Whitewater targets Hillary Clinton's phone

In a dramatic gesture that threatened to revive the flagging Whitewater investigation, Republicans on the US Senate's Whitewater committee yesterday issued a string of 49 subpoenas demanding documents and telephone records from the White House.

The move was orchestrated by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, a New York politician with a reputation for political theatrics. He appeared yesterday to be zeroing in on Hillary Clinton's activities in the days after the death of White House legal counsel, Vincent Foster.

Republicans now suggest the First Lady may have manoeuvred to block a search of Foster's office by investigators looking into his death in a Washington park, later ruled a suicide. It is something the Clintons have strongly denied.

Mr D'Amato, the committee chairman, said he would recall Mrs Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, and her close friend, Susan Thomases, to quiz them again about a flurry of phone calls between the two and Mrs Clinton's mother's home, where she was staying.

He said their testimony that they could not remember the calls was "suspect" and subpoenas were necessary because of "an obvious pattern of delay" in the White House turning over everything from e-mail messages to legal documents.

Clinton aides and Senate Democrats have derided the Republicans for turning Whitewater into a "political witch-hunt" at a time when the investigation was running out of real leads. "This is a dangerous path we are pursuing here," Senator John Kerry said.

With the 1996 presidential election campaign under way, politics is clearly a driving motive. The mention of the word subpoenas conjures up old memories of Watergate, even though the evidence of serious wrongdoing remains elusive.

White House spokesmen say they have already turned over 34,000 separate records and are being "as open as we can possibly be" with Congress and the separate investigation by an independent prosecutor based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

On the surface, however, the phone records lead to the First Lady's door. Foster's office allegedly contained documents on two issues that have embarrassed the First Family - the Whitewater real estate deal itself, and "Travelgate", when the Clintons were accused of cronyism in replacing staff at the White House travel office.

Amid all the conspiracy theories suggesting Foster was murdered, and unproven rumours of everything from his supposed affair with Mrs Clinton to a Colombian drug connection, the question of why outside investigators were barred from freely searching Foster's office has been one of the few substantive issues.

Senior Justice Department officials have said publicly that on the morning of 22 July 1993, two days after Foster's death, the White House counsel, Bernie Nussbaum, who had earlier agreed to allow them access to his files, suddenly went back on the deal. Mr Nussbaum, one of the Clintons' long-time Arkansas associates, subsequently resigned.

The phone records from that day show, however, that around 8am Miss Williams, Mrs Clinton's top aide, called her in Arkansas. Soon after a call went out from there to Mrs Thomases's room at a Washington hotel. One minute after it ended Mrs Thomases placed a call to Mr Nussbaum's pager number.

Senator D'Amato, whose history of dubious dealings is legendary, ran into some ethical problems of his own yesterday. The New York Times reported that influential Washington lobbyists had gathered regularly at his home for high-stakes poker. They dubbed themselves "The Fellas".