The extraordinary move, initiated by the Attorney General, William Barr, and leaked to several leading US newspapers yesterday, is the latest twist in an episode which has clouded the last weeks of the Bush presidency. For the first time in its four years, potential serious scandal is lapping at his administration's door.
Yesterday, the Justice Department refused all comment on the appointment of the counsel, the former District of Columbia federal attorney Joseph diGenova, and on which officials are under investigation. But the outgoing Chief of Staff, James Baker, and two of his top aides, Janet Mullins and Margaret Tutwiler, were among those questioned in the earlier State Department inquiry into the affair.
That inquiry found no evidence of an 'orchestrated' manoeuvre by the White House to obtain access to Mr Clinton's files, but acknowledged the department's reputation had been severely tarnished. Later, however, Sherman Funk, who drew up the report, said he had discovered unspecified 'new information', and referred what he termed 'potentially criminal matters' to the Justice Department.
The search of the president- elect's files was ordered at the end of September, at the height of the election campaign, by a senior political appointee at the State Department. Far behind in the polls, the Republicans were desperate for material with which to attack the Democratic candidate. At the time, rumours were rife about his role in the anti-Vietnam war movement during his spell as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1960s, complete with suggestions he had applied for either British or Norwegian citizenship in a bid to escape the draft. In the event, the trawl turned up nothing.
According to the New York Times yesterday, Mr Baker and his two aides have engaged lawyers to represent them over the inquiry. The General Accounting Office of Congress is also probing the affair, and has asked the White House to turn over relevant documents and phone and computer records.
The move was doubly unexpected in that Mr Barr has been a forthright opponent of the entire system of special counsels, and refused a congressional request for one to look into the 'Iraqgate' affair. The announcement, moreover, came just a day before expiry of the law which authorises such investigations. So far there has been no official comment from the White House. But Mr Baker, who has not been seen in public for weeks, is said to be outraged at the implied attack on his integrity. Ms Mullins and Ms Tutwiler are 'depressed and preoccupied', the Washington Post wrote.