- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

It took the FBI three and a half years to provide congressional committees investigating 1996 campaign-finance abuses with an explosive memo. In it FBI Director Louis Freeh told his deputy he had urged Attorney General Janet Reno and Lee Radek, one of her top aides, to recuse themselves from the investigation and seek the appointment of an independent counsel. It also took a congressional subpoena before the FBI would provide the memo. Why?

In the Dec. 9, 1996, memo from Mr. Freeh to FBI Deputy Director William Esposito, Mr. Freeh said he based his recommendation on earlier comments by Mr. Radek to Mr. Esposito. Mr. Radek heads the department's public integrity section, which, at the time, was organizing its campaign-finance task force to investigate fund-raising irregularities. According to the memo, Mr. Radek had told Mr. Esposito that he was "under a lot of pressure not to go forward with the investigation." In addition, Mr. Radek allegedly told Mr. Esposito that Miss Reno's job "might hang in the balance." At the time the memo was written, it's worth recalling, news articles were filled with statements by White House officials indicating that Miss Reno might not be returning as attorney general for President Clinton's second term.

Predictably, and ever so conveniently, Mr. Radek told the Associated Press, which first reported the memo's existence, that he had "no recollection of ever saying [to Mr. Esposito] I was under pressure because the attorney general's job hung in the balance." Similarly, Miss Reno declared, "I don't have a recollection of [Mr. Freeh] stating it and talking about pressure because of the job."

The convenience of their faulty memories aside, what might Miss Reno and Mr. Radek have done if they had intended to tank the Justice Department's campaign-finance probe? Miss Reno might have appointed an inexperienced, unqualified staffer to lead the investigation. She in fact made such an appointment, and by all accounts the investigation rapidly evolved into a chaotic mess. Mr. Radek might have issued a "cease and desist" order to a Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office conducting an aggressive investigation of Mr. Gore's role in an illegal fund-raiser at a southern California Buddhist temple. In fact, Mr. Radek issued such an order under the pretense that the probe might require an independent counsel; subsequently, the Justice Department's investigation of the temple fund-raiser languished for months. Miss Reno might have dismissed strong recommendations to seek an independent counsel that she received from Mr. Freeh in 1997 and from the prosecutor she personally selected to lead the department's investigation after it had become enmeshed in chaos. She in fact rejected both recommendations. Miss Reno and Mr. Radek might have attempted to avoid staffing the department's task force with experienced FBI agents and using in their place investigators from the inspector general's office at the Commerce Department. As Jerry Seper of The Washington Times reported last week, another memo by Mr. Freeh confirmed that Justice indeed attempted to sidestep the use of FBI agents for its task force.

In pursuit of Congress' oversight function, Sen. Arlen Specter, who chairs a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the Justice Department's handling of the campaign-finance probe, should invite the testimony of Miss Reno and Messrs. Radek, Freeh and Esposito in order to determine what conversations took place and why three and a half years transpired before Mr. Freeh's December 1996 memo was made available to the committee. Maybe it will jog their memories.

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