Yet Another Counsel

With a fifth Clinton Cabinet member now under the scrutiny of an independent counsel, questions again arise over the workings of this law.

Attorney General Janet Reno clearly wrestled mightily before deciding that the independent counsel law left her no choice regarding Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. It wasn't that she found any clear evidence that Ms. Herman had taken kickbacks or solicited illegal campaign donations when she headed the White House office of public liaison, as accused. It was just that the Justice Department couldn't firmly conclude, in the time allotted it, that there was nothing to the allegations. Voil, another independent counsel!

Under the current law, which went on the books in the late 1970s following Watergate, Ms. Reno must seek an independent counsel to probe wrongdoing by "covered" persons, including all Cabinet members, whenever charges are deemed credible after a preliminary probe by the Justice Department. In Herman's case, apparently, just enough credibility hung on to trigger a special probe.

Some argue that Reno has been too literal in interpreting the law. No one could argue she's been hesitant to invoke it. Except, that is, in the case of '96 campaign finance wrongdoing that implicated the president and vice president. The attorney general asserted she'd found no evidence tying either man to specific illegal acts. Hence no independent counsel there, even though that tangle of allegations has far broader implications for US governance and reaches potentially far higher than a case like Herman's.

The law itself may be to blame. It ought to be focused on alleged wrongdoing by high officials in the White House and in the Justice Department itself, where conflicts of interests are strongest. Problems of scope and tenure can be addressed by limiting probes to charges that arise from activities while an individual holds federal office and by requiring independent counsels to periodically make their case for new funding.

Next year the counsel law comes up for renewal. It should be kept, as a needed means of objectively probing wrongdoing in high places. But it needs adjusting.

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