White House Mysteries II

The White House has long been a place of parallel universes. Not exactly like the two Edwardian universes of the old "Upstairs, Downstairs" drama. But close.

Last week the nation veered back to the much-aired subject of what the "downstairs" crew has observed about the machinations of the "upstairs" political aristocrats.

The Justice Department found itself fighting two awkward battles: (1) To prevent prying into the facts of the Monica Lewinski case via the "downstairs" servants (read Secret Service). (2) To prevent appointment of an independent counsel to investigate such suspect 1996 fund raising activities as the "China connection," the vice president's dialing for dollars, alleged selling of places on official trade missions, etc.

On the first battle, the courts refused to buy the executive branch's argument that Secret Service agents should not talk about possible criminal-related activities observed while guarding the president. We believe the courts were right.

If there is to be some new doctrine of Secret Service confidentiality, Congress ought to enact it. And lawmakers should specify exactly which phases of the service's job are covered by confidentiality and which are not.

The argument that a future president might dodge his bodyguards or order them away lest they later testify to criminal, or merely politically embarrassing, behavior seems specious. There long has been, and probably long will be, a penchant among some political leaders to shake the bonds of their minders. That won't change, no matter what the rules of Secret Service confidentiality. But presidents can certainly manage to carry on business relating to legitimate secrets by keeping their minders out of immediate earshot.

The second Justice Department attempt to shield a White House mystery from investigation doesn't - so far - involve the Secret Service. But it does involve the director of the FBI, Louis Freeh. And it's even less defensible than the attempt to shield Secret Service agents from subpoena.

During Attorney General Janet Reno's appearance last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the public learned more about the arguments Mr. Freeh put forth in an earlier memo to Ms. Reno. That document showed clearly why she should appoint an independent counsel to seek the facts about the 1996 White House fund-raising tactics. The FBI chief's main argument is blunt. The law requires an independent counsel when an attorney general faces the inherent conflict of interest involved in investigating her or his superiors, i.e. the president.

In many other matters involving her boss, Ms. Reno has proven courageous. She should now quit her legally untenable position and appoint an independent counsel.

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