Anatomy of a coverup

LET ME take you behind the scenes in the exposure of a scandal, as the irresistible forces of inquiry slam into the immovable stone wall of coverup.

In Iraqgate, the Bush administration arranged for billions in unlawful financing of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein through the Atlanta office of Italy's Banca Lavoro. To avert embarrassment after Saddam's double-cross, our Justice Department conspired with Italy to obstruct the investigation of Saddam's bankers and George Bush's top aides.


Last Sunday, the forces of inquiry got a bible to work from: "Spider's Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq." Alan Friedman -- whose reports in the Financial Times and on ABC's "Nightline" have helped move the revelations along -- brings together the story that most media have shied away from because corruption's great friend is complexity.

In Congress, the relentless Inspector Javert of Iraqgate -- House Banking chairman Rep. Henry Gonzalez -- will take testimony from the convicted Atlanta branch manager who is the designated fall guy for higher-ups in two countries.


Also subpoenaed is Rinaldo Petrignani of Rogers & Wells, who as Italian ambassador made the approach to Mr. Bush's attorney general for the "damage control" that Dick Thornburgh denies ordering. But my friend Rinaldo, who was only doing his country's bidding, is also being sought by Italian authorities on a bribery charge and may be too busy to finger American culprits.

That's what revelation has going for it this week. But the forces of inquiry can do little without a court-appointed independent counsel, which calls for passage of a new law.

On the side of stonewalling is a group of Republican senators led by John McCain, protected by Bob Dole, who want to delay a floor vote on the independent counsel bill.

They have high-sounding excuses, but the real reason is to drag a foot until the 1989 crimes of Iraqgate come under the statute of limitations. Despite no agreement from Republicans not to filibuster, George Mitchell, the majority leader, assures me: "I will bring up the bill for a vote before the Thanksgiving recess." We'll see.

Behind that stone wall is another stone wall: Attorney General Janet Reno. When asked if she would seek a special prosecutor from the court if the law passed, she tells me: "I have no conflict of interest on Iraqgate." In other words, she will profess to be a Democrat investigating a Republican administration's crimes, and will refuse to honor Bill Clinton's promise of independent counsel.

Her protestation of no-conflict is a charade: the former Criminal Division chief who stands to be investigated in the Banca Lavoro damage control is Ed Dennis, the whitewasher chosen by Ms. Reno's deputy to find "no blame" in her Waco blunder. It's all one cozy, self-protecting establishment; but when asked if Justice's Criminal Division can investigate itself, Ms. Reno replies blithely, "It's my Criminal Division now."

Do not lose heart; persistence pays. Last February, revelations in the New York Times forced the Senate Intelligence Committee into reporting that the CIA told Justice about Rome's corrupt involvement, following which everybody lied. But that staff report was fuzzy; I submitted 28 groups of questions following leads in it.

Example: the report read "the chief prosecutor and chief investigator on the case were part of a Justice delegation which met with the Italian ambassador . . ." I asked: "Who were these two Americans? Who arranged this meeting and where was it? Were minutes kept? Was this the same Italian ambassador (Mr. Petrignani) who saw Attorney General Thornburgh at a White House reception? Did Senate staff ask why a memo was prepared by the chief of the Criminal Division (Mr. Dennis) for the AG three days before the approach at the White House?"


Committee staffers, who did not want to admit they failed to ask the right questions, stonewalled. But recently I sat next to the co-chairman at a dinner and, lo!, the staff found time to answer my questions seriatim. (In the example given, the Americans were Justice's Gail McKenzie and Agriculture's Art Wade, and no, the hurried committee staff did not think to ask the follow-ups.)

That's how the battle between revealers and resisters goes on. Justice will prevail when somebody in Justice goes to jail.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.