Justice at Justice

Attorney General Janet Reno doesn't need to be told that her job is often a hot seat.

On her watch, she's had to deal with: the mismanaged storming of the Branch Davidian compound; renewal of the federal independent counsel law; the aftermath of the Ruby Ridge shooting; the World Trade Center bombing case; the Oklahoma City bombing case; and the resignation in disgrace of her White House-appointed minder, Webster Hubbell.

Now she's caught up in two matters related to several of those earlier dramas: (1) outcry over her repeated refusal to name an independent counsel to investigate White House fund-raising activities, and (2) fallout from her own inspector general's findings that the FBI crime lab "cooked" evidence related to such crucial cases as the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings.

No one would imply that (1) and (2) are related. But a case can be made that if General Reno had followed the independent counsel law, whose reenactment she helped shape, she would now be free to concentrate on seeing that federal prosecutors in the field come through the inevitable further questioning of FBI lab evidence as cleanly as possible.

Till now, Reno's application of the special counsel law has been exemplary. So exemplary that she has sometimes irritated President Clinton and his White House advisers.

But now, by refusing to call for such a counsel when events clearly indicate one is needed, she is thwarting the purpose of the law. And she is embroiling herself in a battle when she could more usefully stand clear and concentrate on seeing that her department efficiently untangles the FBI lab evidence mess.

The attorney general does not, of course, have to look over the shoulder of every federal prosecutor handling a case where FBI lab testing of physical evidence is questioned. But she will need to see that reform and restaffing of the lab are carried out swiftly and fully. And that all hands are prepared to handle both courtroom challenges and what could become a flood of appeals or demands for new trials.

Conclusion: Ms. Reno would be wise, legally and strategically, to change her mind and seek appointment of an independent counsel.

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