HOUSE GOVERNMENT Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton may well be wrong in suggesting the FBI was lax in questioning President Clinton and Vice President Gore in 1997 and 1998 about possible fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign. But Attorney General Janet Reno likewise was less than reassuring in her denial of the charge.
The independent counsel statute having lapsed, the Justice Department, whose principal officials the president appoints, once again has primary responsibility for investigating possible presidential wrongdoing. It is not enough, in the presence of a conflict of interest as deep as that, for an attorney general simply to assert that a challenged investigation has been "vigorous," and walk away. In the post-independent counsel world, the department cannot just declare a bit indignantly that it has done its duty in a case involving the president and expect to be believed. For the sake of the public confidence it claims to deserve, it has to find a better way to make its case.
Mr. Burton is not a good lecturer in these matters. He has had a long career of mud-slinging and irresponsibility; the Republicans made a huge mistake in entrusting him with the House investigation of the financing of the 1996 campaign. He nonetheless, in the current encounter, publishes summaries of the FBI interviews with the president and vice president. The summaries indicate that neither man was much questioned about the foreign contributions that became a central point of contention in the campaign. Why not, he asks?
Ms. Reno says only that the interviews were focused on "the matters then under review." Charles La Bella, who has left the Justice Department but headed the investigation during part of the period in question, adds that, at the time of the first presidential interview, "open-ended questions about foreign money and other things would not have been ripe"; the investigation had not reached "the point where you knew a set of facts sufficient to put those questions to someone like the president of the United States." But then what?
Our instinct was that Ms. Reno was right not to call for appointment of an independent counsel on the campaign finance issue, as she was being urged to do when these interviews occurred. She said there was insufficient evidence that the president, vice president or other official high enough to be covered by the independent counsel law had committed a prosecutable offense. That seemed true, if only because the campaign finance laws are themselves so fuzzy; they are carefully kept that way by some of the same politicians who then berated her for failure to enforce them.
But occasional glimpses the public has had of the Justice Department's investigation have inspired less than total confidence. Officials have sometimes seemed to be saying that they could investigate possible misconduct on the part of the president only if they already were relatively sure it had occurred. The career folks at Justice never liked the independent counsel law. They took it as a slight; as dedicated public servants, it was they who could -- and should -- be entrusted with conducting a thorough professional investigation even of a president, they felt.
But trust is earned. Did it really never make sense in the course of the campaign finance investigation to ask the president and/or vice president about Chinese and other foreign contributions? At some point, the attorney general should issue more than a press release on the subject; she should issue a report.