How Starr Sees It

Probing the prosecutor: a TIME investigation and Starr's first major print interview

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Karin Cooper / Gamma Liaison for TIME

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The issue of Starr's perspective is central since Americans rely on prosecutors--and especially independent counsels, who wield virtually unchecked power--to exercise discretion. When Tripp showed up to spill the beans about Monica and Bill, another prosecutor--one who was more streetwise, one who hadn't been up against Clinton for so long--might have shown her the door. But Starr saw a conspiracy to obstruct justice unfolding before his very eyes. He went to the Justice Department seeking authorization to expand his investigation, and failed to remind the officials that he'd had contact years before with lawyers for Paula Jones, a fact that could have led Janet Reno to send the case elsewhere.

After an additional eight months of bitter combat--legal battles won and p.r. battles lost, charges and countercharges of leaking and lying--it was time for Starr to send his referral to Congress. When it turned out to contain graphic sexual details with no direct bearing on the perjury question, the report struck many as biased, intended to inflame opinion. Starr's reputation was sealed.

Starr says he wanted to leave out those X-rated details, but a majority of his lawyers disagreed and, disastrously, he changed his mind. "We recognized full well how unpleasant and off-putting" the details were, he told TIME. (This is a man who once clucked disapprovingly at an old friend just for telling a Monica joke.) He had his lawyers write bowdlerized versions but felt they didn't make the case. And his prosecutors argued that even the details that fell outside the Jones case's definition of sex should be included, because they buttressed Lewinsky's credibility. In the end Starr relented. He instructed them to stash the naughtiest bits into the footnotes--as if that made a difference. He says he didn't know Congress would release everything and that he never anticipated being cast as Puritan pornographer. "I don't think my crystal ball was working especially well," he sighs. "It so frequently doesn't work well."

Starr also conceded for the first time that the report should have quoted Lewinsky directly, instead of paraphrasing her, when she said, "No one ever asked me to lie." He told TIME, "It really cannot fairly be said we were trying to hide that, but it did give [the other side] a nice debating point." When asked whether he would have found room to quote Lewinsky directly had she admitted that she was asked to lie, he said, "That's a good question. I think that's probably a fair question."

Starr decided not to take part in--or even observe--grand jury testimony or interviews, and that may have been another mistake. The idea flowed from his conception of himself as a judicious figure remaining above the fray. Starr would be briefed daily, he would analyze testimony, debate policy and plan moves, but he would not be in the room when key witnesses told their stories. "It was my view that I should be relying upon the professional judgments of experienced agency prosecutors, and then the reaction of grand jurors, [to determine] Is this person worthy of belief?" says Starr.

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