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Still needed - independent-counsel law

THE United States Justice Department's attack on the law on special prosecutors is a case of poor timing, inept White House management, and inappropriate politicizing. It hardly helps the Reagan administration's credibility for Justice Department complaints about the law's constitutionality to come at this particular time - when a number of former and current administration officials, including the attorney general himself, are under investigation by court-appointed special prosecutors, or independent counsel.

The independent-counsel law was passed in 1978 as part of the Ethics in Government Act. An outcome of the Watergate period, the law provides for the court appointment of independent counsel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the White House whenever the attorney general determines such an investigation is warranted. President Reagan signed an extension of the law in 1983. The current law expires in January.

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The independent-counsel law should be extended by Congress and strengthened as necessary. The US cannot go back to the pre-Watergate period, when misdeeds of high government officials could be hidden under the mantle of ``official secrecy.''

The way this incident has been handled suggests White House ineffectiveness. Howard Baker's appointment as White House chief of staff was supposed to mean an infusion of strong leadership and cooperation with Congress - qualities sadly lacking in this situation.

The White House now rebukes the Justice Department for that department's ``intemperate'' attack on the independent-counsel system. The White House claims that it told the department to delete language from a letter to Congress on whether Mr. Reagan would support the law's extension.

The department did not. Why was the instruction not obeyed?

The administration must get its act together. Congress is correct to move ahead on an extension and the strengthening of the independent-counsel law - a law that any sitting president would veto only at a cost to his own credibility.

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