The scope of the independent counsel's initial referral is too narrow: Ken Starr was hired to look into worse abuses than the cover-up of a sex scandal.

President Clinton's defense, however, is disappointingly weak: admit sin but deny crime and beg forgiveness for lying while continuing to lie.The central fact making a mockery of his misty-eyed "repentance" is this: He refuses to admit, even now, that he and Monica Lewinsky had a sexual relationship.

That phrase was precisely defined by a federal judge to include intimate touching. He denied it falsely in his Paula Jones deposition; he repeated the false denial before a federal grand jury; and even today he would have the nation believe that he never once touched Lewinsky's proffered bosom during their 10 Oval Office assignations.

Nobody believes him because his look-ma-no-hands assertion so patently defies common sense. Why does he persist in the lie? Two reasons:

1. If he admits lying in his January Jones deposition, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals would likely reinstate Jones' case. A jury would surely believe her now, which would cost Clinton a million dollars.

2. If he admits having repeated to the grand jury in August his false and misleading testimony, the president would be confessing to perjury. That would be an undisputed count in an impeachment, and whenever he left office might result in his arrest and conviction - the dread "Jail to the Chief."

Thus, his continued lying is not irrational. He runs great financial and legal risks in telling the whole truth. That's why we see his legalistic contortions and semantic evasions that turn truth on its head. Clinton's tactic is to limit potential loss. But this continued lying will expose his false contrition, erode popular support and hasten his political demise.

His defense strategy is overly cautious. He should realistically face up to the likelihood of House impeachment, and if he is to win Senate acquittal, he must risk all. That means telling the whole truth now and gutsily facing the consequences later, which would give credence to his argument that the concealment of adultery is not the "high" crime that justifies re-moval.

He would win back considerable respect by pledging to reject any pardon and daring the independent counsel to bring him to trial for perjury on Jan. 21, 2001. (Not much of a gamble; no D.C. jury would convict him.) And while he's at it, apologize to Paula and settle her case.

Clinton does not have it in his character to cut out the present artful dodging and do this, of course; it would be the political equivalent of all-out, clothes-off intercourse.

Now to Starr's unfinished business. His referral completes less than one-fourth of his assignments.

Starr is duty-bound, after these four years, to come up with indictments or criminal informations on the Whitewater obstruction, the Clintons' abuse of Justice Department prosecution to make places for travel office patronage, and the invasion of 900 FBI files by White House snoops. Or to report on those investigations if they exonerate Hillary, Bruce Lindsey, Craig Livingstone et al.

In the sex cover-up, we see direct conflicts of grand jury testimony. Monica swears that Vernon Jordan told her at a breakfast to destroy evidence, but the president's friend insists the breakfast never happened; on another front, Jordan's testimony conflicts with Clinton's. Is the prosecutor fearful of being trounced in jury trials, where rules of evidence and presumption of innocence apply - as they do not in his House referral?

Surprises may be in store. "All phases of the investigation are now nearing completion," Starr promises in his report. Do they show a pattern of deceit and delay, of stonewalling and spinning, of perjury and abuse of power on heavy political matters - Clinton habits so dramatically demonstrated in the cover-up of a sex scandal?

Many will find poetic justice in Clinton's escaping discovery of high crimes and being brought down by lower crimes. But poetic justice, or rough justice, is not real justice.

New York Times News Service