When Congress decided to grant immunity to Oliver North over the objection of the special prosecutor in 1987, this newspaper reluctantly sided with Congress. The suspicion by many in the political and legal communities at the time was that a Watergate-type of presidential abuse of authority may have occurred. Discovering if that were true was more urgent than putting lower-level officials in jail, it seemed at the time.
Whether or not that was the right conclusion, there certainly is no reason for Congress to interfere with the end game of the special prosecutor's investigation of the Iran-contra affair. It would be good for Robert Gates and for the Central Intelligence Agency if the Senate hearings on his nomination as director of central intelligence could be held promptly.
President Bush is right that Mr. Gates deserves consideration and should not be left "twisting out there," as he put it last Friday. But his confirmation is not urgent enough for the Senate Intelligence Committee to offer immunity for immediate testimony about Mr. Gates to CIA officials who may have been implicated by the latest developments in the special prosecutor's Iran-contra investigation.
Those developments include the guilty plea to giving false testimony before Congress by Alan Fiers, a former Central American task force chief for the CIA, and the revelation that there are hundreds of taped telephone conversations between CIA officials in Washington and in Central America (shades of Watergate). This plus still-secret testimony given by Oliver North to a grand jury may be relevant to Mr. Gates' fitness for the top CIA position. We agree with President Bush that at least until all the facts are out in the open, the "integrity and honor" of Mr. Gates should not be doubted.
Lawrence Walsh, the special Iran-contra prosecutor, has asked the Senate committee to delay calling certain witnesses before September. That is a proper request. It involves pushing back this testimony only a matter of weeks. These are important hearings. Against the backdrop of Iran-contra, the last thing the president, Mr. Gates or the CIA should want is a new intelligence chief suspected of having taken part in a cover-up of illegal or improper activities -- much less belatedly proven to have done so.