The so-called special prosecutor law expires this year. Congress will extend it in some version. But it should do so against the backdrop of its effectiveness in the Iran-contra affair. Or rather its ineffectiveness. This is clearly a law that needs fixing.
That investigation and prosecution led by Lawrence Walsh is in its sixth year now and has cost approximately $30 million. It has produced nothing in the way of results commensurate with such an effort. The two most visible targets of the investigation, Oliver North and John Poindexter, were convicted but had their convictions overturned. Colonel North's case is over, having been dropped by Mr. Walsh. Admiral Poindexter's is on appeal to the Supreme Court. Were the high court to side with Mr. Walsh on this after rejecting his view in the North case, it would be surprising.
The few victories the special prosecutor achieved in Iran-contra have been of relatively limited importance. Most recently a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer, Alan D. Fiers, was sentenced for withholding information from Congress to a year's probation (and 100 hours of community service). Eliot Abrams, former assistant secretary of state, got two years probation and community service for the same thing. So did Robert McFarlane, the former national security adviser. Eventually a couple of middle-level officials may go to prison. But even if they do, we do not believe that many will conclude the nation got $30 million worth of justice.
Mr. Walsh believes that successful convictions would have been only "by-product." He believes the special prosecutor's principal role is to conduct "a very thorough investigation which expose[s] misconduct and which could deter future misdeeds." That may be the problem with the law that Congress needs to fix. It is Congress' job to expose and deter executive branch misconduct. A special prosecutor is supposed to find and punish illegal acts that the Justice Department cannot be trusted to handle because of conflict of interest.
That are very few of those -- a fact Congress should keep in mind when it focuses on this law.