Starr vs. Clinton: Probe Gets More Personal

Clinton investigation splits as Vernon Jordan and private eyes testify tomorrow.

Just a few short weeks ago, the questions were simple and it appeared they'd be answered quickly: Did the president have an affair while in office and would he survive politically?

Now the saga has turned into a highly personal - at times ugly - duel between two proud men, President Clinton and independent counsel Kenneth Starr. And all signs point to a protracted fight that isn't going to end soon.

Mr. Starr hasn't given up investigating the core allegations over Mr. Clinton's relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky and whether anyone broke the law. Tomorrow, Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan is slated to make his long-anticipated appearance before the federal grand jury investigating the matter. Mr. Jordan's role in helping Ms. Lewinsky find a lawyer and a job outside the White House raises questions about Clinton's relationship with the young woman.

But Starr has also summoned two private investigators from Arkansas to testify tomorrow in what has become a separate line of inquiry: whether the White House or any of its friends have obstructed justice by spreading "misinformation" about the prosecutors.

In recent days, Starr has, in a way, turned into Clinton's best ally. He has diverted attention away from Lewinsky and toward the very stories about himself and his staff he is trying to squelch. White House aide Sidney Blumenthal - a frequent source for journalists - looked downright gleeful last week after being called in to testify about his contacts with the press.

But in the long run, say legal experts, this two-ring circus does no one any good - not least, the nation.

"The whole situation is very unfortunate," says Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown University here.

The combination of the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, which brought the Lewinsky story to light, and the existence of the independent counsel statue has created a "dangerous institutional situation," says Professor Bloch. "We really undermine the office of the presidency."

Clinton, of course, bears his share of the blame, she notes. But for now, the public has shown it has no interest in impeachment, and so "we're left to limp along," she says. "I don't see a quick ending to this."

Standing on executive privilege

Indeed, a resolution may be more than a year in coming, as the White House gears up to try to prevent certain testimony on the grounds of "executive privilege." Most scholars don't believe Clinton can win an executive privilege battle, but he can buy a lot of time. Delays in an investigation tend to benefit the defense, as witnesses memories get foggier and momentum wanes.

The White House's last battle over executive privilege, in the criminal investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, lasted two years.

"The bottom line is that the president has the constitutional power of executive privilege, but it is a limited power, and based on my research, it does not apply in [the Lewinsky] case," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist who wrote a book on executive privilege. Executive privilege, he says, is designed to protect national security and shield the confidentiality of internal White House deliberations when there is a clear public interest in doing so. In the Lewinsky case, the White House wants to use executive privilege to shield Bruce Lindsey, a close Clinton aide, from having to answer certain questions.

For the White House, the downside in claiming executive privilege is that it raises parallels to Watergate, when President Nixon attempted such a strategy. Employed now, it makes Clinton look as if he has something to hide. And it frustrates many Democrats who have suggested privately (and a few publicly) that if Clinton has done nothing wrong, why doesn't he come out and explain his relationship with Lewinsky?

But fortunately for Clinton, independent counsel Starr has taken the unusual tack of trying to track down the source of stories circulating about some of his top prosecutors as well as himself. The White House has acknowledged recycling already-public information about two members of Starr's team - unflattering information regarding their professional activities, but nothing personal.

By calling in Mr. Blumenthal, Starr diverted attention from the news that Clinton's legal team had hired private investigators, for reasons that have yet to be revealed.

Former prosecutors say it is not unusual to have opponents throw around all sorts of accusations about the prosecutors, and that Starr is being oversensitive in trying to track down the source of unflattering information.

Rumor as obstruction of justice

The obstruction of justice statute, which Starr is operating under, normally refers to such actions as trying to buy off a witness, threaten a witness, or put in a good word with the judge to help somebody's case. But the statue is open-ended, which allows for some creative interpretation, says former federal prosecutor Ralph Martin. "It's a brand new interpretation, as far as I know, to say that criticism of the prosecutor - or even spreading false rumors about the prosecutor - is an effort to interfere with the grand-jury proceeding," says Mr. Martin.

There's no evidence that the White House team is digging up dirt about prosecutors to blackmail people on Starr's staff, he says. If they were doing that, it would be criminal.

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