By historical standards, the cost of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity has not been high -- just $1.4 million as of last September. Fitzgerald's investigation, as a special counsel appointed by the acting attorney general, came after two decades of independent counsel investigations that cumulatively cost more than $100 million.

In 1978, in the wake of the Watergate era, Congress passed an ethics law that allowed a panel of appellate judges to appoint an independent counsel with nearly unlimited power to investigate allegations of improprieties by executive branch officials. Starting with the Iran-contra case in the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing number of independent counsels were appointed and they were involved in several investigations of Clinton administration officials. With price tags growing and few convictions achieved, critics argued that the independent counsel statute had outlived its usefulness. In 1999, Congress allowed it to expire.

In 2003, acting Attorney General James B. Comey appointed Fitzgerald as a special counsel. Fitzgerald kept the operation controlled by a tightknit staff in Chicago, where he is the U.S. attorney, and in the Justice Department, making use of government buildings in those two locales. Fitzgerald's office has said that $1.1 million of the investigation -- as of last September -- was spent on routine salary and building costs. Only $333,000, the office said, was spend on additional costs borne specially of this case. Following is a comparison of some of the high-profile investigations:

-- Zachary A. Goldfarb Lawrence Walsh Iran-contra affair; Several national security officials were convicted or charged, but their convictions were overturned or they received executive pardons. Donald Smaltz Allegations that Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted improper gifts; Espy acquitted in 1998 but case remained open until 2002. Daniel Pearson Allegation that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had improper financial dealings; Brown investigation closed after his death, but two associates later indicted. Curtis Von Kann Allegation that Eli Segal, former head of AmeriCorps, committed campaign finance improprieties; Segal cleared. Carol Elder Bruce Accusations that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to Congress about his role in the department's 1995 rejection of a casino project; Babbitt cleared in 1999. Ralph Lancaster Charges that Clinton Labor Secretary Alexis S. Herman took a bribe or sought illegal campaign contributions; she was cleared. John Danforth Waco raid in Texas; cleared government of wrongdoing. Kenneth Starr, et al. Various Clinton scandals, including financial improprieties and perjury and obstruction charges in the Lewinsky matter; Clinton impeached but not convicted. David Barrett Charges against former housing secretary Henry Cisneros of making false statements in background check; Cisneros pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charge, pardoned in 2001. Patrick Fitzgerald Disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity; Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby indicted for perjury and other crimes.