, she appears isolated even from Mr Starr and his investigators, the people who put her where she is today.