December 9, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh were called before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee to explain why they came to different conclusions as to whether an independet counsel should be appointed to investigate the President's campaign fund-raising activities. They were also questioned about the leak of a confidential memo Director Freeh sent to Attorney General Reno asking her to appoint an independent counsel. After excerpts from the testimony, Representatives John Shadegg (R-AZ) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) provide their perspectives.
JIM LEHRER: Now more from two committee members: Democrat Tom Lantos of California, Republican John Shadegg of Arizona. So Congressman Shadegg, what in your opinion was accomplished today?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 9, 1997:
Excerpts from Attorney General Reno's and FBI Director Freeh's testimony before Congress regarding the appointment of an independent counsel.
December 5, 1997:
The NewsHour's political pundits discuss Janet Reno's decision on an independent counsel.
December 3, 1997:
A historical look at the President - Attorney General relationship.
December 2, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek an independent counsel.
October 29, 1997:
An administration lawyer explains why tapes of White House coffee were missed.
October 22, 1997:
The Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses air tapes of White House coffees.
October 15, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno explains to a Senate committee why she extended her review of President Clinton's campaign finance activities.
October 14, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she was extending the investigation into fund-raising calls made by President Clinton.
October 9, 1997:
The House finally began hearing testimony from witnesses looking into the work of DNC donor "Charlie" Yah Lin Trie.
October 7, 1997:
After a contentious beginning, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes began his testimony before the Senate.
September 11, 1997:
The highest ranking Clinton administration official, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, testifies on White House screening procedures for donors and guests.
September 9, 1997:
Former DNC Chair Don Fowler defends the actions of the Democrats during the last election.
July 24, 1997:
Former RNC Chair Haley Barbour testifies before the committee about the fund-raising done by the GOP in 1996.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the campaign finance investigation.
House Government Reform and Oversight Committee
U.S. Department of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
REP. JOHN SHADEGG, (R) Arizona: Well, I think we got into some of the facts surrounding her decision. For example, we brought out that although the best evidence of whether the Vice President thought he was raising campaign funds came from his own press conference, nowhere in the Attorney Generals 29-page report did she even examine or look at or mention what he said in his own press conference. And in his press conference he repeatedly said that he believed he was raising funds for the campaign, our campaign and our re-election campaign. I think that shows a huge whole in her own investigative report and raises the whole problem of is it appropriate for an Attorney General to clear her boss and have the American people rely on that as having been an independent and unbiased decision on her part.
JIM LEHRER: And you think that was the most significant thing that happened today?
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Well, there are a lot of significant things that happened today. Its extraordinary when the Attorney General of the nation and the Director of the FBI further disagree on this critical an issue and somehow the director of the FBIs memo gets leaked, pointing out that he disagrees with her, that he is publicly slapped down by the President the week before the hearing is held, and he comes in and suddenly hes back on the team. I think this raises serious questions for justice in America and whether or not the American people ought to have any confidence in the process. Yes, I think some of those things were accomplished today.
Attorney General Reno: A paragon of public virture?
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Lantos, what do you think happened today?
REP. TOM LANTOS, (D) California): Well, lots of things happened. In the first place, the American people had six hours of testimony by the paragon of public virtue in this city, Janet Reno. The American people are capable of taking her measure. This is a woman who is not subject to political threats or intimidations or offers of reward.
This is a person of total and absolute integrity. I think the American people got a chance to see the director of the FBI, who is a fine public servant of impeccable integrity, and the American people saw how frustrated Dan Burton and his colleagues on that side were because they tried to build a case of an historically unprecedented split between the Attorney General and the director of the FBI.
And, of course, it was pointed out to them that historically most Attorneys General and FBI Directors differed on many issues. Janet Reno and Louis Freeh happen to differ on this issue, and after differing on this issue, express the greatest respect and admiration for one another.
And it was a fine--it was a fine example in providing a lesson of how our government worked. The Attorney General under the law we passed, not she, we passed, did exactly what shes supposed to do. She conducted the preliminary investigation and according to the law that we passed, she alone has the jurisdiction to declare whether an independent counsel is called for or not.
It was her judgment on the basis of a tremendous array of inputs that the independent counsel law should not be invoked, and thats what she did.
The Republican view: a "screaming conflict of interest" exists.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shadegg, first of all, the point that Congressman Lantos made about the integrity of these two individuals--Janet Reno and Louis Freeh--what did you come away from this day thinking about that?
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Well, I dont think my view of that on either issue changed. I dont think its a question of their integrity. I believe that Janet Reno believes she did the right thing, but unfortunately she is looking at this crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, and looking at the minutiae of this case, and not stepping back and doing what she said in 1993 ought to happen, and that is to create a structure in which the American people can have faith in the decision.
The independent counsel statute says that this decision should be made by an independent and impartial individual where there is the potential for a conflict of interest. Here there is a screaming conflict of interest because the Attorney General is investigating her boss, the President of the United States, and in this case the Vice President of the United States, and their conduct. And I think its extraordinary of Mr. Lantos to say that this was insignificant that they disagreed. Its extraordinary that the director of the FBI so vehemently disagreed with her decision that you wrote it down in a memo.
He said it to her. He tried to persuade her. And somehow he or somebody else wrote that memo to the public so that he could clear his name, so that he could get on record, saying, this is wrong; there should be an independent counsel investigation. And the person thats going to suffer the most from this I think is Vice President Al Gore.
