ACLU Calls on Congress to Authorize Amended Independent Counsel Statute

March 11, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 11, 1999

WASHINGTON — Saying it continues to be deeply concerned about potential abuses of power by executive branch officials, the American Civil Liberties Union today called on Congress to authorize an amended Independent Counsel statute.

The ACLU said the statute should be reauthorized only on the condition that it be amended to include legal restraints to remedy the abuses of prosecutorial power that have come to light under the existing statute.

“We are painfully aware of the unchecked abuses of power that have flowed from the current independent counsel statute,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office.

“But, at the same time, we balance those concerns with our 25 years of support for an independent investigative voice that can be counted on to administer fair and even-handed justice even when the highest-ranking officials are accused of a crime,” Murphy added. “We are afraid that, in the heat of the moment, with all of the antagonism toward Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, we will do away with the statute and then find ourselves years from now in a situation where the national interest demands an impartial investigation.

“Today, therefore, we call on Congress to deliberate instead of retaliate,” Murphy concluded.

In reauthorizing the Independent Counsel statute, the ACLU said the following changes must be made:

  • Limit the number of officials covered by the statute to those whose abuse of power would represent a true threat to our democratic system and civil liberties or those whom the Attorney General would have an obvious conflict of interest in prosecuting.

    Currently, the Independent Counsel statute covers dozens of officials, including the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Director of the Peace Corps and the Chairman of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

    The ACLU said the law should be strictly limited so as not to cover such a wide range of officials. Those who should be covered under the statute include the President, the Vice President and all members of the President’s cabinet. Other positions that should be considered are offices that are most in a position to abuse civil liberties, the ACLU said, such as the Deputy Attorney General, the Director and Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Commissioner of Customs, and the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

  • Raise the threshold for triggering the Independent Counsel statute to include those crimes of abuse of official power, including criminal attempts to improperly influence executive, legislative and administrative decisions.

    Currently, the ACLU said, the broad language of the Independent Counsel statute, coupled with the large number of people it covers, has resulted in the prosecution of crimes that do not compromise our democratic form of government. In addition, the ACLU said that breadth of crimes covered by the statute has resulted in “fishing expeditions” by prosecutors.

  • Tighten the Department of Justice guidelines that instruct what federal prosecutors — including an Independent Counsel — can and cannot do during an investigation. The current breadth of the Independent Counsel statute, combined with the power and resources normally given to federal prosecutors, has led to serious invasions of privacy and compromises of the due process rights of the targets and anyone else touched by the investigations.

“The actions of the current independent prosecutor, as well as of other less visible prosecutors across the nation, have led many people to doubt that there is justice for all in America,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

“Ironically, the statute that was meant to protect against abuses of power has itself become a source of abuse,” King said.

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