Thursday, October 02, 2003

Hypocrisy: Let's take it from the top. In the wake of Watergate, discussion in Congress turned to what to do about the suspicion that sometimes the Justice Department had conflicts in investigating suspected executive branch misconduct. In 1978, the Independent Counsel Act was signed into law, so that a disinterested prosecutor could take over for DOJ if an official covered under the act became the subject of investigation. Republicans came to despise the act, mainly because it was used against them so effectively during the Reagan and Bush I administrations, culminating in the reign of Lawrence Walsh, whose naked partisanship made Kenneth W. Starr look like Solomon by comparison.

Anyhow, by the time Walsh wrapped up, Clinton had been elected, and the Republicans, while still professing to hate the IC statute, used it to the hilt against Clinton. Suddenly, the roles reversed, and Democrats began to wonder, quite publically, why the DOJ couldn't investigate the executive. These were, after all, "career professionals" (note similar wording from Ashcroft this week) at Justice doing the investigating, not partisan hacks; surely they could be trusted, and the runaway IC process could be done away with.

Flash forward another five years, to the oh-so-current "Wilsongate" affair. Democrats are starting to use the phrase "special counsel" (which is code for a special prosecutor, or effectively an independent counsel). Two things occur to me immediately. First, this is a dramatic counter-reversal. Within a decade, Democrats move from position A (DOJ can't investigate the executive) to position B (DOJ can do just that and Dems now oppose the IC, on principle mind you, and not because they are suddenly finding their engine turned on them) back to position A ("How could Congress sit here with a straight face and allow [a DOJ investigation] to be the way this issue is resolved?" said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Baghdad, just a couple of days ago). Second, at least the IC statute required that a covered official be a target of investigation and potential prosecution. That is, there had to be pretty clear evidence of a conflict. I know the IC statute expired (though a special counsel is the same thing, simply with out the automatic "covered official" trigger), but the principle is still there; no one has yet named a "covered official" or pointed out a conflict, except Wilson himself, who named Karl Rove (whom Wilson wanted "frogmarched in handcuffs"); he was later forced to retract and issue an embarrassing statement that he meant Rove was merely "the personification" of the administration within a limited metaphorical context.

I've said from the start, I'm in favor of an investigation, even an independent one. But I do wish the parties would declare where they stand on special counsels. The Democrats argued for months that an IC wasn't warranted and that Reno's DOJ could handle investigating Clinton's executive, even when officials covered by the IC statute began to drift into the crosshairs. But now, even when no suspect has even been named in the Wilson leak, Democrats are declaring quite loudly that the DOJ can't be trusted to look into this matter without prejudice.

Update: Reynolds sez: "Ashcroft can appoint a Special Prosecutor, which is not quite the same thing as an Independent Counsel. . ." Um, I think he's saying the same thing I am, just in reverse, but I'm not certain. He's the expert, so I'll defer. As far as I understand it, a special prosecutor could, in fact, be fired by the president, via the AG (not true of the IC); since the Saturday Night Massacre, though, I'm pretty certain no president has seriously entertained the idea.

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