The inquiry, headed by Joseph DiGenova, will focus on Janet Mullins, the assistant to the President for political affairs, the Washington Post said yesterday. But Mr DiGenova is also likely to examine whether any effort was made by officials in Washington to find details of Mr Clinton's file at the Home Office in London.
The administration had hoped that the three-month-old controversy over the search of Mr Clinton's passport file during the election campaign would die away. Given the strong legal powers of an independent counsel to subpoena witnesses and convene a grand jury, this is now unlikely to happen.
A three-week preliminary investigation had been carried out by the Justice Department but two key officials involved in the affair refused to be interviewed. These were Elizabeth Tamposi, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, who ordered the passport search, and Steven Berry, the Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Affairs, who encouraged it.
An independent counsel, such as Mr DiGenova, is normally appointed to investigate possible criminal misconduct by senior White House officials. But the law under which he is appointed expired on Tuesday, and the White House had hoped that Mr Barr would not act before then, leaving the whole affair to a lower-level inquiry by the Justice Department.