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Lawyers chilling out muckrakers

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Brrrrrr! Time was, journalists dealt directly with sources or, after publication, irate subjects. Now we get icy letters from lawyers out to inflict a "chilling effect."

Here's one from William J. Murphy of Baltimore, counsel for Bruce Lindsey, the White House lawyer desperately pleading special privilege to avoid answering a grand jury's questions.After reading my recent description of the tight-lipped Lindsey as President Clinton's "notorious consigliere," Murphy consulted his Random House Unabridged Dictionary: "As I expected, notorious is defined as `widely and unfavorably known' and consigliere as `a member of a criminal organization or syndicate who serves as an adviser to the leader.' " Thus lexicographically armed, he calls my characterization of his client "insulting, baseless and defamatory."

But political lexicography is my shtick. Ever since the coterie of John F. Kennedy was named "the Irish Mafia," the term consigliere has had wide usage meaning "intimate political confidant." Ask Ted Sorensen. It may be that investigation of Lindsey will revive the term's gangland connotation, but that is as yet unknown.

Such word-maven expertise stills my quaking at his mout'piece's legally loaded word, "defamatory." (As the spelling indicates, I use mout'piece jocularly. However, Philip Weiss of The New York Observer, who last week wrote a brilliant exegesis of the "talking points" speculating that Lindsey may be the suborn-again author, can expect a missive paralyzing in its forensic frigidity.)

Another knee-knocker was zinged in by fax from William Alden McDaniel Jr., lawyer for Sidney Blumenthal (and for James Carville, a more forthright Clinton advocate), much of which The New York Times properly published. I had opined that the actions of Blumenthal, a Clinton official, may be comparable to that of Charles Colson, a Nixon official who served jail time for leaking disparaging information about Daniel Ells-berg.

After denouncing this as "a crude attempt to smear Blu-men-th-al," the lawyer noted that "Colson pleaded guilty to that charge, so it was never tested in the courts. It is difficult to believe any American court would have sustained such a conviction." Gee. At long last, Clinton defenders are holding up Chuck Colson as an example of a man wrongly charged by a zealous special prosecutor.

But the "icebox strategy" of lawyers seeking to chill out news-hounds yelping after our foxy quarry is not limited to Clintonites. Some of the good guys are using bad means.

Larry Klayman, an attorney whose Judicial Watch flushed out John Huang of the China Connection, has also used the civil courts to direct the spotlight of pitiless publicity on the perpetrators of Filegate - the abuse of FBI power against hundreds of people whose offense was to be Republican. (Ken Starr has been a real flop on this case.)

But Klayman's legal harassment of Carville, George Stephanopoulos and others is offensive because it inhibits robust, wide-open and uninhibited debate. A federal judge wisely quashed the lawyer's subpoena of a reporter's notes as "overly broad," an opinion New Yorker magazine editors applauded even as they must have winced at its sexism.

What can be done to counter the icebox strategy of lawyers? Report retort; complain back; demand clients speak for themselves.

Praise lawyers who return calls. William Ginsburg did and does not deserve the derision being heaped on an outsider by snobbish Washington insiders. One day we may learn how he was whipsawed by Monica's conflicted parents.

Zap lawyers who duck calls, like Hugh Rodham Esq., of Ferrel & Fertel in Miami. How many millions will his firm get from the tobacco settlement? What's his cut? What did he do for it? Who steered him into the Fertel field? (Hoo-boy, will I get a chiller-diller from Hillary's brother's lawyer.)

So here we cringe, all a-tremble in civil liability's new ice age, teeth chattering, foreheads clammy in cold fear, pointing fingers frozen. But take heart, ye mucked-up muckrakers - after the Chilling Effect comes the Feverish Finish.

New York Times News Service