Who Should Probe Iraqgate?

December 20, 1992

The law authorizing a special prosecutor to investigate charges against high-level members of an administration expired Dec. 15. Earlier this month, the Justice Department decided it would not authorize such a prosecutor to take on the case of an Italian bank's Atlanta branch that illegally funneled funds and credits to Iraq's benefit. The department did so on the advice of a former federal judge, Frederick B. Lacey, who had conducted a preliminary investigation into the situation.

Some in Congress, especially Rep. Henry Gonzalez, chairman of the House Banking Committee, and some newspapers, including The Sun, had expressed grave concerns about what has been called "Iraqgate." It appeared the U.S. attorney's investigation in Atlanta was compromised, both by having information withheld and by being urged to take policy considerations into account.

Judge Lacey said, in recommending against a special prosecutor, that many of these accusations were "unreasonable" and in some cases libelous. He also said, "Had there been any corruption here, I would have smelled it and found it."

Since officials from the State, Commerce and Agriculture

departments involved themselves in the U.S. attorney's investigation, since the federal judge who presided over the case charged there had been a cover-up, and since even the administration has admitted pertinent documents were withheld from judge and prosecutors, Judge Lacey seems to be in need of an antihistamine or inhaler.

A more credible investigation is needed. Democrats in Congress say that means a new special prosecutor law must be enacted. Bill Clinton says he would sign it. That's one way to approach the case. But there are better ways. President Clinton could get a new U.S. attorney on the job in Atlanta quickly, and a new grand jury could start all over. No one would suspect such an investigation to have a conflict of interest. Or if the personnel in the U.S. attorney's office there have a hangover from the old, unsatisfactory probe, the inquiry could be run by the Justice Department from Washington.

Should there be a new special prosecutor law? The 14-year history of the law has not been a gratifying one. Almost none of the targets of such probes have been convicted; those convicted have gotten mainly wrist slaps. That suggests it has been too easy to get indictments.

On the other hand, it is a nice gun to have in the closet for the worst cases of high-level corruption and conflict of interest. In rewriting the law, Congress should look closely at the way the law has worked (and not worked) since 1978, paying particular attention to the question of whether this has been a gun with a dangerous hair trigger.

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