NEWS- Bugged: Whitehead's story disputed

John Whitehead claims that at the time he was suing President Bill Clinton, a surveillance expert found that his office at the Rutherford Institute had been bugged.

Over a decade after he first took on Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, John Whitehead is still fighting for his credibility. Now, however, the squabble is with one of his former aides.

In a recent Hook cover story, "Suing the president: Ten years later, John Whitehead looks back at Jones v. Clinton" [January 24], the founder of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based legal civil liberties group, said that around the time he took Jones' case, he'd spotted outside his house "guys in skinny ties and white shirts in a black van, looking me right in the eye." 

He was suspicious that he was being watched, Whitehead told the Hook– so suspicious that he subsequently hired a former National Security Agency surveillance expert to have a look around his office. According to Whitehead, the expert found that "the whole office was bugged."

Ron Rissler, the paralegal who was the first to receive the anonymous tip that Clinton was having an affair with an intern named Monica Lewinsky, says that while he does remember the former NSA expert coming into the office, there were never any bugs found at the Rutherford Institute.

"When I saw this untruth in the article, I couldn't let it go," he says. "I wasn't going to say anything about it, but then I thought, 'Darn, if I know it's not true, I have to stand up.'"

As for why Whitehead would make up such a claim, Rissler says it's partly due to the nature of the pro bono legal business.

"With any group that's a non-profit, I don't think you have to make up things, but you exaggerate," he says. "When people hear that they can help to stem things like this bugging, it helps bring in the money."

However, Rissler says that's not the only reason Whitehead would fabricate such a detail.

"He's paranoid," says Rissler of Whitehead. "That's the whole reason he brought in someone to do a sweep. He thinks someone's after him."

Whitehead stands by his story.

"We did have a former NSA guy in here, and he did find bugs," he says. "[Rissler] was here assisting with things, but he would have never been privy to that information." 

According to Whitehead, Rissler's claim is evidence of a personal grudge he has against his former employer.

"Things didn't end so well with Ron," he says. "He has been a disgruntled former employee for some time. He's frequently looking at what we do and nitpicking, particularly with our criticism of the Bush administration."

Rissler insists he has no axe to grind.

"[Whitehead] will come back to you and say it's because I was let go, but that's not why I came forward," he says from his hometown of Charles Town, West Virginia, where he's a paralegal for another law firm. "That was years ago, and I'm sorry it had to happen, but that's not why I spoke up."

Whitehead's charges of Clinton-inspired espionage are not unique. In addition to accusing President Clinton of sexually assaulting her in the Oval Office, former Democratic fundraiser Kathleen Willey claimed in the February 21 Hook cover story, "Kathleen's crusade," that on January 8, 1998, days before she was to testify in the Jones suit, she encountered a mysterious jogger near her home outside Richmond.

"I'll never forget the look in his eyes," Willey said.

After referring to her missing cat, the recently nail-gunned tires on her Subaru Outback, and her children by name, the jogger, Willey says, "looked at me and said, ‘You're just not getting the message, are you?'"

Whitehead says that while he believes Willey was assaulted, his claims about his surveillance are less tainted by personal motives.

"I think she has an axe to grind against the Clintons," he says. "I don't have anything against Bill Clinton, and I think he was a better president than the one we have now."

Still, people at the Rutherford Institute admit that they cannot recall the name of the surveillance expert they hired.

"We've moved our offices since then, and those files are long gone," says Rutherford spokesperson Nisha Mohammad. "Even the Paula Jones files are who-knows-where."

Nor  did Whitehead report the bugs to any law enforcement.

"I wouldn't have known who to call," he says.

Rissler says that doesn't sound like the John Whitehead he knows.

"If there had been bugs, he would have followed up on it, and rightfully so, because he's into that Fourth Amendment stuff." says Rissler. "He would have been on that like stink on manure."