Some people don't seek to become heroes, but circumstances conspire to put them in a situation where they can either be a coward or a champion of honesty and integrity. Such was the role thrust upon Susan McDougal by the self-righteous prosecutor for the right-wing extremists who ran roughshod over our legal system in their effort to unseat Bill Clinton. And Susan paid the price.
February 14, 2003
"The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk," Susan McDougal,
Talks With BuzzFlash.Com
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Some people don't seek to become heroes, but circumstances conspire to put them in a
situation where they can either be a coward or a champion of honesty and integrity.
Such was the role thrust upon Susan McDougal by the self-righteous prosecutor for the
right-wing extremists who ran roughshod over our legal system in their effort to unseat
Bill Clinton. And Susan paid the price.
Ken Starr's Legal Shock Troops didn't care about slashing through people's lives or using
intolerable prison conditions to try and get Susan McDougal to lie. They engaged in
unethical, immoral conduct, all the while thinking that they were on a mission from God
(to unseat a democratically elected president) and could do no wrong. They tried to
break Susan McDougal's soul, but they didn't succeed because she held the higher moral
ground: she told the truth, while Ken Starr and his minions wallowed in the sleazy
underworld of prosecutors without a conscience, who particularly liked to legally beat up
In the end, Susan emerged as a heroine. Ken Starr, however, will be remembered for
hearing scriptural hymns while he played with his devices of legal torture. This is Susan
McDougal's story. It is the story of a heroine --someone who didn't ask to play the role,
but stepped up to the plate when confronted with the Republican version of the "axis of
Susan faced three trials, including one involving the wife of the famous conductor Zubin
Mehta, in a few short years. It is difficult to explain how the trials related to each other
without reading "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk," her account of "why I refused to testify
against the Clintons and what I learned in jail." (The book, by the way, is climbing to the
top of the New York Times bestseller list.) BuzzFlash will let this interview stand for itself.
Susan's candor and integrity comes through loud and clear. You can clarify the details for
yourself by reading the book. (BuzzFlash is offering "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk as
premium at http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/Wouldnttalk.html.)
* * *
BUZZFLASH: The title of your book is The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk. Helen Thomas
says in the introduction to the book it should be the woman who wouldn't give Kenneth
Starr what he wanted. Why didn't you give Kenneth Starr what he wanted?
SUSAN MCDOUGAL: That is really the entire book. It's one reason I wrote the book is it's
so hard to explain in a short, pithy way -- you know, for television newscasts.
I met with the Independent Counsel's office for the first time when I got my first
subpoena. And I went with the hope that they would ask me questions, and I would
answer them, and I would be able to shed light on what I thought was an honest
investigation. Buy when I got to the first meeting, they were not interested in asking me
any questions -- they told me that was not what the meeting was about. Even though
they had never met me before, they said that they would trade global immunity for a
proffer against the target of their investigation, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
I told them then that I didn't know anything that I could give them in a proffer. I didn't
say, "Oh, gosh, I would never say anything bad about the Clintons." Or, "I'm the Clintons'
friend." Or anything like that. I said, "Look, I don't know anything they've done that's
illegal. I can't help you there."
So the pressure escalated, and they started to threaten me and told me that they would
prosecute me and they would put me in jail. They expected my cooperation. I repeated
that I was willing to cooperate again. I said, "You have documents in front of you. Why
don't you let me see them, and I'll answer any questions you have about them."
And the prosecutor for the Independent Counsel took his hand and he pushed them aside.
And he said, "No. You've heard our offer. That's what we have on the table. We are very
good at our jobs, and that's what we're telling you. You give us a proffer we can use,
and you get to have your life back."
And we left the meeting. Well, Bobby McDaniel, who had never come up against anything
like this before, said, "You know, this is the strangest system I've ever seen."
BUZZFLASH: And he was your attorney?
MCDOUGAL: Yes. He said, "I've never come into a prosecutor before, offered to answer
any question, look at any document, and have them turn me away. This is the most
unusual meeting I have ever had with a prosecutor."
He said most prosecutors, when they get somebody in who's willing to talk, are just
delighted. He said he had never seen anything like it.
