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Clinton Team Blaming Starr for Probe's Length

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page A03

Former White House counsel Jack Quinn was on NBC, attacking the seemingly slow pace of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into President Clinton. "Ken Starr's been at this business 1,450 days," Quinn said, "longer than it took us to win World War II."

The same morning, William McDaniel, the lawyer for White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, was taking a jab at Starr over on ABC. "You know," McDaniel said, "he's been in office longer than World War II lasted." Soon after, presidential counselor Paul Begala showed up on CNN, calling it "Day 1,400" of an investigation that has "lasted nearly as long as the Second World War."

The World War II chorus offered a vivid illustration of the best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach taken by the White House since the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation was launched in January. At a time when Clinton is resisting Starr with various legal privilege claims, his advisers know he is vulnerable to charges that he is seeking to impede the probe. The latest counterattack was a pithy refrain timed to coincide with the anniversary of D-Day: Starr is no Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"This is sort of a PR strategy that we're in the middle of," said John Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University. "The criticize-the-prosecutor is a typical defense strategy."

The question of who is responsible for the duration of Starr's four-year-old investigation has been a particularly touchy issue, one that has great potential to stoke public anger given the impatience often expressed in opinion surveys.

The White House blames Starr, noting that he has spent more than $30 million in an investigation initially focused on a failed two-decade-old land deal in Arkansas. Despite all the time and expense, Clinton allies point out, Starr has yet to draw any public conclusions about the president's actions and took three years to reconfirm that Vincent W. Foster Jr. committed suicide.

Starr and his defenders place the responsibility squarely on the White House, noting that it has fought to block his investigators repeatedly. Days before last weekend's television appearances, the White House filed papers opposing Starr's attempt to short-circuit the normal appeals process for an expedited Supreme Court ruling on whether he can question White House lawyers and Secret Service officers.

"Both sides in effect are making valid points," said Bruce Yannett, a former deputy to Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, whose investigation was similarly criticized by Republicans. Institutional factors drive special prosecutors "to be as thorough as they can be and then some. And that leads to a slow, more ponderous investigation."

The Starr investigation has been prolonged in part because of the various side streets it has explored. Just yesterday, for example, prosecutors brought former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes before a grand jury in Alexandria for questioning about the leak of confidential information about Starr's top witness, Linda R. Tripp.

Ickes was asked about his contacts with Pentagon officials who disclosed information from Tripp's security clearance to the New Yorker magazine for an article reporting that she was arrested for grand larceny in 1969, according to a source familiar with the situation. In a previous deposition in a civil lawsuit, Ickes testified that he discussed Tripp in passing over a takeout Chinese dinner with Pentagon public affairs chief Kenneth H. Bacon, who authorized the release of the information.

Starr appears interested in finding out whether there was an attempt to publicly tarnish his witness. In addition to Ickes, prosecutors yesterday brought to the grand jury a Pentagon official and the host of the dinner where Ickes and Bacon talked. "I don't recall them having a conversation about it," said Stephen Cohen, a Georgetown law professor who testified for 10 minutes.

Starr's investigators also recently interviewed Kevin Milley, who was present for the 1969 arrest and has backed Tripp's account that she was set up. He may also seek out witnesses quoted by the New Yorker disputing that.

What is thorough investigating to Starr, though, amounts to unnecessary detours in the White House view. By the same token, what Clinton advisers portray as principled fights over privilege are seen in Starr's office as blatant stalling.

To place the matter in perspective, James E. Kennedy, the president's chief day-to-day scandal spokesman, put together a chart detailing how long Starr's probe has lasted compared with the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War and the two world wars (World War II actually lasted six years, although Starr's tenure has surpassed the three-year, eight-month U.S. involvement).

"I don't think it's fair to blame the White House for delay when the independent counsel's track record is the way it is," Kennedy said.

Yet as the Lewinsky aspect of his probe moves into its sixth month, Starr appears as sensitive to the issue of delay as the White House, contemplating an interim report to Congress. But for all the complaints about delay, that option has not been met enthusiastically on Capitol Hill.

"I would prefer not getting an interim report," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said yesterday. "I would prefer getting a full report, if one was to come up."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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