Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is sending out smoke signals that he is nearing closure on his two-year-old Whitewater-plus investigation.
He has let it be known that he is hiring two trial lawyers and compiling a memorandum evaluating the evidence so far against the Clintons and high administration officials. But his case is incomplete without the testimony of two so far unforthcoming Arkansas friends of the Clintons - Webster Hubbell and Susan McDougal.
Mr. Hubbell, who completed this week his 21-month sentence for defrauding law clients in Little Rock, faces questioning about who steered fees to him - and why - during the period between his resignation as associate attorney general in March 1994 and November, when the criminal investigation closed in on him.
Three payments - some $200,000 from the Indonesian Lippo group and smaller amounts from the Los Angeles Airport Commission and Time-Warner Inc. - were all arranged with the help of persons having White House or Democratic ties. That raised, in the minds of the investigators, the possibility that the fees were intended to encourage Hubbell's silence on the Clintons in his then pending confrontation with the prosecutor. In his original plea bargain, Hubbell agreed to cooperate with the Starr investigation, but sources say he has proved uncooperative. Upon release from jail this week, he said he would not cooperate further with the independent counsel.
President Clinton himself fed the speculation about Hubbell's fees by saying, at his Jan. 30 news conference, that he could not imagine who would arrange "to do something improper like that." This suggested that he had reason to know the fees were improper. And that gave Mr. Starr new leverage to press Hubbell to be more forthcoming than he has been.
Ms. McDougal, in jail for contempt of court for refusing so far to testify about the Clintons, is needed by Starr on the issue of whether Mr. Clinton told the truth in his videotaped testimony that he knew nothing about a Little Rock fraudulent loan that benefited the Whitewater real estate venture. Her former husband, Jim McDougal, has changed his story and now puts Clinton in a meeting about the loan. But his credibility is low, and Starr badly wants Susan McDougal's corroboration. James Stewart writes in The New Yorker that she may yet agree to talk, but that remains to be seen.
Clearly, the investigation is nearing a climax with the pressure on her and Hubbell, dangling offers of immunity, and threats of further prosecution. And how that comes out may determine how much trouble the Clintons are in.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.