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Beyond the Headlines…Understanding What is a “Special Counsel”

By The Policy Circle Team

What’s in a name:  Previously referred to as “Special Prosecutor” or “Independent Counsel”, the name (and role) has changed over the years and is now referred to as “Special Counsel”. (USA Today)

Who appoints one:  The Attorney General of the United States appoints a Special Counsel when he/she has determined a criminal investigation is warranted, but there is a possible conflict of interest with him/her doing the investigation, or it is in the public’s best interest to appoint someone outside government. (Cornell Law School) In the most recent example, the Acting Attorney General determined the need for a Special Counsel, since the Attorney General recused himself. (Washington Post)

Why do we need one: Brian C. Kalt, a professor of law at Michigan State University explained it simply when he said, “The special counsel will have all of the powers of a federal prosecutor, but he will do his work outside of the regular chain of command in the Justice Department.” ( So instead of the government investigating itself, someone with all the power of the government, who does not answer to the government, investigates the government and presents a report on their findings.

And as Vox points out:

  • The report is for the Attorney General — that is, not necessarily Congress or the public.
  • The report is specifically said to be “confidential.”
  • The report is supposed to explain “prosecution or declination decisions.”

Speaking of: As the media is currently talking about the Special Counsel who investigated whether there was election interference or not, for related information, be sure to read The Policy Circle Brief on Election Integrity.

Thanks for going Beyond the Headlines with The Policy Circle.