Investigating Iraqgate


With the FBI, CIA and Justice Department giving a pretty good imitation of the Keystone Kops as they investigate and/or blame each other for mishandling "Iraqgate," and with more smoking guns around than there were at the OK Corral, as one wit has put it, Attorney General William Barr was wise to appoint retired federal Judge Frederick Lacey to look into the matter. "Mishandling" may include illegal acts by officials at the law enforcement and intelligence agencies and at the Agriculture and Commerce departments.

It appears that officials at the Atlanta branch of an Italian bank have been allowed to make billions of dollars in illegal loans and loan guarantees to Iraq, which were used to build up its war machine. Then, government officials at the Commerce and Agriculture departments may have cooperated with the bankers and illegally covered their tracks when the deal went sour.

Most of these accusations are still just accusations -- as are those that Justice Department officials in Washington and in the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta tried to protect the administration from embarrassment by not going full-speed ahead on prosecuting the guilty. But the charges are so serious the public needs assurance that a full, unrelenting investigation will now begin.

Rep. Charles Schumer of the House Judiciary Committee calls this "the biggest crisis since the Saturday Night Massacre and requires a full and independent review." By that he does not mean the one Mr. Barr has ordered. Judge Lacey was named a special prosecutor under department regulations and will report to Mr. Barr; he will not be as free to pursue the guilty as would an independent counsel named by a panel of judges under the 1978 law.

This is probably a distinction of no importance. Thanks to the persistence of Rep. Henry Gonzalez of the House Banking Committee, this case now is of such high visibility that public opinion would not allow Judge Lacey to pull his punches or Mr. Barr to fire him for hitting too hard. Remember the Saturday Night Massacre: A special prosecutor was fired for getting too close to evidence of Richard Nixon's guilt; reaction to that firing produced a new, just-as-determined prosecutor who got convictions of high-level Nixon aides and forced the president to resign. That was done prior to the Ethics in Government Act, under an arrangement similar to the one involving Judge Lacey.

With the public, Reps. Gonzalez and Schumer, Sens. David Boren of the Intelligence Committee and Patrick Leahy of the Judiciary and Agriculture committees and other curious and furious Democratic legislators involved, a cover-up is unlikely -- probably impossible. Give Judge Lacey a chance.

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