Inching Toward a Counsel

The best argument for appointing an independent counsel to investigate the fund-raising practices of last year's Clinton-Gore campaign has never been in doubt. Only an objective investigator is likely to get to the bottom of this matter, unimpaired by conflicts of interest and political pressures.

Attorney General Janet Reno has been inching toward - or away - from making this appointment. It's been hard to tell. Her latest decision, to extend Justice Department probes preliminary to naming an independent counsel, prolongs the suspense until Dec. 2.

The consensus of opinion out of Washington is that Ms. Reno will not appoint a counsel. She already has said her department had found no substantiation for broad charges against the president - e.g., that campaign funds came with promises of official favors. The scope of inquiry has narrowed to the White House phone calls. Did they violate an 1883 law that prohibits the solicitation of political funds on federal property?

Strictly read, that law could outlaw much of Washington's money culture. But it's commonly construed as a narrow ban on shakedowns of federal employees for political donations.

That's too small a lens for what's unfolding in this case. An independent counsel is needed, with the leeway to probe a wider range of charges.

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