Kavanaugh is unfit to be a US Supreme Court judge. I should know
My sinister brush with him revealed just how low he's prepared to go to serve his own, selfish ends
Twenty-three years ago I crossed swords with a younger Brett Kavanaugh in one of the weirdest and most disturbing episodes of my career as a journalist.
What happened leaves me in no doubt that he lacks judicial character and is unfit to serve on the US Supreme Court for the next 30 years or more, whatever his political ideology.
He was not a teenager. It related to his duties in the mid-1990s as assistant independent counsel for the Starr investigation, then investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton in the most sensitive case in the country. To my surprise, the incident has suddenly become a second front in his nomination saga on Capitol Hill.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has accused him of violating secrecy laws by revealing the details of a federal grand jury. “Disclosing grand jury information is against the law,” she told Politico, the American politics website. She said it also showed he had misled the Senate by assuring categorically that he had never leaked grand jury material to journalists.
Feinstein released a “smoking gun” document from the archive files of the Starr investigation. It shows Kavanaugh’s efforts to suppress a news story about his wild cross-examination of a witness, including a wayward discussion of “genitalia” that particularly worried him. This piqued my interest since I am named in the document and the witness, Patrick Knowlton, was in a sense my witness.
Feinstein is doubtless unaware of the larger, surreal story behind that week, and what it might suggest about rogue operations at the heart of the US federal system.
The document is one of hundreds of papers released by the US National Archives this year. For me it has been a strange journey back in time, like reading your old Stasi file in East Berlin. There is one handwritten note by a Starr prosecutor stating obliquely: “Ambrose about to go off the deep end.”
Okay, nobody’s perfect. There were debriefing memos of clandestine meetings I had with federal agents and prosecutors. One from Shoney’s restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas; another from a dinner at the Occidental Grill in Washington (my old haunt). Knowlton had been called to the grand jury because of a story in The Daily Telegraph. Little did I know then that I was about to turn this brave man’s life upside down.
He was a crime scene witness in the death of Vincent Foster, the White House aide and ex-law partner of Hillary Clinton. As the newspaper’s bureau chief in Washington, I had tracked down Knowlton and discovered that the Starr inquiry had never spoken to him, even though he had been the first person at the Fort Marcy death location and had highly relevant information.
I showed him his FBI “302” witness statement from the earlier, superficial, Fiske probe. He had never seen the words attributed to him before. He was stunned. It contradicted his assertions. He said the FBI had tried repeatedly to badger him into changing his story on key facts. Each time he refused. Now it appeared they had written in what they wanted to hear.
He agreed to go public and accused the FBI of falsifying his witness statement. As soon as the print edition of The Telegraph reached Washington, the Starr investigation issued a subpoena calling Knowlton to the grand jury. He was to face questioning by Brett Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh was then a cocky 30-year-old from the affluent WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) suburbs of north-west Washington, very much the country club boy with a high sense of status, and Yale Law School behind him, though only with a humdrum cum laude. If anybody was going to wind up my hardscrabble, salt-of-America witness, it was this child of privilege.
What happened was an eye opener.
Before testifying, he suffered two days of what appeared to be systematic intimidation by a large surveillance team. This was observed by two other witnesses, including Chris Ruddy, now the powerful chief executive of NewsMax. Ruddy called me in shock from Dupont Circle to recount what he saw.
A deeply shaken Knowlton contacted me from his home several times, until his phone was cut off. Veteran intelligence agents might recognise the hallmarks of a softening-up operation. In my view (unprovable) the objective was to frighten him before his grand jury appearance. It smacked of police state behaviour on the streets of Washington DC. I informed Starr’s office that their grand jury witness was being intimidated. So did his lawyer, who asked for witness protection. Nothing was done.
Kavanaugh brushed it off, saying The Telegraph was behind all this mischief in order to “sell newspapers”.
When Knowlton appeared at the grand jury, he says he was subjected to two-and-a-half hours of character assassination by Kavanaugh. There was little attempt to find out what he knew about the Foster death. Knowlton later filed a federal lawsuit against FBI agents working for Kavanaugh, alleging witness tampering and conspiracy to violate his civil rights.
The quixotic case was impossible to prove, yet it was the action of a man who clearly felt wronged. To this day he blames Kavanaugh personally.
Thousands of documents from the Starr inquiry are still secret. Others are redacted. It is impossible to know if Kavanaugh was linked to intimidation or obstruction of justice, but there is no doubt in my mind that he failed to protect the rights of his own grand jury witness.
This is not the place to revisit the Foster case, but it is worth noting two points that touch on Kavanaugh. Few are aware that the US federal prosecutor handling the death investigation at the outset, Miquel Rodriguez, had resigned from the Starr inquiry after a bitter dispute. His resignation letter said he was prevented from pursuing leads, that FBI witness statements did not reflect what witnesses had said, that the suicide verdict was premature and that his grand jury inquiry was shut down just as he was beginning to uncover evidence.
An informed source told me his work had been sabotaged by his own FBI agents.
The nub of the dispute was over compelling evidence of a wound in Foster’s neck, which contradicted the official version that Foster shot himself in the mouth. Key crime scene photos vanished and the FBI labs said others were overexposed and useless. Suspicious, Rodriguez slipped them to the Smithsonian Institution and had them enhanced. One showed a black ring like a gunshot wound in the side of Foster’s neck. It remains secret but I have seen it. The photo confirmed what people who handled the body originally stated.
I interviewed the first rescue worker on the scene. He grabbed me and said with frightening intensity: “Listen to me buddy, Foster was shot right here,” jabbing his finger into my neck. He said the FBI had pressured him into changing his story and that the official narrative was a pack of lies.
Kavanaugh’s reaction can be found in the documents from the Starr inquiry. One says in his handwritten notes: “startling discovery”, “blew up portions of photo – trauma to the neck on rt side”, “appears to be bullet hole”. He was given a long analysis by Rodriguez that ripped apart the Fiske report and called for an open murder investigation. This caused an internal crisis in the Starr office and a decision was made to shut down that part of the probe.
Rodriguez said he was “forced out”. It was the end of the only genuine probe of the Foster death, conducted under oath, that had ever occurred. Kavanaugh faced a choice: to go with the establishment or stick up for his colleague. This proved good for his career. He took over the grand jury. His treatment of my witness revealed his colours.
Kavanaugh wrote the Starr Report on the Foster death. But Knowlton got the last word, literally. He filed a 511-page report at the US Federal Court alleging skulduggery and asked that it be attached to the Starr Report. The three top judges ordered a shorter 20-page version be attached, despite vehement protest from the Starr office. This had never happened before.
This summary asserts the FBI had “concealed the true facts”, that there had been witness tampering, and that the report had ignored facts that refuted its own conclusions. There it sits in perpetuity, a strange rebuke for Kavanaugh by his fellow judges on the federal bench.
• Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was the Sunday Telegraph’s Washington bureau chief from 1992 to 1997.
– © The Daily Telegraph