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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 00:01 GMT

Special Report

Media frenzy in Washington
image: [ Independent counsel Kenneth Starr faces the media scrum ]
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr faces the media scrum

The President has denied allegations that he had an affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky, and asking her to commit perjury by denying it. But as BBC US Affairs Analyst Maurice Walsh reports, the investigation of these and other allegations against the President has taken on a life of its own.

Until now the basis for the allegations that President Clinton had urged a former White House worker, Monica Lewsinsky, to lie about having an affair with him were telephone conversations recorded by a woman friend of hers.

Now, the Washington Post says that FBI agents made their own recordings last week of conversations between the two women.

In them, Miss Lewinsky explicitly described how she was induced to lie about the affair when questioned under oath by lawyers pursuing the sexual harassment case taken by Paula Jones against President Clinton.

It appears the FBI tapes enabled Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who has spent three-and-a-half years investigating allegations of improper conduct by President Clinton, to extend his inquiries further.

Originally appointed to look into possible illegalities in land deals conducted by the Clintons in the 1980s, the scope of Mr Starr's investigation has been widened to embrace a huge range of charges against the President and his administration.

[ image: President Nixon: Scandal]
President Nixon: Scandal
Supporters of Mr Clinton, as well as some legal experts, have said Mr Starr's brief is too extensive and has given him latitude to treat minor allegations with unwarranted seriousness and follow an agenda set by the President's enemies.

The role of the special counsel is a legacy of the Watergate era and a demonstration of how the shocking revelations about President Nixon's conduct then has made suspicion of scandal in the White House a national preoccupation ever since.

Story began on the Internet

The latest allegations surfaced last weekend on the World Wide Web, gaining momentum until print and television media could not ignore them.

[ image: Public opinion is divided over Mrs Jones's claim]
Public opinion is divided over Mrs Jones's claim
So far the President has been able to deflect all the insinuations about his private life which have trailed him from Arkansas into the White House.

Opinion polls have recorded high approval ratings for him, showing the public to be divided about whether they believe the allegations of sexual harassment made by Paula Jones and suggesting that the American public are prepared to tolerate any infidelities the President committed in the past.

But charges that Mr Clinton committed adultery in the White House could shake the American public's faith in his ability to redeem himself.

[ image: President Clinton denies an affair with Monica Lewinsky]
President Clinton denies an affair with Monica Lewinsky
And the possibility that he may have committed a criminal offence by inducing a former employee to commit perjury has provoked talk of impeachment -- another echo of the Watergate days.

Impeachment proceedings might be a long way off.

But President Clinton has already begun to think about how history might judge him; this new scandal and the Paula Jones trial due to begin in May may define his presidency for him.

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