March 17, 1999
| KWAME HOLMAN: During
her six years as Attorney General, Janet Reno has called for the appointment
of seven independent counsels to investigate high-ranking federal officials,
including the President. When the law governing independent counsels was
up for reauthorization in 1993, Attorney General Reno testified in support
of it. But the law is set to expire again in June, and today Reno told
the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee she has reversed her position
and now opposes the Independent Counsel Act. She urged the responsibility
to investigate be returned to the Justice Department.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: In my view, the Act has failed to accomplish its primary goal: The enhancement of public confidence in the fair and impartial administration of the criminal law. This is so in large part because the Act requires the attorney general to make key decisions at several critical stages of the process: Whether to open a preliminary investigation; whether to seek the appointment of an independent counsel; what subject to refer to the court when seeking a counsel; and whether to remove the counsel or not, for an attorney general, after all, is a member of the President's Cabinet and, as such, his or her decisions will inevitably be second guessed and criticized no matter what the decision. I'm not saying that this is fair or unfair, justified or unjustified, right or wrong. I'm just saying that it is natural, and that this climate of criticism and controversy weakens, rather than strengthens, the public's confidence in the impartial exercise of prosecutorial power, and that, at the end of the day, undercuts the purpose of the Act.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reno said the millions of dollars independent counsels have spent on their investigations also influenced her decision. And Reno reminded Senators there are no limits on the time or money independent counsels may spend pursuing those investigations.
JANET RENO: In trying to ensure independence, the statute creates a new category of prosecutors who have no practical limits on their time or budgets. They have no competing public duties and no need to make difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Attorney General also said independent counsels are under special pressure to produce results.
JANET RENO: If the counsel uncovers nothing or fails to secure an indictment and conviction, some may conclude that he or she has wasted both time and money. Again, I'm not commenting on the work of any particular independent counsel. These are simply the incentives that the statute creates. It is for these reasons that the Justice Department has concluded that the Act is structurally and fundamentally flawed, and that it should not be reauthorized.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was during his 1997 hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses that Committee Chairman Fred Thompson became frustrated with Attorney General Reno over her refusal to request appointment of an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton. Today, Thompson suggested Reno's refusal opened her to the very criticism she complained about in her opening statement.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Chairman, Governmental Affairs Committee: I don't recall other attorneys general having this "damned if you do and damned if you don't." I mean, they've been criticized for sure, but I don't recall anything like this. And maybe that's the point you're trying to make. Attorney generals have made decisions to appoint independent counsels, decisions not to. But frankly, I don't -- of course, the Watergate situation, I guess, stands by itself. I don't -
JANET RENO: In Watergate -
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: -- recall all this controversy where the attorney general is in the middle of all this until your situation.
JANET RENO: Well, you haven't had an attorney general who's been around as long, or who has made so many decisions, or who has had to come up against probably one of the most complex, confusing laws the Congress ever passed.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, it's been on the books for a long time. But I -
JANET RENO: No. I'm talking about the Federal Elections Act.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, that's been on the books for a long time, too.
JANET RENO: And it becomes more confused with the passage of time.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, it's become more confusing lately, I assure you. But the point is that you are suggesting here today that this be given back to Justice, and you be allowed to appoint special counsel. I think it's entirely valid for me to point out that in cases that cry out in my opinion -- that cry out for the appointment of either a political conflict of interests independent counsel, or at least a special counsel that has been called -- that has been utilized by other attorneys general, that in times past you have not seen fit to avail yourself.
JANET RENO: And I understand that you disagree with me on some of my decisions and that you agree with me on others. I understand that there are some people -
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Which ones do you think I agree with you on?
JANET RENO: I have no idea, but I am sure you would be raising all of them if you disagreed with me.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Committee's newest member, North Carolina Democrat John Edwards, asked Reno to describe just how the Justice Department would assume responsibility for appointing an investigating counsel.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS, (D) North Carolina: Can you tell us and describe for the American people what process the Justice Department would use in making decisions about how to investigate that case, what prosecutor or team of prosecutors would be assigned to the case and how they would go about doing their job?
JANET RENO: If it were a matter of public corruption -
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I'm assuming that, yes.
JANET RENO: It would be handled -- it would depend on the circumstances. If it were in certain locations, it might be handled by the U.S. Attorney or it might be handled by the Public Integrity Section. If it arose as so many of these issues have arisen, in the Washington context, it could be possibly by the Public Integrity Section or by the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. But we would make a judgment again based on how similar cases have been handled in the past, who the expert, who is the best person to handle it, who is available, and who can best handle the case to see that it's done right.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: And what would you say to those critics, those folks who would say in response to what you've just said or would raise questions about accountability, about the fact that you are appointed by the President and ---what would you say to those people?
JANET RENO: I have a responsibility. I would like the tools to be fully responsible and be accountable to this Committee, to the Judiciary Committees, when I can -- when the matter is concluded and I can say this is what happened and this is why it happened.
KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney General Reno told the Committee the Justice Department will submit its specific recommendations to Congress next month on how it would conduct investigations of government officials if the Independent Counsel Statute is not renewed.