Reno and Freeh

Attorney General Janet Reno is not one to waver once she's made a decision. If she was unmoved by the legal arguments put forward by FBI Director Louis Freeh, she's certainly not going to be swayed by yet another editorial urging the appointment of outside counsel to investigate the campaign fund-raising charges enveloping the Clinton administration.

But here goes. The surfacing this week of more evidence of White House manipulation of campaign- finance law further bolsters the case for taking the investigation out of hands beholden to the president. Notes taken by a Clinton aide, belatedly provided to Congress, contain no startling new revelations. They just add to the picture of an administration consumed by political fund-raising, and clearly aware that the law could be, and was being, sidestepped.

Two acknowledgments: First, the Clinton-Gore team's exploitation of the soft-money loophole and other ways around statutory limits on campaign donations was matched by Republicans. Second, Ms. Reno doubtless reached her conclusions honestly by her own measure.

But two elements not given enough weight by her remain: (1) the need to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest in this investigation, and (2) the need to take a broad view of possible wrongdoing. Those concerns lay at the heart of Mr. Freeh's dissent from the attorney general's independent counsel decision.

FBI Director Freeh appeared with Reno before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Committee Republicans hoped to plumb his differences with the attorney general. Neither Freeh nor Reno would have any part of that. They steadfastly held to the confidentiality of any communication between them concerning an ongoing criminal probe.

They have a point. But Freeh's reasoning needs more airing than it has been given, via press leaks, to date. Public education, not partisan advantage, is at stake. We hope Freeh follows through on hints he may have more to say on the subject.

Reno and Freeh emphasized, creditably, that they can disagree on a judgment call and still remain colleagues. Both have a reputation for incorruptibility. They may yet enhance that reputation by helping uncover the abuses in an all-too-corruptible system - campaign finance. Then, will the politicians so eager to investigate willingly move on to legislate - passing meaningful reforms?

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