Attorney General Janet Reno has done her duty and lived up to the expectations of the president who appointed her for a second term. Once again, she has deflected what appeared to many to be clear violations of campaign finance laws. While the investigations are far from over, she has bought the administration more time, a boon to this bunch so excellent at stonewalling.
Ms. Reno did this, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and others have noted, by narrowly interpreting the independent counsel statute, by limiting the investigation to phone calls made from the Oval Office by President Clinton and the vice president's office by Al Gore, and by ignoring the larger and far more important issue of foreign money and possible influence-buying.
Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) noted that Ms. Reno had "turned the law on its head" by thwarting further investigation because of "insufficient evidence" to warrant a special counsel. Mr. Thompson said it almost requires a John Dean or a newspaper laying out all the facts, as occurred during the Nixon administration when the president's counsel squealed to the special prosecutor and The Washington Post got inside information from a source known as "Deep Throat."
The independent counsel statute was designed to avoid conflicts of interest that often arise when the Justice Department is forced to investigate members of an administration. In this case, conflicts are especially likely when the de facto head of the criminal division is Bob Litt, former law partner of President Clinton's lawyer. The Senate has, so far, refused to confirm him to the post.
Though Ms. Reno says the investigation will continue, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore were quick to claim vindication. Both spoke of returning to the "real business" of the country and took credit for the healthy economy and what they are doing for "America's children," trying to divert attention from the dirty tricks they played in order to win reelection.
The hero in all of this is FBI Director Louis Freeh, who wanted an independent counsel appointed. Ms. Reno had promised House Republicans in October that she would make no decision without Freeh's concurrence, but a few days later she amended the promise to say that the final decision would be hers alone. Her pledge to continue the investigation, given the demonstrated incompetence and snail-like pace of Justice Department attorneys, ought not to deter Congress from further investigation and action, including clarification and strengthening of the independent counsel statute.
Administration officials were cool in their reaction to Mr. Freeh. Now look for efforts to force him out by questioning his competence. Unlike so many current and former members of this administration, Mr. Freeh's integrity has never been questioned.
In a statement following the decision, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted several conflicts of interest he believes mandates an independent counsel:
(1) The current Department of Justice task force has been on the job for just two months and already has decided no independent counsel is necessary, but FBI officials, who have been investigating scandals for much longer, think an independent counsel should be named.
(2) Crucial information pertinent to the investigation was unearthed by The Washington Post, not the Justice Department.
(3) The attorney general's responses to legitimate questions posed by the Judiciary Committee and others have been inaccurate or incomplete. Mr. Hatch says Ms. Reno consistently relies on "tortured legal machinations" to protect the president.
(4) While Ms. Reno brags that she's named six independent counsels so far, the standards for requesting them were lower than the almost insurmountable height to which she has raised the ethical bar for the president and vice president.
Attorney General Reno has proved that her heart belongs to the man at whose pleasure she serves. With this decision, she has made sure that, for the moment (which is all this administration lives for), the president is feeling a lot of pleasure. And his people must be pleased, too. They circumvented, even broke, the law and may now feel the rush that goes with believing you can do anything and get away with it.
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate