Did key figures in the 1980 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign cut a secret deal with the Iranians to extend the captivity of American hostages in order to manipulate the election?
We do not know the answer to that deeply troubling question but, as is indicated in an article today on the opposite page, the evidence continues to fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle that such a cynical pact might indeed have been reached. The latest piece comes from the ABC television news program "Nightline," working in conjunction with London's prestigious newspaper, the Financial Times. The two news organizations have turned up a witness who states flatly that he was present when Reagan campaign director William J. Casey agreed to deliver arms and spare parts to Iran if the hostages' release were withheld until after the election. The witness is an international arms dealer whose credibility is open to question. But the ABC-Financial Times investigation also discovered unexplained gaps in Casey's schedule -- a little like the missing sections of tape in the Watergate scandal -- which coincide precisely with the alleged meeting dates.
Congressional Democrats are understandably skittish about plunging recklessly into an investigation. If such a probe were launched and proved to be baseless, the Democrats could be accused of having staged an election-year witch hunt.
More puzzling, however, is the continued resistance to an investigation from President Bush and from Reagan operatives. At this point the evidence has become so odoriferous that not to investigate would be to leave a dark shadow over both the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
For the first time now, a leading Democrat, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, has called for a formal investigation.
We concur; the time has come to authorize that inquiry. But for such an investigation to carry the credibility it demands, the inquiry must be carried out by a specially empowered bipartisan commission made up of men and women whose integrity and motives are above question. A name which comes to mind is Maryland's former Republican senator, Charles McC. Mathias.
The implications of this allegation are enormous; to ignore it is a disservice not only to the nation but to the reputations of individuals who have been implicated in the affair.