Chicago. -- The scandal around the Bank of Credit and Commerce International promises to be as sweeping, on the international scale, as the S&L scandal is on our national scale. Both suggest the ways that banking has got out of hand. In an era when electronic banking makes the rapid shifting of money so easy, crooked uses of the new technology are peculiarly tempting.
BCCI money has allegedly been involved in terrorism, international blackmail, drug-running, money-laundering and other such offenses. It has been a conduit for the CIA as well as for Abu Nidal, for the National Security Council staff as well as for Manuel Noriega.
What is our government doing, keeping company with the dregs of international criminology? The same thing it was doing when the CIA tried to use the Mafia against Fidel Castro. We are now being treated to the disgusting news that the South African government secretly paid Chief Buthelezi's organization to pit black against black. How does that differ from the CIA's use of secret money to pit American criminals against Mr. Castro?
The minute that kind of activity begins, the used become users. They can blackmail the government -- but often they do not even have to. The government has to protect the criminals in order to cover up its own contacts with them. That is what is being plausibly claimed about our government's lack of vigor in investigating BCCI rumors of wrongdoing. Too ardent an investigation would have turned up the compromising CIA ties.
This is just one of a long series of scandals that arose from the unconstitutional nature of the CIA, which hides its money, though the Constitution says that all public moneys collected from the taxpayer must be publicly accounted for to the taxpayer. That Constitution is, after all, what separates us from a government like that of South Africa, with its bribes to parts of the black community, or from Kuwait, with its bribes paid to Abu Nidal. We should cherish the difference, and protect its genius as expressed in our Constitution.
The sad but funny thing is that conservatives, who pride themselves on being ''strict constructionists'' intent on keeping the letter of the law, are those who have been readiest to ignore the Constitution where the CIA is involved.
It was said in 1947, when the CIA was set up, that the Soviet menace created, in effect, a state of war, and parts of the Constitution can be suspended in wartime. Well, the Cold War is over, the Soviet menace is crippled, we are even giving aid to the old monster, yet the unconstitutional secret government goes forward.
The BCCI affair is just another proof, on a grand scale, that vile things breed in the dark. Our government should extricate itself from that slime.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.