Fiske opposes hearings on Whitewater: Prosecutor asks Congress to leave his witnesses alone

IN AN effort to defuse the Whitewater imbroglio before it does him more damage, President Bill Clinton has decided on a strategy of total openness despite the danger that this will lead to fresh revelations. A sign of the policy of glasnost was his willingness to respond at length to all Whitewater questions this week.

The White House now believes - in the wake of the resignation of the senior White House legal counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, and the subpoenas served on six White House and four Treasury officials at the weekend - that anything less than this will be interpreted as evidence of a cover-up.

Mr Clinton and his senior advisers are worried that Whitewater is beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as Watergate. To try to reverse the tide of rumour, the President, introducing his new chief lawyer, Lloyd Cutler, on Tuesday, once again asserted his total innocence, saying: 'I'm very relaxed about this. I didn't do anything wrong. There's nothing here.'

Ten of Mr Clinton's senior officials appear before a grand jury today to testify about Whitewater and alleged White House interference with investigators. At the same time, a row has broken out about congressional hearings on the scandal, opposed by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert Fiske, and by Democratic Congressional leaders.

Mr Fiske visited Capitol Hill yesterday to ask Republican leaders not to complicate his investigation by calling his witnesses. The Senate Majority leader, George Mitchell, dismissed the idea as a 'political circus' inspired by the Republicans. He said Mr Fiske 'is independent, he's a Republican, he was selected at the request of Republicans and it's very clear, as he says, that you can't both have a congressional investigation and an independent investigation.'

The risk of the new White House strategy is that it involves giving the media and the Republicans new evidence of possible wrongdoing to get their teeth into. On Monday Mr Clinton volunteered that last October he learnt that the Resolution Trust Corporation, an arm of the Treasury, had made a criminal referral to do with Whitewater. Pressed again on Tuesday, he said he probably learnt this strictly confidential information from his adviser, Bruce Lindsey.

Knowing about the referral was unlikely to do Mr Clinton much good, but it damages him because it shows him monitoring if not impeding the investigation. In many respects the crisis over Whitewater is a re-run on a larger scale of the scandal over the White House travel office a year ago. Then, an over-zealous White House staff, led once again by Mr Nussbaum, first fibbed about what had happened and then tried to nobble the FBI and other investigative agencies.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, a courier employed by the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where Hillary Clinton and several other White House officials used to work, has testified that he put through the shredder files belonging to Vince Foster, the White House adviser who committed suicide last July. Damagingly, he said he destroyed papers bearing Mr Foster's name after Mr Fiske had said he would look into the suicide. Other members of the firm deny that the documents had anything to do with Whitewater.

Mr Clinton hopes that Mr Fiske's inquiries will pre-empt inquiries by Republicans in Congress who are revelling in his difficulties. After Mr Fiske's request to Senate Republicans yesterday not to hold hearings, a moderate Republican, William Cohen, said 'this is not politically possible' but he thought Congress might delay hearings until Mr Fiske had interviewed the most important witnesses. He also promised that no witnesses would be promised immunity in return for testifying. Investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal is held to have been impeded by the granting of immunity to key players.

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