So the investigation progressed. And it became more and more adversarial with them,
because every time I dealt with them, they were threatening me. And when that didn't
work, they threatened my brothers. I had three brothers who had worked with me and
[my former husband] Jim McDougal. And they were bringing them before the grand jury
and threatening to indict them. And they were still telling me, "Look, you know, life can
get a lot easier if you come up with this proffer."
I was not going to give them a lie. So I decided I would go to trial, and I'd be found
I wasn't. I was found guilty.
Well, let me just tell you, I believe to this day that they knew that the charges that they
were trying to prove against the Clintons were not true. I think that they knew all along
that the story David Hale had told them -- that Clinton had come to him and told him he
wanted to borrow $300,000, but he couldn't have his name on the document, so Susan
McDougal should come and sign the documents and give him the money -- was not true.
They had the checks from the $300,000 loan. They knew where the money had gone.
David Hale had stolen millions of dollars through this SBA, and he was trading that story
for leniency. And when he lied at my trial, I believe the Independent Counsel knew that
that was perjured testimony.
So I'm now at the point where they have convicted me with my husband's perjured
testimony piggybacked on the testimony of a man who admitted stealing millions of dollars
from the U.S. government. He put fake names on there and kept the money for himself.
He would send the loan forms back to the SBA with made-up companies. And he was
keeping the money, and he got caught by the FBI. And he made up this story and went
to them and told them: I can give you Bill Clinton if you'll cut me a deal. And in fact, he
was very smart. He did less time in jail than I did -- in spite of stealing millions of dollars
from the SBA.
BUZZFLASH: You described in your book, if I recall, that you were kind of surprised,
because you'd been told usually the way they go after "big fish" is to get the little ones
to rat on bigger ones. In this case, the big fish, in terms of criminal conduct, was the
chief witness for the prosecution or for the Independent Counsel in this case.
MCDOUGAL: There were no big fish to them except Bill Clinton.
BUZZFLASH: And yet in the case they claimed to be pursuing, really David Hale was the
big fish. But he ended up being their chief witness.
MCDOUGAL: Yeah, he was. He was the guy. Yeah, he was the biggest criminal of all, and
he got less time than anybody. I was starting to really feel like these were a bunch of
people who are not caring at all what the truth is. They can see who their witnesses are.
So I was getting angrier and angrier. Then they convicted me, and man, I was like there
is no way these people believe that I'm guilty. There was no evidence against me at all
except the word of David Hale.
And so, after we were convicted, Jim McDougal decided that he was going to also claim
that the David Hale story was true. And he came to me and said, "I'm going to say
whatever they want me to say, because I do not want to die in jail." And I said, "I
understand. I absolutely understand. Jim, you know that I am not going to do that. I
could not live with myself and do that." And he said, "Well, you're an idiot."
So I came to believe over time that they were pressuring Jim to have me also make that
deal. But Jim McDougal would come back from meetings with them, after he had decided
to cooperate. And he would be kind of laughing and telling me these stories that they
were making up to try to convict the President with. And he was kind of saying, "How
does this story sound?" And he would give me these detailed stories of what he was
going to say that Clinton and he had done.
And I said, "Jim, how are you ever going to go to court with these made-up stories and
survive? They're going to kill you." And he looked at me so seriously -- just dead in the
eye -- and he said, "The Independent Counsel is giving me the documents to weave
these stories around, Susan. And the Clintons don't have them."
And I was like, oh, man, I am such an idiot. I kept thinking there's no way anyone's going
to believe these stories. And then Jim's telling me that they've got these documents that
they're weaving these lies around to make them look real. And I thought, my God. And at
that time I pretty much decided not one step more. They are not going to do this with
me. And watching Jim McDougal become this craven sort of lackey for Kenneth Starr
made me just sick, because Jim McDougal was the man I had once loved and respected.
To see him turn into this person who could just kind of laughingly tell lies about someone
to destroy their life -- and know that he was under terrible pressure to do that -- it made
me hate them. And I decided then, watching him, that I would have no part of it. No
matter what it cost me.
BUZZFLASH: What happened next?
