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Special Counsel Is Overkill

October 02, 2003

President Bush is right. The Justice Department, not a special counsel, should investigate allegations that an administration official illegally leaked the name of a CIA employee whose husband had authoritatively disputed White House claims that Iraq attempted to buy uranium ore in Niger. Neither an appointed special counsel nor a new independent counsel act -- which Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a presidential candidate, is calling for -- would be helpful or desirable.

The Independent Counsel Act, which Congress allowed to lapse in 1999, was a bad idea from the beginning. Until they were put out of business, prosecutors under this act conducted open-ended investigations that wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, harassed elected officials and produced scant prosecutable crimes

The first congressionally authorized independent counsel was Arthur H. Christy, who in 1979 and '80 investigated President Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, for allegedly snorting cocaine. No indictment ensued. Raymond Donovan, secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration, was investigated in 1981-82 for alleged connections to organized crime. None were discovered. President Reagan's Housing secretary, Samuel Pierce, was investigated for nine years and not indicted.

In the Iran-Contra affair, special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh spent eight years and $47 million chasing officials like Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger on often picayune charges; the first President Bush pardoned Weinberger and others.

Kenneth W. Starr took zeal to a new level, turning the initial Whitewater investigation of President Clinton into an open-ended inquiry on his sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky.

Republicans and Democrats mercifully let the law die in 1999. But Democrats like Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps suffering amnesia, are demanding a special counsel -- an investigator appointed by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft with the staff, subpoena powers and ability to convene a grand jury. Lieberman wants a full-blown independent counsel, with a two-year limit that permits extensions for "good cause."

Allowing career Justice Department officials to take the lead is enough, until a need for something more is proved. At this point, demands for an outside counsel smack more of opportunism than common sense.

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