Ample Tools to Probe `Iraqgate'

CLEARLY the Bush administration made serious mistakes of judgment in its dealings with Saddam Hussein during the months preceding Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. United States aid to Iraq (primarily agricultural loan guarantees), dispensed to strengthen the country as a regional counterweight to Iran, evidently was used in part to build Saddam's war machine.

But was there criminal conduct at the heart of the administration's policy toward Baghdad in 1989 and 1990, such that the entire enterprise might plausibly be suspected to have been a criminal conspiracy, like Watergate and the Iran-contra affair? On the basis of public evidence, that doesn't seem to be the case. So Attorney General William Barr appropriately refused a request by congressional Democrats to appoint an independent counsel - a special prosecutor - to investigate the affair.

That doesn't mean that Congress should stop probing into the matter. The American people deserve to know what benefits their government conferred on a regime whose oppressiveness and expansionism were well known, and why the Bush administration persisted even after US officials began to suspect that aid was being misused. Congress has extensive investigatory tools, including the use of subpoenas and contempt sanctions.

Moreover, the Justice Department should vigorously investigate alleged criminal acts related to the matter, such as charges that Commerce Department employees altered documents to conceal possibly improper exports to Iraq. Mr. Barr has pledged that his department will do this.

There are risks and costs in appointing special prosecutors, however, and the procedure should be used sparingly. The cost to taxpayers, though supportable when fully warranted, is high (the ongoing Iran-contra prosecution is estimated to have cost nearly $40 million). More important, open-ended and open-checkbook criminal investigations of federal officials tend to deepen the public's distrust of government. Any attempt to "criminalize" policy mistakes should not be made lightly.

If the voters think that "Iraqgate" reflects badly on the judgment, competence, or integrity of the Bush team, they can exact their punishment Nov. 3.

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