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Starr Blames His Accusers

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr testifies before the Senate Government Affairs Committee Wednesday. (Reuters)

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  • By Roberto Suro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, April 15, 1999; Page A1

    Portraying himself as the victim of "calumnies" and "completely bogus allegations," independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday accused the White House of unleashing "constant attacks" against his investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

    In a decorous but emphatic self-defense, Starr told a Senate committee that he had never exceeded his authority or violated the guidelines governing federal prosecutors -- allegations now the subject of a Justice Department inquiry that could lead to his dismissal. But Starr also expressed regret over a variety of his own actions and even wondered aloud whether he should have taken on the Lewinsky investigation. Even as he acknowledged some missteps, however, Starr, in assessing the difficulties he encountered, squarely laid the blame on the targets of his investigation because of the way they fought back.

    "There is a very formidable process of hurling invective at duly constituted law officers, and I think that's bad for the country," Starr said, referring to efforts by President Clinton and his aides to minimize the political damage done by the Lewinsky affair.

    In his first extensive public appearance since Clinton was acquitted in February on articles of impeachment stemming from the Lewinsky matter, Starr used testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to present himself as a learned man of the law, rather than the dogged prosecutor in relentless pursuit of a president. But even as he sought to reconstruct the image he enjoyed before he became an independent counsel in 1994, Starr took time to settle a few scores, speaking far more critically of the administration's response to his investigation than he did during his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last year.

    The Senate committee is considering whether to extend the independent counsel law when it expires June 30. To his critics, Starr has become the embodiment of flaws in the law, and he surprised some of them with his decision to call for the law's demise.

    "If you live long enough, you'll experience everything," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). At the White House, press secretary Joe Lockhart said it was "somewhat difficult to see how you reconcile the investigation that took place with the constitutional views that he expressed today."

    Joining the chorus calling for an end to the independent counsel law, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), addressing a fund-raiser for his political action committee last night, called the act "a monstrosity. . . . It criminalizes and undermines the process of American government in a way which is tragic."

    While Starr spoke of Attorney General Janet Reno in measured, occasionally flattering terms when he mentioned her by name, he left no doubt he was deeply disappointed that Reno did not rise to his defense as a fellow prosecutor when the White House came after him. He sharply contrasted his situation to that of other outside prosecutors who could rely on the protection of an attorney general when investigating a president.

    "And if the attacks come, if war is declared then against an independent counsel and every move that he or she makes is subject to attack, then the attorney general of the United States has a solemn and weighty responsibility to rally quickly to the side of the independent counsel and to say, 'Call off the attack dogs, and do it now,' " he said.

    Starr left no doubt as to where he believed the attacks against his investigation originated and the costs that had been exacted.

    Asked by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) if his investigations had helped or hurt the country, Starr replied, "Well, I think there has been injury to public confidence in the sound and orderly administration of justice" because of the way the White House responded to the investigation.

    "It will not do to have a system, and then to mock the system through constant attacks," Starr said.

    But Starr also did some second-guessing of his own actions, including his much-criticized decision to conduct the Lewinsky investigation. Starr said he proposed a joint investigation with the Justice Department when he first approached authorities there with evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice in an alleged effort to hide the president's involvement with Lewinsky. Reno, he said, determined Starr should handle the matter alone.

    "And I accepted that," Starr said. "Now the buck stops here, in the sense that perhaps I should have said . . . 'I don't think so.' But under the circumstances I think it would have been odd."

    Starr said he wished he had not agreed to expand his probe to include an investigation into the firings of White House travel office personnel and the alleged misuse of FBI files. He also said he regretted not being able to reach an agreement with the Secret Service to take testimony from its personnel, a battle that ended with a court ruling denying the existence of any Secret Service privilege against testifying.

    Later in the hearing, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) revived a controversy over whether Starr was purposely selected to investigate Clinton by conservative Republicans. Questioning the chief of the special judicial panel that picks independent counsels, Lieberman asked U.S. Appeals Judge David B. Sentelle whether he discussed who should be appointed independent counsel during a 1994 lunch with two North Carolina Republican senators, Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms, just before Starr was named.

    Sentelle replied, "They [the senators] may have said, 'Have you appointed an independent counsel yet?' And I would have said no. There may have been some discussion in one sentence of had we done it." Sentelle's answers yesterday differed from his recollection at the time. In a written response to an interview request by The Washington Post weeks after the lunch, he said "nothing in these discussions concerned independent counsel matters."

    Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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