How Starr Sees It

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

  • Karin Cooper / Gamma Liaison for TIME

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    When Starr had a chance to trap Clinton in a way that could have destroyed the President overnight, the prosecutor declined. The story, told here for the first time, involves the infamous blue dress, which Lewinsky gave Starr's office on July 29, saying it might be soiled with evidence. The dress presented prosecutors with a choice: the office could keep secret the results of its DNA analysis until after the President's testimony, or it could tip off the President before he swore his oath. Clinton knew Starr had the dress, of course, and could have surmised what the test results would show. But Starr wasn't legally bound to inform him. And if Clinton's grand jury testimony stuck to the story that he had not had sexual relations with Lewinsky and Starr then proved otherwise in a lab, the prosecutor would have a relatively clear-cut perjury case.

    But Starr wouldn't set the trap. His job, he told colleagues, was to encourage Clinton to tell the truth, not catch him in a lie. When the DNA results came back, on July 31, Starr had deputy independent counsel Bob Bittman contact Kendall to request a presidential blood sample. Kendall asked if Starr's office had "a precise factual basis" for the demand--something against which to match Clinton's blood. A "substantial" one, Bittman replied. Seventeen days later, Clinton appeared before the grand jury and admitted an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky. Alerting Clinton to the test results, Starr told TIME, just seemed like the "right thing to do" because it was "in everyone's interest to get to the bottom of this."

    But perhaps the most convincing evidence of Starr's good intentions was the way he structured his office. Trained in appellate law--a protected world of polite debate over constitutional issues--Starr decided to apply the same set of values to the far harsher world of criminal prosecution. He says he modeled his decision-making process on "the way judges on a collegial court operate," a consensual, deliberative style that was alien to most of his prosecutors. Every afternoon at 5 o'clock when he was in Washington, he and his 30 lawyers and 10 investigators crowded around a 30-ft.-long conference table to hear the daily report and discuss strategy. Starr previewed the agenda but had Bittman run the meetings so Starr could absorb more of the discussion. For major decisions, he assigned a prosecutor to summarize facts and evaluate the pros and cons. Starr insisted on hearing opinions from everyone at the table as he searched for the majority view, a process that he says was not intended to reach "some Solomonic middle ground" but to achieve decisions free of "arbitrariness and caprice." Though Starr made the final calls, sources say, he invariably went with the majority vote.

    But if the man is so dedicated to fair play and consensus, why has his investigation--which dragged bit players before grand juries, interrogated a White House aide about his media contacts, issued a subpoena for bookstore records and forced Secret Service agents to testify about the man they protect--so often seemed wild and obsessive?

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