ON THE FRIDAY before the election, a revised indictment in the Caspar Weinberger case was filed with material that embarrassed President Bush. This count of the indictment has now been dismissed as barred by the statute of limitations, but a larger controversy surrounding it continues. Republicans have alleged that the revised indictment was a partisan act designed to affect the election. Specifically, they charge that the filing of the indictment was timed for maximum impact on the voters, that the text of the charges was leaked to the Clinton-Gore campaign the day before it became public and that James J. Brosnahan, the San Francisco lawyer chosen by Lawrence Walsh to prosecute the case, is an activist Democrat whose bias guided his conduct.
A week after the election, four Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, encouraged by Minority Leader Robert Dole, formally asked Attorney General William Barr to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the handling of this matter, focusing on any political considerations that might have motivated the prosecutors. On Friday, Mr. Barr turned down the request. This is not surprising, for the attorney general is known to dislike the independent counsel process and has refused to appoint others when requested. But here he had an additional and conclusive reason: The law applies only to certain members of the executive branch and cannot be used to investigate the office of the independent counsel at all.
The controversy does not end with the attorney general's decision on an independent counsel. He has asked the criminal division of the Justice Department to look into possible law violations in connection with an alleged leak of grand jury information or any other acts that might be crimes. This kind of referral is standard practice. The burden of the Republicans' complaint, however, is not law violation but what they describe as the partisan and wasteful conduct of the entire Iran-contra investigation. Sen. Dole questions the expenditure of more than $30 million by Mr. Walsh's office in conducting this six-year endeavor. He believes that staff in any independent counsel's office, like federal civil servants generally, should not be active in either political party. And he wants to get to the bottom of the story on the preelection indictment.
Sen. Dole has asked the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on this matter "at the earliest possible time," and he is building a file on Mr. Walsh's tenure to use when the independent counsel law comes up for renewal next year. Because the statute was designed to handle cases involving political appointees at the highest level of government, it is obviously important that any independent counsel's work be free of partisan taint. If Senate Republicans can prove that Mr. Walsh's operation did not meet this high standard -- and it is important to remember they have not done so -- the new version of the statute can set guidelines and incorporate safeguards.