Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was hired to investigate the Whitewater scandal. After spending 30 months and $30 million, Starr has yet to accuse President Bill Clinton or his wife of any crime. The special prosecutor this week switched his strategy; he now tries to catch Clinton in a lie that might amount to perjury. Again, Starr seems to have come up empty-handed and Clinton appears clean. So the independent counsel has resorted to accusing the president of asking someone else to lie about something that wasn’t illegal in the first place.
The news of Starr’s allegations, broken Wednesday by the Washington Post, sent all of Washington, most of the news media and much of the nation into speculation about Clinton’s impeachment. The president, Starr says, three years ago had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, then a 21-year-old White House intern. More recently Clinton is accused of asking Lewinsky to lie about the affair, which might constitute subornation of perjury. That amounts to obstruction of justice, the charge that cost Richard Nixon the presidency in 1974. And indeed, if Clinton did ask Lewinsky to lie under oath, he ought to face impeachment.
Whether Clinton should lose his office will be determined in the months ahead. Both he and Lewinsky deny the charges. Right now, though, Starr is the one who should be sweating for his job. Moreover, America needs to re-examine the independent counsel law from which Starr derives his authority. Lewinsky testified under oath that she had no affair with Clinton. The president did the same over the weekend, in a sworn deposition in which he admitted other extra-marital affairs. But that was testimony in a civil suit filed by Paula Jones, a private citizen, against Clinton for harassment while governor of Arkansas.
The basis for Starr’s allegations is a series of tapes made by Linda Tripp, an acquaintance of Lewinsky. At first, Tripp taped the former intern on her own. Tripp made similar allegations against Clinton and then-president George Bush that were dismissed for lack of evidence. In the tapes, Lewinsky allegedly describes a series of sexual encounters with Clinton in the White House. Tripp brought her homemade tapes, the kind an answering machine can make of a phone conversation, to Starr. The prosecutor then sought a warrant to have Tripp wired for further recordings. At that point, Starr crossed the line of investigative propriety.
His mandate was to investigate the president for financial wrongdoing before he took office. With Lewinsky, Starr investigated a civil matter not at all related to the Whitewater affair. He became, in effect, an attorney for the plaintiff in a civil suit against the president. He is no longer an independent counsel. The Jones lawsuit is a sordid affair, and Starr’s involvement only dirties his office and his reputation. He should stop this probe. And if Starr’s cheap investigation — the sort of stuff printed in trashy detective novels — is legally allowed, the law must change.
It took Nixon’s resignation to force lawmakers to provide for investigators who can’t be fired by the president. Before they consider Clinton’s impeachment, Congress should give America special prosecutors who go home when their job is done.