Billy Carter probe now enters 'quiet' phase

The opening phase of the Senate investigation into the Billy Carter affair has produced more yawns than revelations, and the probe now is about to disappear from public view altogether for a while.

Sensation-seekers may be disappointed, but the undramatic start leaves those conducting the inquiry, as odd as it may seem, frankly pleased.

Why? After a roller-coaster week during which the investigation was first billed as another Watergate and then dismissed as a dud, the senators and their staff are known to feel that the quiet -- even plodding -- beginning has put the probe on a more "realistic" footing.

"We'll all be better off if the spotlight moves somewhere else, such as the Democratic convention," says one member of the special subcommittee staff.

And that is just what lies in store, as the senators take a week's recess with no hearings scheduled, leaving the panel's work to proceed offstage at the staff level.

For an investigation still scrambling to get itself organized, such a respite will be anew experience -- and a welcome one.

Launched in the glare of television lights and the heat of a presidential election campaign, the Senate inquiry into the President's brother's connection with the radical Arab state of Libya has been saddled from the start by what now appear to have been distorted expectations.

It was touted by its ranking Republican member, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, as "one of the most serious inquiries in the history of the United States Senate." An advocate of a similar probe by the House of Representatives declared "the parallels are obvious" to the Watergate scandal that drove President Nixon from office.

But after President Carter virtually emptied in public the White House files on the case, right down to his own handwritten notations, and defended himself at a nationally televised news conference, expectations plunged to the opposite extreme.

The subcommittee member who had first called for the inquiry, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas, decided that "a lot was smoke [but] I'm not sure there was a flame." Others broached the possibility of abandoning the probe.

Now opinion within the Senate investigation appears to be settling somewhere between these two wide swings of public attitude.

There is relieft that, as one who is working on the case puts it, "the media are no longer expecting another Watergate."

The lowered expectations got an unanticipated shove downwards from two colorless opening hearings on Libyan-American relations and the registration of foreign agents, which turned out to be even duller than the staff had worried they might be.

And there is appreciation that the President has supplied so much useful information.

But investigators scoff at suggestions that the President's response has closed the case. "Many unanswered questions remain," says one, concerning White House involvement as well as other aspects.

The net impact of the presidential presentation may be to shift attention from focusing almost exclusively on the President's role.

"The scent of blood from the White House is not so intense as it once was," remarks one subcommittee aide, adding that stalking the chief executive never was the panel's intention anyway.

During the week's hiatus, investigators will pursue the issues left unresolved by the White House disclosures -- gathering documents (including reports from various federal departments due Aug. 8), evaluating them, and building a base for the first substantive hearings the following week. Another priority during the Senate recess will be to finish shaping the investigation staff.

After deliberately avoiding the specifics of the Billy Carter case during the preliminary hearings, the next round will begin to home in squarely on them. Initial topic: Billy Carter and the Libyans.

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