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Jewish World Review June 8, 2000 /5 Sivan, 5760

Tony Snow

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We have destroyed the Dept. of Justice! -- IT'S JUST AS MANY of us suspected: The United States Department of Justice has ceased to exist. In its place stands a legal Thunderdome -- a world of arbitrary rules, soap-operatic infighting, peculiar liaisons and isolated eruptions of decency -- all taking place under the watchful eye of a hard-to-fathom woman.

This Heironymous Bosch-like picture emerges in a collection of 60 documents just released by the House Government Reform Committee. Most of the 1,000-page compilation consists of memorandums exchanged by warring clans within Renodome. But the most riveting passages concern the attorney general herself. Readers must decide for themselves whether Ms. Reno is a) a dolt, b) Janet of Arc, c) a corrupt power junkie or d) any combination of the above.

A clue emerges in the very first document, a 1996 memo written by FBI Director Louis B. Freeh. It indicates that Reno's most trusted adviser in handling presidential scandals, Lee Radek, made a scandalous confession to William Esposito of the FBI -- that "there was a lot of pressure on him regarding (the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandal) because the 'attorney general's job might hang in the balance' (or words to that effect)."

It fits. A new Janet Reno materialized after the 1996 elections. The New Reno didn't interpret law, she rewrote it. She didn't enforce the law, she circumvented it. She didn't appoint independent counsels, she shunned them. And she didn't invite open inquiry, she punished it.

A single incident -- among dozens chronicled in the documents -- tells the tale. On Nov. 21, 1995, a group of strategists met in the White House to talk about raising money for Democratic Party ads. The key attendee was Vice President Al Gore. Notes taken by Democratic wise man Robert Strauss indicate that participants discussed raising so-called "hard money."

Other attendees, including former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, seconded Strauss' recollection. Panetta noted that the veep was "very attentive" during the discourse.

Sooner or later

If this is true, Gore broke the law. But Reno not only declined to prosecute; she refused to investigate. Her reason: iced tea. The vice president told lawyers he didn't remember much about the meeting, but did recall swilling huge draughts of iced tea -- a pitcher's worth!

At some point, he confided, he had to hobble out of the room to relieve himself. He speculated that in the intervening interval -- say, half an hour -- his minions must entertained themselves by conspiring to break the law.

Now, place yourself in that meeting. If you had witnessed Al Gore swilling like a camel, you would have remembered the scene -- if only for its weirdness. Yet, nobody recalled such a thing.

But Reno and Radek bought the account. They didn't examine the vice president's subsequent statements on the matter. They ignored copious evidence. And along the way, they decided to ignore the law. They insisted that FBI agents couldn't plunge into any detailed inquiry unless they had enough evidence to prosecute -- in which case, they wouldn't need an investigation.

They also demanded "specific and credible evidence" of criminality before seeking an independent counsel, even though the law requires only specific "information" from a credible source -- a much less demanding standard. So what happened in Renodome? The attorney general defenestrated the people who made trouble. She approved an investigation of FBI Director Freeh because he gave Congress an incorrect explanation for the reassignment of a lab employee. (He corrected his testimony the following day.)

She denied an expected promotion to Charles LaBella, a pesky investigator who agitated for independent counsels for the president, vice president and others. And she okayed a meritless probe of Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

The attorney general seems to regard the law as an enemy of common sense -- as vatic verbiage comprehensible only to augurs and sages. One has only to read the memos to marvel at the imbecilic disputes raging within Renodome and gawk at the ability of otherwise sane adults to transform simple language into a bog of ambiguity.

Common sense is the glue of any civil society. Tradition and experience enable us to plug the interstices between law and circumstance. They help us practice kindness when warranted, and suspicion when necessary. Indeed, if Reno had listened to her own inner B.S. barometer, she wouldn't be fighting for her reputation today.

For here's the coup de grace: Newly released documents destroy the iced tea alibi upon which Reno and Radek pinned their reputations. It turns out that former deputy White House chief of Staff Harold Ickes, who ran the infamous meeting, is no fool. He suspended discussions when Gore left the room. (But Reno and Radek still aren't curious about what happened next.)

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate