The Magazine


Oct 27, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 07 • By BRIT HUME
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One might assume from this that she and her sleuths at Justice now have their magnifying glasses focused intently on their information about Bill Clinton and Al Gore to determine whether it's sufficiently "specific and credible." But to hear her describe it, she is looking for something much stronger. She spoke repeatedly of the need for evidence that "will stand up in court." "We must meet the highest standard of all," she testified. "We must convince 12 people beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed and that the person accused is guilty of a crime." This is true enough for most cases, but it has nothing to do with her task in determining whether an independent counsel is needed in the Clinton- Gore fund-raising cases. Indeed, under the law, neither she nor her department would ever prosecute such a case, since if it ever got that far, she would long since have been legally obliged to turn the matter over to an independent counsel.

Indeed, as a reading of the law makes clear, at this point she need not even decide that the evidence of crime by Clinton and Gore is "specific and credible." If she were to determine that it is, of course, she would be required immediately to seek an independent counsel. But if, at the end of the preliminary investigation, she were unable to decide the value of the information, she would still be obliged to seek the appointment of an independent counsel, unless she "determines that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted."

That would be a sweeping conclusion, especially in the midst of an investigation that she trumpeted to the committee as "massive," involving 120 lawyers and FBI agents, more than 500 subpoenas, and over a million pages of documents. Despite this mobilization, she has repeatedly been embarrassed by information that her investigators knew nothing about, most recently the existence of those White House tapes. Yet Reno still shows a remarkable will to protect her president.

Indeed one of the only times she wavered from her steely refusal to say anything specific about the facts of the case was when she was asked to react to the recently released videotape showing Clinton at a 1996 fundraiser praising his "good friend John Huang" and saying he was "virtually overwhelmed" at Huang's success in organizing the $ 600,000 event. The fund- raiser was attended by such figures as Charlie Trie and Pauline Kanchanalak, both of whom have since fled the country. Much of the money raised was later returned because it came from illegal foreign sources. "When he told me this event was going to unfold as it has tonight," the president said of Huang, "I wasn't sure I believed him. But he has never told me anything that did not come to pass." When Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner asked if this did not indicate the president "at least had knowledge of Mr. Huang's activities," Reno responded with something approaching indignation. "There is nothing in the statement that you provided to me just now that indicated that the president had any knowledge of any criminal activity. And to suggest that is to engage in the rumor and innuendo that we try to avoid in the Department of Justice."

Lanny Davis, the White House lawyer for damage control, could not have said it better. Still, Janet Reno may be past the point of no return on the road to an independent counsel. Unless she utterly absolves the president and vice president, the law leaves her little leeway to stop the process at this stage. She has now committed herself not to close any phase of the investigation without the concurrence of FBI director Louis Freeh, whose agents are known to be frustrated at the pace and direction of the investigation. Her commitment to act jointly with Freeh is about the only concession Reno made to the Judiciary Committee. Under the circumstances, it is probably enough.

Contributing editor Brit Hume is Washington managing editor of the Fox News Channel.