Justice refuses to provide Freeh memo

WASHINGTON - Holding fast in a confrontation with Congress, the Justice Department refused Monday to surrender FBI Director Louis Freeh's subpoenaed memo urging that an independent prosecutor investigate campaign fund raising.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., criticized the decision on the eve of Tuesday's scheduled testimony by Attorney General Janet Reno and Freeh to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Freeh is at odds with Reno's announcement last week not to seek an independent counsel to look into telephone fund raising by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. But Reno and Freeh agree that the FBI director's memo should not be turned over to Congress. They say turning it over would compromise their ongoing criminal investigation.

"I am especially troubled that the attorney general is refusing to respond to a legitimate oversight request after we made clear that we would accept a version of the memo from which any grand jury materials were removed," said Burton, the committee's chairman.

"It's Director Freeh's reasons for recommending an independent counsel that we want to review, not grand jury testimony," said Burton.

According to a news release by the House panel, committee chief counsel Richard Bennett's negotiations with the FBI to obtain the memo had been proceeding in a positive manner until Justice Department lawyers refused to approve an arrangement blacking out references in the document to grand jury activity.

But FBI officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave a different account. They said the FBI objected to turning over grand jury evidence and investigative strategies detailed in the memo and they only considered turning over the bare-bones conclusion that Freeh was recommending an outside prosecutor because that advice had leaked anyway.

Justice officials said, however, that release of even that sentence of advice would violate the principle of keeping internal executive branch recommendations private, which could ultimately undermine Reno's ability to get candid advice from aides.

Officials have said that Freeh argued for an outside investigation of a broad range of allegations as part of a possible conspiracy and that top Justice Department officials had the appearance of a conflict of interest in pursuing such a case against fellow executives of the Clinton administration.

Reno has argued that the independent counsel law requires her to find credible evidence that a specific federal felony may have been committed by covered officials and does not allow her to refer "a big blob" of allegations to an independent counsel. She has said the continuing Justice task force investigation can investigate possible conspiracies so long as they are conspiracies to violate a specific law.

By The Associated Press

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