Immunity and credibility

NO hurry-up defense for the White House now can make up for its failure to get ahead of the unfolding Iran scandal since the story broke just before Thanksgiving. That was the time for the President to have called in key subordinates to ask them straight out what was going on. To request that Congress now grant immunity to Oliver North and John Poindexter for testifying, on Capitol Hill, about their National Security Council activities would preempt a decision that the yet-to-be-appointed special prosecutor should be allowed to make. Some working arrangement will have to be reached between the special prosecutor and the attorneys for the special Senate and House committees that will look into the Iran-contra affair just after the first of the year. As congressional leaders acknowledge, it is not up to the Senate Intelligence Committee or the House Foreign Relations Committee, which are holding the current ``preliminary'' inquiries, to make that call on immunity.

Like it or not, there is already a substantial, daily flow of new leads or findings. Chief of staff Donald Regan has testified under oath that neither he nor the President knew about the Iran arms funds diversion to the contra forces in Nicaragua. Discrepancies in recollections will have to be resolved. The alleged diversion of Iranian arms money to influence this past fall's congressional races will have to be pursued. The role of arms merchants in the US and abroad, and the enlistment of Asian armsmakers in the shipment of weapons for Iran, will have to be detailed. The apparent circumvention of congressional guidelines for supplying the contras will have to be reviewed. The connections between the contras and their Reagan administration contacts demand clarification. The lapses, tangles, and confusions of authority and communication among the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Defense Department will have to be assessed. Did the attorney general act improperly in his initial inquiry? The Department of Justice is looking into this already. Then there are the policy matters - from the arms-for-hostages decisions through the double-dealing with Iran and Iraq and the dissembling with allies - to try to make sense of.

Granting immunity to Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter will not get to the bottom of all this. Neither would Ronald Reagan's going before a session of Congress himself - though this is a step he may wish to take later for the sake of White House-Congress relations.

President Reagan's public support is less than it was but has stabilized. The public finds him less credible and less capable on foreign policy but still gives him comfortable marks on the economy.

Right now the President's case is that he meant well, but others served him poorly. We'll find out.

Meanwhile, the President should look ahead to the new term. He should appoint a trusted adviser to manage his response to the Iran inquiries, which will be demanding. He needs a fresh team to coordinate White House, congressional, Cabinet, and agency functions after the first of the year. The inquiries must take their course. Restored credibility will come not from justifying the past, but from getting future initiatives, policies, and actions right.

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