WHEN THE New York Times published a story back in January suggesting that Kenneth Starr believed he had the authority to indict President Clinton before he left office, the reaction against Mr. Starr was strong and immediate. It was, critics were quick to allege, another violation of grand jury secrecy, and the White House asked Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to investigate. Never mind that the story included nothing that looked much like grand jury information but, rather, reported on Mr. Starr's conclusion that it was legally possible to indict a sitting president and on the feeling of some of his staff that doing so would be a good idea. Never mind as well that this information was not really even news at all. The incident was widely decried as yet another example of Mr. Starr's behaving unethically in a vendetta against the president, and Judge Johnson made an initial finding that the office had violated the law.

Mr. Starr did himself no favors in the matter by initially denying that the story had come from his office, something his own internal investigation later showed to be false. This led to the resignation of his spokesman, Charles Bakaly III, whom the internal probe fingered as a source. As Mr. Bakaly had denied in an affidavit commenting on what Mr. Starr and his office were considering, Mr. Starr also referred him to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

Whatever comes of the Bakaly matter, it is worth noting that the underlying charge of a grand jury leak has, like so many allegations against Mr. Starr and his people, evaporated on neutral inspection. A unanimous panel of the D.C. Circuit ruled recently that "internal deliberations of prosecutors that do not directly reveal grand jury proceedings are not" covered by grand jury secrecy. The ruling does not clear Mr. Starr on all allegations of grand jury leaks, as a much larger group of 24 instances of alleged leaks remains before the courts. But the current ruling does suggest that at least some of these instances may be found not to have involved grand jury material after all.

It is another example of an ethical allegation that many assumed self-evident melting on closer examination. Mr. Starr was attacked throughout the Lewinsky episode in a coordinated smear campaign that accused him publicly of a variety of types of misconduct. These accusations seriously undermined his investigation and distracted people from sober discussion either of the president's conduct or of Mr. Starr's probe.

The allegations took a great deal of time to investigate and sort out. Now, one by one, they are proving meritless, but only long after they have done their job of eroding confidence in his investigation. This is not to say that Mr. Starr has been a Boy Scout. There is much to criticize about his investigation. But there is a difference between criticism of Mr. Starr's judgment and allegations of illegalities or misconduct. The readiness of many people to so confidently level grave allegations is a disturbing feature of the way our political culture responded to the Lewinsky scandal.