MCDOUGAL: It was about two days before my sentencing and Jim McDougal calls me on
the phone. He says, "You are such an idiot. You could write your own ticket. They are
frothing at the mouth to have you as their witness. Why don't you call them and see if
you can't work something out? Because if you don't, they are going to ask for 16 years in
jail. They have already told me they're going for the maximum, and you are going to just
And I said, "Jim, have you told them that I knew nothing about any of this with David
Hale or you, or anybody?" And he said, "Yes, I've told them that. And they said they
knew that all along. But they're not going to let you out of this. They've got to have your
So I go to Bobby McDaniel's office. We called the Independent Counsel's Office and Bobby
says, "What do you want from her? She's scared to death." And they say, "She knows
what we want. And if she gives us that, she does probation. She doesn't do a day of jail,
and she walks away."
And they also said they were starting a new grand jury. They were going to try to indict
me on tax evasion. But if I told them that day I would cooperate, then they would stop
the grand jury. But I had to call them that very day. So I just lost it. I walked out. I
called [attorney and former employee of Madison Guaranty] Pat Harris and I said, "All I
have to do is say that David Hale is telling the truth. Jim McDougal is already cooperating
and saying it's a true story. All I have to do is back that up, you know, and I walk away.
I don't have to worry about this one more minute."
And that's when Pat said, "A lie's not just for today. You know, you'd be lying for the rest
of your life. Do you want to lie the rest of your life, every time somebody asks you: 'Did
you tell the truth? Is it true -- what you said?'" And he said, "I know you, and I don't
think you can live with this."
So we didn't call them back, and I went to the sentencing. And they did ask for the
maximum, and I was sentenced to two years in jail. And the minute the sentencing was
over, an FBI agent came over, and he was kind of laughing and smiling. And he handed
me a subpoena for the grand jury. And so it was kind of like "gotcha." Not only did we
convict you, but you're going before the grand jury. And we're still going to get your
testimony. And so that was the moment I just said there is no way that I am going to
talk to these people.
BUZZFLASH: And so what happened that led to the formal charges?
MCDOUGAL: Then I went to the grand jury and I told them that I loved this country. I
loved the laws of the country -- that I had never been in any kind of trouble before in my
life, and had nothing to do with any of that. But I did not believe that the people who
were holding the grand jury -- the Independent Counsel -- were looking for the truth, and
that I would not be answering their questions.
If they wanted to give me anyone else -- a U.S. attorney -- any other investigative
body, then I might talk. But I did not believe that Kenneth Starr wanted the truth. And I
kind of went through and gave them the history of what I knew. And Judge Susan
Webber Wright told me that unless I answered their questions she was going to jail me for
contempt. She explained that it was not a punishment, because you are not going to jail
for a crime. You're going to be coerced for your testimony.
BUZZFLASH: In your book, you have very vivid descriptions of your life in jail. After you
were finally in the third trial, you were acquitted on one charge, and the other two
charges were dropped because of a hung jury. You became a spokesperson for women in
jail. You were in -- was it seven jails?
BUZZFLASH: And in wide-ranging conditions, but most of them all dreadful in different
sorts of ways, including the Hannibal Lector glass enclosure. If I recall, it was that
experience that almost finally broke you.
MCDOUGAL: That is true.
BUZZFLASH: It's basically solitary confinement -- you could see everyone, but you
couldn't hear. As the judge said, it is coercion. And the Independent Counsel said that
they had nothing to do at the time with the deplorable conditions you were held under,
and the fact you were being moved around. And you subsequently used the Freedom of
Information Act request to try to find out if it was at the orders of the Independent
Counsel that you were treated like an animal.
BUZZFLASH: Has that been resolved?
MCDOUGAL: No. I think that Mark Geragos [Susan's attorney in her second and third
trial] has just filed that recently. But Mark also put on -- in the third trial, he subpoenaed
one of the investigators for the Independent Counsel's office who admitted on the stand
that they had a hand in how I was held, and where I was held.
The administrators at the jail would come to my cell and I would say, "Please let me out
of solitary. Why don't you just let me in with the general population?" And they'd say it
was out of their hands -- that it didn't have anything to do with them.
