Congress should delay hearings on Whitewater



WASHINGTON -- There has been a hollow ring to the White House lament of Republican partisanship in the demand for a thorough investigation of the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater deal.

The nine Democratic senators who joined the GOP call for appointment of a special investigator effectively took the resonance out of that complaint, forcing the president to order Attorney General Janet Reno to make such an appointment.

The White House whining was further undercut by the fact that the Republican point man in the call for a special counsel was the moderate Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, whose discomfort with extreme partisanship was well established.

But now that there is to be a Reno-appointed special investigator, Leach is continuing to press for separate congressional hearings. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who earlier joined that call, now says "we need to wait and see who is appointed the special counsel."

Before Clinton's acquiescence in such an appointment, however, leading Republicans promised there would be no second-guessing from their party if that step were taken. But Dole well knows that with the Democrats in control of Congress he can score easy political points by pushing for congressional hearings and having the Democrats refuse.

Aside from the lamentable political games-playing in this regard, there is ample history to justify rejection of such hearings in this case. Congress' rush into hearings on Watergate and Iran-contra seriously compromised the cases of the special prosecutors in both instances.

Because congressional immunity was granted to certain key witnesses in the hearings on Capitol Hill, the independent prosecutors' task of later bringing criminal charges against them was complicated, and in some cases rendered ineffective.

Although the prosecutors went to great pains to shield immunized congressional testimony from their own eyes and to establish that they had gathered their own evidence independent of testimony before Congress, some key convictions were thrown out on grounds that the evidence used was tainted.

In Iran-contra, both John Poindexter, President Reagan's national security adviser, and Oliver North, his aide and leading figure in the alleged arms-for-hostages swap, saw their convictions overturned. North now is running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.

Leach's rationale for conducting congressional hearings as well as the investigation by the Reno-appointed special counsel is that Congress has its own responsibility to ferret out the truth. Leach says that he would not want any criminal action to result, but that there ought to be civil penalties attached if it is proved the Clintons committed any actionable violation of ethics or conflict of interest statutes when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

But once such investigations are undertaken, there is no certainty where they will lead. Nothing has surfaced remotely approaching the dimensions of Watergate or Iran-contra, but Dole for his suspicions. He said on a weekend television show that the White House's "reluctance" to make all Whitewater-related papers public suggests that "somebody must know something we don't know."

In working directly with the Justice Department to obtain a Justice subpoena for the papers, the White House has effectively shielded those papers from public purview, which presumably would not be the case in a congressional hearing.

But as long as there is no indication that national security has been jeopardized or that there has been criminal behavior by Clinton as president, prudence suggests that the special investigator be permitted to take the first crack at the case. There will be ample time if Congress wants to take a look too, with its own subpoena power.

The Democrats argue that if Dole and the Republicans are so interested in an independent investigation, they should vote to restore the office of independent counsel, which they helped kill last year. Indeed they should, but in the meantime they look devious in pressing for congressional hearings -- and the television spotlight they would surely bring.

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