Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor doggedly investigating the Valerie Plame leak, is something of a throwback. Since Watergate most major investigations of high-level political corruption have been undertaken by "independent counsels"—individuals almost entirely outside the purview of the Justice Department, wielding unlimited budgets and nearly limitless authority. Before that "special counsels"—who were selected by, answerable to, and subject to being fired or financially hamstrung by the attorney general—were the norm. Fitzgerald fits into the latter category. Should the public be concerned? If the history of the special counsel is any guide, perhaps Fitzgerald himself should be. As it turns out, special counsels have outed the truth in some of government's biggest scandals—but at times they've been treated unkindly for their efforts when the truth has implicated powerful figures in the White House. Here are some major investigations by special counsels in the past, as identified by the American Enterprise Institute—Brookings Institution Project on the Independent Counsel Statute.
The Whiskey Ring. 1875. The former U.S. senator John B. Henderson was asked to look into a conspiracy: distillers were under-reporting their hooch and splitting the saved taxes with corrupt Treasury officials. Several hundred indictments were obtained, and a mid-level official was convicted. Henderson went a little too high up when he indicted President Ulysses S. Grant's personal secretary and implied that the president had some involvement in the case. Henderson was fired. Shortly thereafter Grant had to dismiss the secretary for using privileged government information to play the gold market.