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Since the appointment of the first special prosecutor by President Ulysses Grant in 1875, Congress and the Department of Justice have periodically authorized independent prosecutors to conduct criminal inquiries where there is a need for the executive branch to investigate itself. From the earliest days of such investigations, Congress has requested and obtained testimony from prosecutors leading the independent inquiries.
Depending on the era and the nature of their authorities, independent prosecutors have been known as “special prosecutors,” “independent counsels,” and “special counsels.” Until the 1970s, these investigators were generally referred to as “special prosecutors” and were appointed by the Attorney General or President. Following President Richard Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal, Congress in 1978 enacted a statute providing for the establishment of what became known as “independent counsels” through a two-step process in which the Attorney General made a determination that an independent inquiry was warranted and a three-judge panel made the appointment. When Congress in 1999 let the statutory authority for independent counsels expire, the Department of Justice established regulations providing for the appointment of “special counsels” under the general administrative hiring authority of the Attorney General. All three have testified before Congress.