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U.S. may have found itself another David Barrett

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This David Barrett is something else, a character on the order of Ahab obsessively, unremittingly, vindictively hunting down the white whale, but he has at least shown again why you need to keep prosecutors in line.

Through his 11-year, $21 million effort to get the goods on former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, and his remorseless rant at the end of this ugly enterprise, he has further illustrated not only the dangers of the now-expired independent-counsel statute, but of any grant of extraordinary powers to a special prosecutor.

Barrett's job, after his designation as independent counsel in 1995, was to find out whether Cisneros lied to the FBI about how much money he had paid to a mistress while serving as mayor of San Antonio. Giving false information when being considered for a Cabinet post can clearly be serious for a variety of reasons, such as misleading the president or the Senate about your competence or setting yourself up for blackmail.

In this case, however, it had long been known that Cisneros had a mistress. The revelation years earlier had been ruinous to a political career that might otherwise have landed him in the governor's office in Texas, even in the Oval Office someday. Here was a Hispanic political star widely acknowledged by both conservatives and liberals as a brilliant, charming, superbly educated mayor. He demonstrated a broad strategic understanding of municipal issues, a practical grasp of the importance of the business community and how to serve it, and a special talent for overcoming Hispanic-Anglo antagonisms that too often blocked progress.

If Cisneros, in his FBI interviews, had mixed up his numbers, he had not tried to hide the obvious. Barrett nevertheless stormed ahead, securing an indictment of 18 felony counts so unpersuasive that Cisneros got out from under through pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton. The guilty plea was in 1999, the same year the independent-counsel law was allowed to lapse. Barrett did not go away. He is only now giving up his role while alleging in an apparently blistering 746-page report that Cisneros was a tax dodger and that players in the Clinton administration engaged in subterfuges on his behalf.

Let's assume for a minute — as many do for much longer than a minute — that Bill Clinton himself, his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is now a senator from New York, and many of the top officials answering to them were all perfectly capable of a cover-up. You still have to explain what is reported in The New York Times — that a number of officials of far less rank in both the Justice Department and the IRS decided the Barrett charges were pretty much meaningless.

One Justice Department official is quoted by the Times as having written that Barrett's investigation was "one of the most embarrassingly incompetent and wasteful episodes in the history of American law enforcement." A bigger culprit than Barrett, though, was likely the law under which he operated. Enacted in 1978 in response to Watergate, the Independent Counsel Act cost some $200 million as a slew of prosecutors pursued supposed wrongdoers in both Republican and Democratic administrations, with meager legal results and a growing number of critics in each of the two parties.

Congress finally refused to renew the monstrosity because — among other worries — the counsels had no limits on budget or time and no real accountability to anyone and because they could pursue the targeted individual for anything and everything and might well become determined to score a hit no matter what the evidence. The threat was that these prosecutors would become political persecutors.

So here is what's amazing.

James Comey, while a deputy attorney general, appointed his longtime buddy, Patrick Fitzgerald, to investigate the possible disclosure of classified information about a CIA operative after the attorney general recused himself from the business, and also gave Fitzgerald powers very nearly equaling those of any independent counsel, as if nothing had been learned about the dangers, as if the hesitations of Congress did not matter.

Fitzgerald then won an indictment against I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's now-former chief of staff, for supposed lies instead of for the initial issue of someone violating a law that some experts say Libby could not conceivably have violated.

It's possible that a trial will show Fitzgerald a hero. My bet is that this country has found itself another David Barrett.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com