If independent prosecutors Kenneth Starr and his successor. Robert W. Ray, have had a glaring weakness, it is that they have been unable to keep the things they are doing from being leaked for political purposes.
More than a month ago, Ray convened a new grand jury to consider whether President Clinton should be charged criminally, once he leaves office, for having lied under oath about Monica Lewinsky. But last week, only hours before Al Gore addressed the Democratic convention in what many considered the most important political speech of his life, someone leaked news about the panel to major media outlets.
The perplexing thing about the leak was that it helped neither political party. The Democrats, quite naturally, did not want to be reminded of Clinton's wrongdoing as they nominated his vice president to replace him. But Republicans, still stinging from the popular disapproval of the impeachment process, would have preferred not to hear the news, as well. GOP officials worry the public will perceive them as making mean-spirited attacks on the outgoing president.
For his part, Ray sounded as appalled as anyone about the timing of the leak, saying he would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a panel.
Unfortunately, politics has played an overwhelming role in this investigation from the start. It has, in many ways, overshadowed the fact that the president is accused of serious wrongdoings that should be considered independent of his office.
The grand jury will consider whether the president should be charged with perjury or obstruction of justice — charges that would stem from his lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky while being deposed in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. Some would say the president already has suffered enough. Not only was he humiliated by a public spotlight on his acts, he was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate and he has since been fined $90,000 by a federal judge and threatened with the loss of his license to practice law.
But Ray is operating under the authority of the old independent counsel law, which expired in 1999. That law allowed for a three-judge panel to review investigations regularly and determine whether they should continue. Last week the panel, which includes one Democrat and two Republicans, voted unanimously that the probe should continue.
And so it will. One hopes, however, that it will do so with a bit more dignity and with fewer ill-timed leaks.