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Whitewater counsel in battle for credibility

After a week of controversy bordering on ridicule, the Whitewater special counsel, Kenneth Starr, must rebuild the credibility of his investigation, and satisfy the demands of an increasingly impatient public for results in his 30-month probe of the Clintons and their business dealings in Arkansas.

Yesterday Mr Starr was back at work leading his teams of prosecutors in Washington and Little Rock, amid reports that on one vexed Whitewater issue at least, closure may be at hand. Like the FBI, the US Park Police and his predecessor as special counsel before him, Mr Starr is now said to have concluded - mirabile dictu - that the former White House deputy counsel, Vince Foster, did indeed commit suicide on 20 July 1993.

Contrary to the unshakeable belief of conservative conspiracy theorists, Mr Starr is satisfied that foul play was not involved, nor did the President or his wife take part in a cover-up of the circumstances of the death of a close friend and aide entrusted, among other things, with personal Clinton papers relating to the original Whitewater land deal.

But this move alone is unlikely to restore the authority of his investigation, after a week in which he first announced he would step down on 1 August to become dean of a new law college at Malibu, California - only to reverse himself after bitter criticism from his right-wing supporters that he was walking out on a job half done.

Mr Starr insists his initial announcement did not imply he had decided he did not have enough evidence against either the First Lady or the President to bring charges. The former Bush Administration solicitor-general says his investigation is still "moving forward," and he will stay on as long as required.

But the damage had been done. Despite the disclaimers, both pro- and anti-Clinton factions believe Mr Starr could not possibly have contemplated quitting if he was poised to take the historic step of indicting a First Lady and perhaps her husband (though most scholars believe that under the Constitution, he could not bring criminal charges against an incumbent president, but would present his evidence to Congress which would determine whether to start impeachment hearings).

In fact, his case on the issue where Mr Clinton is most vulnerable, that as Governor of Arkansas in 1986 he helped to organise an illegal $300,000 loan to his former business partners James and Susan McDougall, rests on the frail testimony of McDougall, a convicted felon who has already twice changed his story.

As for Mrs Clinton, it is reckoned increasingly doubtful a court of law would find that the First Lady knowingly took part in a separate bogus land deal a decade ago in Arkansas, and then lied about it to the prosecutors and a federal grand jury. Mr Starr denies his lawyers have held mock trials of Mrs Clinton in which they have lost each time.

But if the threat posed by one special prosecutor may be diminishing, the Clintons' lives could soon be tormented by a new one. After a string of new revelations of apparent White House fundraising abuses involving Asian Americans, even some Democratic legislators at the weekend joined Republicans in urging Janet Reno, the Attorney General, to appoint a counsel.