WASHINGTON – As the Justice Department pursues its investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA agent’s identity, two senior Democrats on the Governmental Affairs Committee Friday proposed reform legislation that would enable an entirely independent investigation – free of political considerations. Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Ranking Member Carl Levin, D-Mich., introduced the Independent Counsel Reform Act of 2003, a bill similar to one they co-sponsored in 1999 with Senators Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Susan Collins, R-Me.
“Hopefully, occasions will be few and far between when serious and credible criminal allegations emerge against high-level officials,” Lieberman said. “But when this happens, the public needs to be assured that the investigation will be a fair, independent one, free of partisan favors or conflicts of interest. The American people will have confidence in the results of the current investigation only if it is done by an independent and non-partisan counsel.” The Governmental Affairs Committee held five hearings before the bipartisan group of members crafted the 1999 measure, which was intended to address excesses exhibited by past Independent Counsel investigations. Among the excesses that would be curbed are the Independent Counsel’s ability to expand the scope of an inquiry, the relatively unchecked investigatory powers of the Independent Counsel, runaway budgets, and unlimited time frames. Thus, the reform bill contains the following changes from the previous law: • The number of officials covered by the statute is significantly reduced
• The threshold for seeking an Independent Counsel is raised
• The Independent Counsel will be a full-time position.
• A two-year time limit will be imposed. Extensions, upon a showing of “good cause,” could be permitted.
• Investigations may not be expanded into unrelated areas.
• The Independent Counsel must produce an estimated budget each year to be reviewed by the General Accounting Office.
• The Attorney General will be given more time and prosecutorial authority during a required preliminary investigation, before the need for an Independent Counsel is determined.
“The Independent Counsel statute embodies certain principles fundamental to our democracy,” Lieberman said. “And that is that our highest government officials are subject to the law just like anybody else. The alternative to an Independent Counsel statute is a system in which the Attorney General must decide how to handle substantive allegations against colleagues in the Cabinet, or against the President – people with whom he may have a close working or even personal relationship. “I have always said that it would take an emerging scandal of the type we are now witnessing to remind people that the Attorney General isn’t always the best person to investigate his or her colleagues in the Administration. Although we do not yet know who may be implicated in the current investigation, we do know that a majority of Americans question whether Attorney General Ashcroft can preside impartially over this probe.” Below are links to the Senator’s floor statement, and a summary of the legislation.