BUZZFLASH: Tell us about that experience in the glass enclosure. Really, it's very
excruciating just to read. You're confined in this -- it's an enclosure more than a cell,
where you can see out but you can't hear anybody. Could they see you?
MCDOUGAL: Oh, yes. It was complete glass, lit 24 hours a day. And there's a single
guard tower that looks over all the cells. And so no one ever comes by, but the guard
can see everything from the tower. And most of the people on that block were there for
being mentally ill. And the things that you could see were just unimaginable, unbelievable.
It's one reason that I am really -- you can't say glad, but you can say fortunate -- that I
was able to see that, because that's one of the things I really talk about when I go
around the country is how the mentally ill are treated in prison.
They throw a sheet over their heads and knock them into the wall and knock them
unconscious, or spray them with gas, because they're mentally ill and they don't follow
orders and do what they're told. And these people are just held in the most horrible
conditions -- naked, starving; they don't feed themselves. The prison staff goes in with
these rubber suits and hoses and washes the feces and urine out of the cells, where
these people are housed like animals.
BUZZFLASH: And all you could do is watch.
MCDOUGAL: That's right.
BUZZFLASH: And that's basically all you had to do.
MCDOUGAL: Yes. I read a book a day in that cell. The ACLU had joined with Mark
Geragos to try to get me released from there. And one of the ACLU lawyers was into
books about the old pirate days and the sailing ships. And so my memories of Twin
Towers and the glass cell are intermingled with these sailing books that this lawyer used
to bring me, very detailed, about the rigging and the way you sail and the people on the
boat. It's very funny -- I think about those days, not being able to hear anything, totally
in sensory deprivation, and reading those books that this young lawyer would bring me.
He was so young and he was so apologetic. He'd say, "This is what I'm reading." And I
would read it. I would be so glad to get the books from him.
But I remember I'd come to the attorney meetings, and everything was behind glass --
everything. And Pat and Mark would say, "Your eyes are not even tracking us anymore." I
was really starting to kind of pull away, because it was just so intense to be locked up
BUZZFLASH: Well, there's a point where you think you're about to go out of your mind,
and you call Pat Harris [Susan's legal advisor and companion at the time] and....
MCDOUGAL: And I told him -- I said, "You've got to get here right now."
BUZZFLASH: You were basically like an animal in the zoo. People could see you. You
were on display. The OIC had accomplished its goal, and you were just about to break.
What kept you going?
MCDOUGAL: As I said, the ACLU joined the fight with Mark and Pat. We had already tried
to go to court against the jail authorities, but they kept arguing that because I was a
prisoner for the OIC, the local sheriff of that jail couldn't intervene. So they actually filed
against the Independent Counsel and it was due to go to court. Pat tells the story very
well about saying to me, "It's OK, you don't have to do it. You can get out of here today.
You don't have to stay in here." And my telling him, "No, I'm going to stay. I just think I
need hope that there's going to be an end to it."
It had gone on for ages with us thinking that they couldn't hold me there; judges in
California at the level of district court had issued three sets of orders saying release her
from this glass cell. And they finally went to the federal court, and the hope was there.
And on the day that I was to go to the court and talk about the conditions, the
Independent Counsel had me moved to a different facility. So I never got to go to court
BUZZFLASH: And what led to your release from prison just before the third trial?
MCDOUGAL: Mark and Pat wrote to Judge George Howard in Arkansas and said this is
just the most unbelievable incarceration of a person for civil contempt in the history of
this country. I had literally been strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital to go
into surgery for a back condition with Mark calling and saying, "Don't do it."
So they sent me to Arkansas to have this hearing before Judge Howard because Mark and
Pat wanted it to be a public hearing so people would know what was going on. And Judge
Howard heard the evidence and released me for medical reasons. But I will tell you: there
are people in much more horrible shape. I saw women who literally will never walk again --
with IV's in their arms -- that were not released.
When I left, I had no clothes. All of the pictures, when I was released, are in orange. I
didn't even bother have my family bring clothes because I thought I'd be going right back
to the jail. I remember thinking this can't be happening, when I walked out of there. So I
had nothing to change into.
