WASHINGTON (AP) _ Even as he defends his investigation of President Clinton, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr says the Watergate-era law that gives him the power to probe actions of executive branch officials is flawed and should be abolished.

In testimony prepared for his appearance today before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Starr blames public outrage over his tactics on the structure of the 1978 law and a ``carnival atmosphere'' in the media.

``The assaults took a toll,'' Starr said of attacks on him. ``A duly authorized federal law-enforcement investigation came to be characterized as yet another political game. Law became politics by other means.

``The impact on public attitudes was unmistakable,'' he said. A copy of his remarks was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The atmosphere, combined with inherent weaknesses in the law, Starr said, undermines the statute's intent to instill confidence in investigations of high-ranking government officials.

He said the law violates the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. And he raised concerns about the costs and delays incurred by many independent counsel investigations.

``The statute should not be reauthorized,'' Starr said. ``Jurisdiction and authority over these cases ought to be returned to the Justice Department.''

The declaration, Starr's first on the subject, brings him into line with Attorney General Janet Reno and some Republicans and Democrats who oppose extending the statute beyond its June 30 expiration because of spiraling costs of investigations, the problem of balancing the prosecutor's independence with accountability and the toll such inquiries wreak on witnesses.

Starr's 4 1/2-year inquiry of the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Whitewater real estate dealings and other matters has cost nearly $40 million, according to the congressional General Accounting Office.

Starr's predecessor in the Clinton investigation, special prosecutor Robert Fiske, spent an additional $6 million. The most expensive independent counsel investigation to date was Lawrence Walsh's $48.5 million, six-year probe of the Reagan administration regarding its arms and money deals with Iran and its secret war against the communist-led government of Nicaragua. Starr is on track to exceed that total.

In 30 pages of scholarly and legalistic testimony, Starr acknowledges that the repeated expansions of his probe _ ultimately to Clinton's attempts to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky _ may have contributed to the public's perception of him.

``The number of expansions is unique, and it may have fed the misconception that we were investigating individuals rather than outcomes,'' Starr said. ``That was not the case.''

He added: ``Indeed, I am as proud of our decisions not to bring several indictments as I am of anything else we have done. Evaluating those matters was beyond the scope of our law enforcement investigation.''

Without describing them, Starr twice made apparent references to ``now-public, gravely serious allegations'' that Clinton assaulted a woman 20 years ago. Clinton denies the charge.

The law requires the attorney general to ask a panel of federal appeals court judges to appoint an independent counsel if there are ``specific, credible allegations'' that a high senior official of government has done something criminal. The law covers the most senior officials in the executive branch.

Starr's appearance before the Senate panel will offer Democrats the first chance to question Starr since the Senate's Feb. 12 acquittal of Clinton on House impeachment charges arising out of Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky matter. The three members of the court panel that appointed Starr also were scheduled to testify today.

The Whitewater investigation that Starr inherited in 1994 expanded to include the suicide of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster, White House travel office firings, alleged misuses of FBI files and Clinton's Oval Office affair with Ms. Lewinsky.

Starr's probe has produced more than a dozen convictions of Arkansas figures, including then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 1996 and both of the Clintons' Whitewater business partners, Jim and Susan McDougal, as well as the referral that prompted the president's historic impeachment in December by the House.

Clinton's supporters have attacked Starr relentlessly, alleging his staff used abusive and unfair tactics with witnesses and pressed the investigation into areas outside his jurisdiction. They also have questioned Starr's motives.