The latest extension of Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, now encompassing the sexual activities of a sitting president, is raising questions about how wide a net a special prosecutor can cast.
When Mr. Starr began his investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton 3-1/2 years ago, the singular focus was on potentially illegal transactions related to a 1980s Arkansas real-estate deal.
Since then, his $34 million probe has expanded three times to include the suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster, the use of FBI files, and the firing of White House travel office employees.
This latest turn in the Whitewater investigation has prompted some Democrats to claim Starr's mission is a bald effort to use his powers bring down the president.
Other observers question his legal strategy. "Many prosecutors would think this is a risky area of investigation," says Lawrence Walsh, independent counsel in the Iran-contra investigation. Mr. Walsh didn't reveal information about the sexual lives of those he investigated. "I don't understand the relevance of it," he says.
Last spring, the Starr investigation shifted to encompass possible sexual improprieties of Mr. Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. The Washington Post quotes two Arkansas state troopers who were asked by Whitewater investigators if they knew of extramarital affairs Clinton may have had. The purpose: To seek out those with whom Clinton may have had intimate discussions about Whitewater.
But some observers are asking if this line of investigation, and wrongdoing that stems from it, is a justified departure from the original investigation?
"It is rare in life that the ends justify the means," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "For many of these [special prosecutors], this is quite a meal ticket. The law gives them an unlimited time to go after a person, with an unlimited budget."
Moreover, Mr. Hess says that Starr attempted to resign last year, a move that resulted in harsh criticism. "So there is even personal pressure on him to prove something," he says.
But others say Starr's approach is justified. "It is time to hold government accountable and accountability must start at the top," says Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group.
Starr denied yesterday that he has a personal or political agenda: "We're acting properly and within our jurisdiction."
A week and a half ago, Starr was approached by Linda Tripp, a former White House aide who had taped some 17 phone conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The tapes allegedly outline details of a 1-1/2-year affair Ms. Lewinsky had with Clinton. The tapes are also said to allege Clinton and confidante Vernon Jordan persuaded Lewinsky to lie, telling her to deny in a legal affidavit given to Paul Jones's attorneys that she had an affair with the president.
Late last week, Starr successfully sought approval to expand his investigation. But before getting that approval, Starr placed a hidden microphone on Linda Tripp with the help of the FBI. In a meeting last week in Washington, she secretly recorded a final conversation with Lewinsky as the FBI photographed the two.
Some observers have questioned legality of the taping, saying it smacks of entrapment. "It is kind of strange and strikes me as a set up," says Prof. Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University.
Last summer, members of the American Bar Association discussed lobbying for curbs on the independent counsel's powers.
On Capitol Hill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois says it is "premature" to talk about impeachment. "These are very serious allegations.... The office of the independent counsel is the most appropriate venue."
But Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia is redoubling efforts to force the Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment inquiry. "For those in the House who have been waiting for a smoking gun, both barrels are smoking," he says.
* Lawrence J. Goodrich contributed to this report.