BUZZFLASH: You must have been elated.
MCDOUGAL: I couldn't believe it. When the judge released me from the courtroom, he
said, "Bailiff, do you understand I want her released forthwith from this room?" And that
never happens. You're always taken back. You do the paperwork. And I had to talk to the
women back in prison; I had to tell them. The last thing I said to them before the court
hearing was that no matter what happened, I'll be back, and I'll see you again. Because
we had all talked before, and we had had our meeting before I left to go to the court.
And so I was, like, excuse me -- I really need to go back to the jail. I called the jail, and I
said, "Could I go back in there just for a minute?" And they just laughed. They said, "You
know, we can't let just anybody back in here."
BUZZFLASH: At this point, you are finally out of prison.
MCDOUGAL: Yes, I was on the outside. So I went through the Mehta trial after that, and
the third trial was almost immediately after I won the Mehta trial. I would say I got
probably a month between the two. I came back to Arkansas because Starr charged me
again with contempt -- only this time, it wasn't civil contempt, it was criminal -- and
obstruction of justice.
BUZZFLASH: And what happened at the third trial?
MCDOUGAL: I was in jail when he charged me again. And so Mark and Pat come back,
and they've just got these terrible faces. And I think -- oh, my God -- someone I love is
sick or dying or something. And Pat says, "I'm so sorry to tell you, but Starr's charged
you again. You've almost done all of your time for the civil contempt, and he's charged
you again. We just can't believe it."
I said, "Gosh, you know, this one is going to be a good one, because this time, we're
going to put him on trial." And they both just started laughing. I said we are going to
show people who this man [Starr] is at the third trial, and it's going to be our chance to
tell the truth. Because every time we try to get a hearing, they would move me or
something. And I never did get a hearing the whole time that I was in for civil contempt.
So this was going to be the first time.
BUZZFLASH: So now we're at the crucial third trial, and you've got a very gripping
account about how it unfolded. At moments you felt a lot of emotional relief and
vindication, particularly when the head of OIC for Arkansas from their Arkansas satellite
office, Hickman Ewing, is put on the stand as a witness and says things in very evasive
ways -- the very type of language which Clinton was accused of using, and which they
charged other people as they went along, including Julie Hiatt Steele.
MCDOUGAL: They almost charged Hillary Clinton with perjury at her grand jury testimony
because she kept saying, "I don't know." And so Mark says to the OIC prosecutor, "Do
you realize, during your testimony here today, you've said 'I don't know' 26 times? And
you're talking about events with Hillary Clinton that happened 15 years before? And we're
talking about events with you that happened six months before?"
BUZZFLASH: And he almost admitted, but without saying firmly yes, that he had
prepared an indictment of Hillary Clinton in advance of her grand jury testimony.
MCDOUGAL: Because she acted evasive and said she didn't know sometimes.
BUZZFLASH: And he did exactly the same thing.
MCDOUGAL: This guy's a snake handler. He has a church in his back yard because none
of the churches where he's from in Memphis, Tenn., are conservative enough, or
right-wing enough, for him. So he built his own church. And Jim always called him the
snake handler because he would have these meetings with Ewing. And Hickman was
always after Clinton for sex stuff.
So McDougal would go and meet with him. And he'd come back and he'd say, "Susan, he
is just dying for you to say that you had an affair with Clinton. I mean, if you would give
that to Hickman Ewing, you could write your own ticket with this guy. Because he is
obsessed with Clinton's morality."
BUZZFLASH: And so they each had their own little obsession.
MCDOUGAL: Yes. This guy was really right-wing, a very conservative preacher. And he
wanted Clinton on the morals issue.
BUZZFLASH: And in fact, during that trial, one of the OIC prosecutors went up to a
witness for the defense during a recess to ask if you had ever told her that you had a
sexual liaison with Clinton. And that was brought up in the trial right after the recess by
MCDOUGAL: Oh, everyone was shocked because they kept saying it's not about sex.
Everyone was still reeling from Monica Lewinsky and all of that. But they kept saying --
oh, no, it's not about sex. It's about lying.
So then an Independent Counsel prosecutor goes up to this 70-year-old woman -- a
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