Lets assume the Attorney General on the crossing the Ts and dotting the Is issue is right and the Vice President couldnt be prosecuted. The fact that he has now been cleared by not an independent and partial source but by an Attorney General whose job is on the line if she dares disagree--and we cant doubt that because the FBI directors job appeared to be on the line last week--I think she is missing the forest by looking at the minutiae, and I think its a tragedy.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe, Congressman Shadegg, that both of these folks are acting because they are under the gun from the President, because the Presidents the one who hired them, the Presidents the one who can fire them?
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: I think that is a part of the process. Thats at the heart of the independent counsel statute. She understands that she could be removed; however, I said before, I think she believes what she did was right. But I was an assistant Attorney General when we prosecuted a governor for a felony. She needs to step back and look at this issue and decide what will preserve the credibility in the justice system. Let me tell you--
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask--let me get back to Congressman Lantos just on that specific question, Congressman Lantos, which is: Whatever is in her mind or not, how much integrity she has or not, whether or not theres an appearance of a conflict of interest because the man who hired her is the man shes investigating.
Rep. Lantos: Congress is ultimately responsible for independent counsel law.
REP. TOM LANTOS: Jim, we passed the law. The law we passed is very simple. The Attorney General begins a preliminary inquiry. We gave the Attorney General sole discretion to make a call as to whether an independent counsel should be invoked or not. This is the law that Congress passed. If we dont like the law, we can change it. But she is following the law. Ill give you an example. Burton charged in a committee hearing and on national television that the tapes of these coffee sessions in the White House were altered; they were doctored. The professional military--non-political people, who filmed these coffees--testified that they were not altered. Sen. Thompson last week on national television announced he investigated it; hes convinced they were not altered. Now, if you take the Burton criteria, then any crazy charge, any irresponsible charge leveled at the President or the Vice President, immediately calls for an independent counsel. I think it is so absurd for Congress to complain that a law that it passed is being implemented by the Attorney General precisely according to the letter and the spirit of the law.
Is Attorney General Reno sending the wrong message?
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shadegg.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Its not being implemented precisely according to the letter of the law. She did not even look at, for example, some of the most telling facts, his own acknowledgment that he believed he was raising hard money. Let me just conclude to this point--Im not interested in an ad hominem attack on Dan Burton. Let me tell you, the night this decision was announced my son had a boy scout meeting. I went to the boy scout meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. At the end of the meeting the scout master--a 35-year-old man--came up to me and said, "Doesnt she understand what she is doing, the signal that she is sending, that someone is above the law, and the fact that now we will never have an independent and an impartial decision as to whether or not the Vice President violated the law?" I think thats a serious problem.
JIM LEHRER: Serious problem, Congressman Lantos?
REP. TOM LANTOS: Well, I dont know whether the boy scout leader read the law that the Congress passed. I know that Janet Reno did, and I know that Louis Freeh did, and they were, of course, in full agreement that Janet followed the law, the letter and the spirit of the law. Louis Freeh doesnt disagree at all with the process. Now its very, very frequently the case that in a complex matter honest people of integrity disagree on a decision. Supreme Court decisions sometimes are 5-4 decisions. Dan Burton and his cohorts are livid that they dont have yet another opportunity to go after the Clinton administration. Thats the underlying issue.
JIM LEHRER: Is that the underlying issue, Congressman Shadegg?
"My concern here... is the confidence and faith that people have in the American justice system."
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Im certainly not livid. I think weve made a good point today. My concern here, as a former assistant Attorney General in Arizona, is the confidence and faith that people have in the American justice system, and that was Janet Renos concern in 1993 when she said credibility and public confidence will only be engendered by an independent and impartial outsider making this determination.
REP. TOM LANTOS: Well, shes talking about a different case.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: No. She was talking about this law. She was talking about the independent counsel law, and she said, only then can we clear the public officials name, and only then can we do it in a way which no Justice Department investigation ever could do. She has now cleared him, supposedly under circumstances which are biased and in a 29-page report that has a serious deficiency in it.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think should be done about it, Congressman Shadegg?
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Well, I dont know that the Congress has the ability to force your hand, except I think we have a duty to continue to pursue these issues. Just last night long after the news sources in America shut down the White House released yet more papers, shockingly papers in which I think White House officials made astounding admissions about the coffees that went on. I think we have a duty to continue to pursue these issues, and interestingly, Mr. Freeh said today that the investigation even of the phone calls was open. And hopefully, we can open that back up and point out that I think quite clearly the Vice President violated the law.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Congressman Lantos, that the investigation should go on?
REP. TOM LANTOS: Well, Sen. Thompson conducted an investigation on the Senate side and concluded that there is no point going further and close down shop. We have been arguing for a long time that the Burton investigation is one of the most partisan, tawdry, cheap, political witch hunts in recent American history. It is long past due to close down this investigation. But Burton has an unlimited budget, so he will go on, and its perfectly obvious that both Reno and Freeh disagree with Burton when he demands the release of a confidential memo from the director of the FBI to the Attorney General.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Mr. Lantos projected--
REP. TOM LANTOS: Let me finish, please.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: No--
REP. TOM LANTOS: This has never been--this has never been done.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: --shut down because the Senate Democrats wouldnt let it go on beyond the end of this year.
REP. TOM LANTOS: They have the majority. They have the majority.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.
REP. JOHN SHADEGG: Thank you.
REP. TOM LANTOS: Thank you.