If independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton were a chess match, kibitzers might say it has now entered the endgame.
That's because Mr. Starr's grand jury in Washington appears to be finally finished with most of the pawns and supporting figures in the Lewinsky matter. It has begun hearing from major figures, starting with Monica Lewinsky's friend Linda Tripp.
Meanwhile, a series of court rulings on various subsidiary legal matters could help outline Starr's case. Tuesday's appellate court ruling that Secret Service employees must tell what they know about the former White House intern's Oval Office visits might provide key witnesses that the grand jury would see as relatively impartial.
But none of this - none of the hints, nudges, and portents - may indicate much about the truth or falsity of the allegations against Mr. Clinton.
"From the beginning this has been an extraordinary case going into areas of law that have been untouched," says Viet Dinh, a former Whitewater investigator now at the Georgetown University Law Center here. "By necessity you'll have some things going one way, and others going another."
For now, the focus is still on Linda Tripp. The former White House employee, who recorded roughly 20 hours of conversations with Ms. Lewinsky, has been before the grand jury since Tuesday. When she wraps up, the jury will hear one more time from presidential secretary Bettie Currie.
Then the strategizing will kick into high gear.
With all of the baseline facts gathered, attention will shift to the pivotal decisions on how to deal with the principal characters in the case. The manner in which Starr handles Lewinsky and Clinton is vital to the investigation's outcome. In addition, it will further outline the case Starr has been building since last winter, when his investigation was expanded to include the Lewinsky matter.
Directions Starr can go
Starr has several options. With regard to Lewinsky, he could either indict her or grant partial or full immunity. Both present different problems for the special prosecutor. If Lewinsky is indicted, her testimony might appear coerced. Yet if Starr strikes a deal with her team of attorneys, her testimony could seem debased.
On the matter of the president, legal scholars debate whether it is even possible for Starr to subpoena Clinton. And given the White House rebuff of past inquiries from the Starr team, it is unlikely the president would appear willingly before the grand jury.
These are not Starr's only concerns. In the tumultuous wins and losses in recent weeks, Starr has lost ground on key witnesses that he had spent much time pursuing. The tax-fraud charges brought against Webster Hubbell, former Clinton confidant, were dropped when a judge decried Starr's prosecutorial tactics as "scary." And many observers see the recent release from prison of Susan McDougal, a key witness in the original Whitewater probe, as a setback for Starr.
Still, the ruling earlier this week to allow Starr to bring Secret Service agents before the grand jury stands out as a potentially important victory.
Justice Department officials have not yet said if they will appeal the decision, which would force uniformed officers Gary Byrne and Brian Henderson to testify.
But Secret Service director Lewis Merletti and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have voiced strong opposition to the ruling since May 22, when Judge Norma Holloway Johnson said Secret Service agents could be forced to testify before Starr's grand jury.
Indeed, Secret Service agents say they worry this ruling could endanger their ability to protect the president. "The practical part of this down the line could be very harmful to future administrations. It could get a president killed," says Hamilton Brown, a former agent.
A renewed effort of compromise is reportedly under way between the Justice Department and Starr, in which uniformed agents could be compelled to give testimony, but plainclothes agents would not.
Even so, some observers say that Secret Service testimony might not be the magic bullet Starr is seeking.
"There is no reason to conclude that Starr will develop any useful information from Secret Service testimony even if he ultimately has access to it," says Robert Bauer, a Democratic lawyer at Perkins Coie in Washington.
Where we stand now
In the end, though, despite the media furor that has surrounded Starr's investigation, the fact remains that the public knows little more about the facts of the case than it did when the Lewinsky allegations broke six months ago.
There are few substantiated facts in the case. And even things believed to be fact could turn out to be untrue - including reports about the final tape Tripp made under Starr's supervision, in which Lewinsky allegedly says that presidential friend Vernon Jordan asked her to lie.
Moreover, relying on secondhand claims to prove that the president committed perjury could prove less than convincing in any proceeding against the president, experts say.