Back when Richard Nixon’s presidency began to shake, rattle, and roll under scrutiny for the Watergate break-in, the question of whether the Executive Branch of government was capable of investigating itself (via the Justice Department, an Executive Branch entity controlled by the president himself) once again came to the fore.
I found this synopsis of the events on PBS.org (link), and it neatly describes the cat-and-mouse game that presidents play when they are supposed to investigate their own administration:
As the investigation of the 1972 break-in of the Democratic NationalCommittee’s Watergate offices began to reveal a deeper level of corruption — including political sabotage, obstruction of justice, and campaign finance irregularities — many in Congress pushed for the appointment of a special prosecutor. After his top aides and Attorney General either resigned or were dismissed in April 1973, President Richard Nixon himself suggested he might allow a new Attorney General to name a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal. The Senate held the administration’s feet to the fire by threatening to delay Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson’s confirmation unless he agreed to appoint a special prosecutor. Richardson responded by naming Harvard University law professor Archibald Cox to the position, and publicly guaranteeing him the Justice Department would not interfere in his case.
This promise was put to the test in October 1973 during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Cox, who had continued to press for full release of the President’s secret Oval Office tapes. Neither Richardson nor Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus acceded to the President’s demand to fire the special prosecutor, and instead resigned. Finally, the next in command, Solicitor General Robert Bork, removed Cox on October 20. Galvanized by Cox’s firing and the subsequent public outcry, Congress initiated impeachment proceedings and began searching for ways to appoint a new prosecutor with greater independence. Trying to calm the storm he had unleashed, Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski to Cox’s position, with the proviso that Jaworski could not be fired without the consent of a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
By the time Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Archibald Cox and his successor Leon Jaworski had carved out a new space in the public mind for the special prosecutor’s role in reining in official corruption. Moreover, many in Washington — including prominent Watergate investigator Sam Dash, members of Congress and important public interest groups — continued to push for some kind of institution which would insure a prosecutor’s independence in the future.
As this episode shows, once a prosecutor digs in on an issue, and the president who possibly committed crimes realizes he may be exposed, that president gets rid of that prosecutor. So much for the “independence” of the prosecutor.
So in the wake of the Nixon downfall came a powerful curb on executive power, signed into law by Jimmy Carter as part of a broad series of government reforms known as the Ethics in Government Act: The Office of the Special Prosecutor
The Act aimed to clean up American politics by creating a new ethics watchdog organization and by instituting new controls on high-ranking government officials, including financial disclosure requirements and lobbying restrictions. Prominent among these reforms were provisions for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor. Covering a wide range of executive branch officials, the law obliged the Attorney General to recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor whenever he or she received specific charges of misconduct, unless the charges were “so unsubstantiated” as to not warrant further investigation. Actually appointing the special prosecutor was a new three-judge panel, based at the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
This “office” evolved over the succeeding decades and survived a Supreme Court challenge and several 5-year expirations requiring new Congressional approval and presidential signature.
Of interest is the fact that Ronald Reagan himself signed a renewal of the law in 1983 and then again in 1987 even though his administration had been the target of special prosecutors seven times. Also of interest is that Bill Clinton signed a renewal of the law early in his first administration (emphasis added):
On July 1, 1994, Clinton signed the reauthorization bill, and called the law “a foundation stone for the trust between the Government and our citizens.” He dismissed charges that it had been a “tool of partisan attack…and a waste of taxpayer funds.” Instead, he said, the statute “has been in the past and is today a force for Government integrity and public confidence.”
Poor Bill ended up on the wrong end the of the law when he suffered the consequences of his bad testimony under oath in the Paula Jones lawsuit (a federal judge stripped him of his law license for five years and held him in contempt of court).
However it was the public perception of a runaway-independent counsel (Ken Starr’s discovery of the Monica Lewinsky evidence regarding Bill Clinton in the work place, which turned out to be central to the Paula Jones lawsuit — if you think it was only about blowjobs, you are wrong and should read this <link>) that led to the law’s failure to get renewed again after expiring in 1999.
Enter Barack Obama’s administration
So where are we now?
This is where we are now:
Judicial Watch today released new Department of Justice (DOJ) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) documents that include an official “DOJ Recap” report detailing an October 2010 meeting between Lois Lerner, DOJ officials and the FBI to plan for the possible criminal prosecution of targeted nonprofit organizations for alleged illegal political activity.
The newly obtained records also reveal that the Obama DOJ wanted IRS employees who were going to testify to Congress to turn over documents to the DOJ before giving them to Congress. Records also detail how the Obama IRS gave the FBI 21 computer disks, containing 1.25 million pages of confidential IRS returns from 113,000 nonprofit social 501(c)(4) welfare groups – or nearly every 501(c)(4) in the United States – as part of its prosecution effort. According to a letter from then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, “This revelation likely means that the IRS – including possibly Lois Lerner – violated federal tax law by transmitting this information to the Justice Department.” <judicialwatch.org, link>
That’s right, folks, Barack Obama’s IRS, and Barack Obama’s Justice Department, and Barack Obama’s FBI, engaged in a conspiracy to target Tea-Party groups not only for denial of tax-exempt status, but for possible criminal prosecution.
How badly do you think mr. Obama wanted to win re-election in 2012?
Badly enough to use the Executive Branch of government to suppress political opponents up to and including throwing them in jail?
Bring back the Office of the Independent Counsel
Now, who thinks that the Obama Justice Department is going to hold the IRS, and the FBI, and ITSELF accountable for any of this?
And why did this politician run the State Department on her own personal email server, which she now refuses to turn over to the government, and why does the Obama administration defend these actions? And did this same politician sell her influence as Secretary of State to the highest bidder? And did the same politician (and her boss) coverup wrong-doings in the Benghazi tragedy in which four Americans were left to be killed by Muslim extremists?
Which brings us back to the point of this essay: the Office of the Independent Counsel is needed today more than ever in our history.