WASHINGTON -- George Santayana's admonition, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, has its current application in rumblings about the granting of immunity to some witnesses in the confirmation hearings on President Bush's nomination of Robert Gates to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The dispensing of such immunity in the original Iran-Contra congressional hearings proved to be disastrous for the prosecution in the Reagan administration's worst scandal, jeopardizing the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter on grounds evidence against them was tainted. Further grants of immunity to high-level CIA officials in exchange for their testimony about how much Gates did or didn't know for the Gates confirmation hearings could be similarly destructive to the latest efforts to bring those responsible to book.

The question of further grants of immunity has been stirred by the plea-bargain deal that special Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh struck with former CIA official Alan Fiers. Walsh gave Fiers immunity in return for his testimony that his superior, Clair E. George, had ordered him to stonewall Congress on his knowledge of the affair. That testimony makes George, who worked for Gates when the latter was deputy director of the CIA, an obvious witness for the Senate Intelligence Committee considering the Gates nomination. And the only way to get George to talk might be to "immunize" him.

Gates' earlier nomination to be CIA director in 1987 was withdrawn in the face of disclosures that he had participated in misinforming Congress about the CIA's role in testimony before the Iran-Contra committees. Fiers' testimony raises more questions for Senate interrogators about the truthfulness of Gates' earlier statements, and hence his trustworthiness as CIA director. But Walsh also wants George as a central figure in what could be a significant breakthrough in the criminal case.

Walsh said he is willing for the Senate committee to extend immunity to Fiers, as he has done. But in arguing against a similar grant for George or other CIA officials said to be mentioned in CIA-taped conversations, the special prosecutor takes note of the changed public climate that in 1987 dictated the extension of limited immunity to North, Poindexter and others. Walsh then was obliged to go to extraordinary lengths to build his case against them on testimony not thus protected.

"Fortunately for the Senate committee," Walsh said, "it is not confronted with the sort of grave political questions that confronted the congressional Iran-Contra committees in the summer of 1987, when the public was clamoring to know the facts and when there was need for prompt resolution of the question of impeachment of the president." Now, he said, "the confirmation of an individual department head is ... a matter of far less urgency."

The Senate Intelligence Committee apparently agrees on that point, having voted last week to delay the start of Gates' confirmation hearings for at least several days. That delay obviously irritated the president, who then called for the committee to "get on with the confirmation" of "a man of total honor." Republicans on the committee, however, seem not willing to open themselves to a later charge of railroading Gates through, should further developments cast a deeper shadow over his credibility

Back in 1987, there was a legitimate argument made for Congress granting immunity. Its own authority was directly challenged in the aid to the Contras prohibited by Congress and there was a public clamor for the facts. The public climate today is quite the opposite; there seems to be impatience with the length and expense of Walsh's investigation.

But Walsh has made it clear that he intends to see the investigation to its end, especially now that Fiers has given him a wedge with which to probe for more information, and now that Walsh is said to have obtained tapes of a host of telephone conversations recorded between the CIA headquarters and the agency's operatives in Central America during the time of the clandestine Contra aid.

It is important, certainly, for the Senate to make an informed judgment on Gates. But it is more important that Walsh as prosecutor follow his new leads on the basic subversion of the American political system that Iran-Contra represented, without concern that the Senate confirmation hearings will compromise his case with immunity grants before he can make it.

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