''Dateline Australia: America's Foreign Watergate?'' That headline in a serious periodical, Foreign Policy, by an American professor of political science who has recently returned home from Australia, calls for sober examination.
The answer requires getting to the bottom of some extraordinary allegations about the US Central Intelligence Agency:
That it interfered in a friendly democratic nation's politics, manipulated its banking system, and even organized an illegal drug trade from its soil.
American authorities ought to cooperate fully if and when Australia undertakes the investigation which the opposition Labor Party has called for, and which seems long overdue.
Perspective is needed.
Convicted US spy Christopher Boyce spoke as if the US interfered in Australia as in Chile during the early 1970s. But, even if he should be proved right, the situations were far different.
The fall of Allende's Marxist government was followed by dictatorship.
The fall of Gough Whitlam's Labor Party government a few years later was followed by elections, in which Australian voters could have reinstated Mr. Whitlam if they chose.
What clouds the air are various circumstantial details cited by Prof. James Nathan of the University of Delaware in his Foreign Policy article.
Prime Minister Whitlam was fired by Governor General John Kerr, a former lawyer with intelligence associations, under powers never before resorted to in Commonwealth history. The ouster came on the very day when a parliamentary debate on CIA activities was said to have been scheduled, a debate that Whitlam had refused to cancel, says Professor Nathan.
He quotes from a widely reprinted CIA cable sent to Australian intelligence a day earlier. It complains that Mr. Whitlam alleged that he knew of two instances in which CIA money had been used to influence domestic Australian politics. The cable expresses CIA worry over ''constant further unraveling.''
Does all this mean anything? Has a coverup been going on? Labor Party leader Bill Hayden is among those pressing for an investigation. The issue of CIA involvement in Australian politics is said to have dominated Mr. Hayden's conversations last spring with US Vice-President Bush, himself a former CIA chief.
Opening up the whole matter might irritate US-Australian relations for a time. But, left unresolved, the issue threatens to simmer on and on, heating anti-American sentiments freshly roused by the antinuclear movement. It could also feed left-wing efforts against US military presence and even against the ANZUS mutual security alliance of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
The way to prevent a ''Watergate'' in Australia is for all sides to encourage that nation's democratic processes to reach beyond allegations and establish the facts.