Washington — The hatches are battened, the sails trimmed, and Washington is settling in for a long investigation of presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. A special prosecutor has been named to conduct the probe. US Attorney General William French Smith - the man Mr. Meese seeks to replace - has agreed to stay until a successor is sworn in. If similar past investigations are any indication , it will be early summer, at best, before the issue is resolved.
The latest major twist in the saga is Mr. Smith's decision to stick around. It was announced Monday, after a 15-minute meeting with the President in the Oval Office.
By agreeing, however reluctantly, to stay in his job and at Jefferson Hotel lodgings until he is replaced, Smith eases the White House's political problems.
Currently, many of the highest-ranking jobs at Justice are vacant. There has been no deputy attorney general, for instance, since early this year. If Smith were to flee for his native southern California, the department would appear leaderless and adrift during an election-year summer.
White House aides had worried that Smith would do just that. But White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that the attorney general had simply put off addressing the matter until a special prosecutor was appointed.
The progress of the investigation now depends on that prosecutor - or ''independent counsel,'' to use the technically correct phrase. He is Washington , D.C., attorney Jacob Stein - by all accounts, a trial lawyer of great presence.
''He has a very impressive way about him,'' says John Pickering, a prominent Washington lawyer and past president of the District of Columbia bar.
''He carries an air of conviction. I think he's an excellent choice for the job.''
The law that authorizes appointment of independent counsels is the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, passed in the aftermath of Watergate. Before the Meese probe, three government officials had been investigated by such a counsel: Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff; Timothy Kraft, Carter's campaign manager; and Raymond Donovan, President Reagan's labor secretary.
Under the law, Mr. Stein will for all practical purposes run his own show. He must find his own work place (in the past, special prosecutors have used their own offices, and/or government space) and hire his own staff.
''He is allowed to hire whoever he wants to - attorneys, accountants, expert witnesses,'' says an executive-branch official who asked not to be named. ''He can use FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents as investigators.''
Stein himself will be paid a per-day fee, at the civil-service level of GS 18 . Other than that, there are few restrictions on his budget.
The whole thing is paid for by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which then sends a bill to the Justice Department, which in turn will probably cover the costs through a supplemental appropriation request to Congress.
''And they're expensive,'' notes the executive official. The Donovan investigation, for instance, cost about $325,000.
But the taxpayer gets a powerful investigative tool for the money. Under the Ethics Act, Stein will be able to issue subpoenas, grant immunity to witnesses, peruse much sensitive government information, and convene grand juries to evaluate his findings.
Such actions, of couse, take time. The Donovan investigation took nine months; the Jordan case, six months.
The Reagan administration has in the past proposed the repeal of the special prosecutor law, which was up for reauthorization in 1982. At the time, Attorney General Smith contended the law was unconstitutional because it involved the judiciary (a three-judge panel appoints the counsel) in enforcement of laws, an executive-branch function.
''But Congress really stood behind the act'' and reauthorized the law with a few changes, notes Ann McBride, a vice-president of the lobbying group Common Cause. ''The Meese probe is a classic case of why it continues to be necessary.''
The personal and political ties between Meese and Attorney General Smith are so close, says McBride, that the public might have a hard time accepting the results of an offical Justice Department investigation of Meese.
One former special prosecutor agrees that the law is necessary.
''There is an enormous public good to be satisfied by having special counsels beholden to no one but a panel of judges,'' says Leon Silverman, a New York attorney who was special prosecutor in the Donovan case.