Watergate, deja vu

July 11, 1991

In a major development in the seemingly stalled Iran-contra investigation, Alan D. Fiers Jr., a top-level CIA operative in the Reagan presidency, has pleaded guilty to his role in the secret,illegal deal to sell arms to the Iranians and divert the proceeds to the Nicaraguan rebels. Already Fiers has directly implicated the third-ranking CIA official in the illegal scheme, and it is all but certain that still others will be implicated -- including those who have told Congress they knew nothing of the deal.

Old hands in Washington will at once see a similarity in this development and the break which turned the Watergate affair two decades ago from a "third rate burglary" into a scandal that would topple a president. That sequence of events began when a mid-level operative, James D. McCord, decided not to be a dutiful fall guy and began to name his co-conspirators. Soon the dominoes were falling in an unstoppable pattern as each miscreant sought to save his own skin.

And we say now, let them fall where they may, because in many respects Iran-contra is more serious than Watergate. Whereas Watergate, at least at the outset, was just a bungled break-in of a political campaign office, Iran-contra represented a cynical, calculated effort to circumvent the Constitution.

From the beginning it stretched credibility to the snapping point that this sordid scheme could be concocted exclusively by a handful of military officers who had penetrated the White House basement. The integrity of our system demands that the investigators get to the bottom of this -- or, perhaps, the top.

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