Congress and lying

August 10, 1994|By Mona Charen

SHOULD ROGER Altman go to jail?

The question presents itself because last week's Senate Whitewater hearings point toward one very obvious conclusion: Deputy Treasury Secretary Altman lied to Congress. (And Treasury Chief of Staff Josh Steiner lied to his diary!) Mr. Altman had been asked about contacts between Treasury Department officials and the White House regarding the Whitewater investigation and had said, categorically, that there had been only one substantive meeting. He now acknowledges that this was not true (some accounts put the number of meetings at 40), and he wishes that he had "done better" when he testified incompletely.

Remember the resonance the words "lying to Congress" had during the Iran/Contra affair? When Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and others were accused of it, the thundering indignation of Democrats and Republicans alike shook the nation.

Actually, in the case of Mr. Abrams, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh ultimately accused him of "contempt of Congress," demonstrated by his failure to disclose everything he knew about fund-raising efforts for the Nicaraguan Contras. (The sultan of Brunei had kicked in a contribution. Mr. Abrams knew this but failed to mention it when he testified before Congress.)

Lying to Congress is not to be encouraged. It does impede the orderly functioning of government, and it isn't honorable. It is, however, somewhat traditional. Mr. Abrams' book, "Undue Process," provides a short historical survey.

In 1958, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles testified before Congress that the CIA had nothing to do with the civil war in Indonesia. President Eisenhower repeated the assertion that we were staying neutral. Proof of CIA assistance to anti-government forces came when a U.S. pilot was shot down over Indonesia with documents proving his mission.

In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified on the subject of the Tonkin Gulf incident. The U.S. Navy, he insisted, "played absolutely no role in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese action, if there were any." Most historians now believe that was a lie.

Actually, it is possible to conclude that Mr. McNamara made quite a career of lying to Congress. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy, as part of his secret negotiations with Premier Khrushchev, agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. The Kennedy team, in an Oval Office meeting, decided to keep this concession a secret. Later, testifying before Congress, Mr. McNamara was asked, "Are you aware of any agreement . . . to Khrushchev that if he would withdraw . . . the U.S. would thereby commit itself to any particular course of action?" Mr. McNamara replied, "I am not only unaware of any agreement, it is inconceivable to me that our president would enter into a discussion of any such agreement. Moreover, there were absolutely no undisclosed agreements with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba." In addition to the concession on missiles in Turkey, the Kennedy administration agreed not to invade Cuba again.

Now, Roger Altman did not lie to Congress to avert nuclear war. He seems to have done it to spare the president political embarrassment. If he were a Republican, would he be facing criminal indictment?

Independent Counsel Robert Fiske is obviously not as intent on getting "scalps" as was Lawrence Walsh. Accordingly, he has not threatened Mr. Altman with indictment -- though substantively, there is little difference between his conduct and that of Mr. Abrams.

Mr. Altman should remain free. The criminal prosecution of the defendants in the Iran/Contra affair was an outrage. Congress is not without remedies when executive branch officials are caught lying. The Senate Banking Committee can decline to hear testimony from Mr. Altman in the future (thus pressuring the president to fire him). Or, if its members want to get really tough, they can defund the office of deputy Treasury secretary.

But just as presidents are not prosecuted criminally for decisions that may cost people their lives and fortunes, administration officials should not be prosecuted for political crimes. Lying to Congress, however disgraceful, is a political crime, not a real crime. It merits political punishment -- perhaps an art that politicians in Washington need to re-learn.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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