Slow-paced 'Billy' probe could still be going Nov. 4

The clumsy name of today's most highly publicized congressional investigation panel -- the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Investigating Activities Relating to Individuals Representing Interests of Foreign Governments -- makes no mention of its prime target.

The President's brother, in fact, has appeared before the subcommittee just twice, and returned home to Georgia.

And some investigators still refer to him, with guarded formality, as "Mr. William Carter."

Yet Billy Carter and the investigation that swirls around him appear likely to remain in the public eye -- and, for his brother in the White House, probably all too visible -- well into the presidential campaign.

The deliberate pace of the inquiry, the queue of Carter administration figures who may be asked to testify, and concurrent investigations, such as a grand jury probe in New York, probably guarantee it.

The President's controversial younger brother, whose registration last month as a Libyan agent and disclosure of a $220,000 "loan" from the radical Arab regime touched off the Senate inquiry, may find himself back at the witness table.

His testimony last week evidently improved his image more than his credibility. Senators who grilled him came away impressed that he was, as he said, "not a buffoon, a boob, or a whacko," but that numerous questions and inconsistencies remain to be sorted out.

The President himself may yet be called from the campaign trail to testify.

He has professed to be "eager" to appear before the senators -- more eager, so far, than the senators have been to have him. If a historic presidential hearing does occur, it likely will happen sometime in September, with the election just weeks away.

The subcommittee and its investigators, who are still pouring over two thick sheaves of papers from the White House and have yet to conduct interviews there, have not decided whether to have the chief executive testify.

Even if the President does not wind up before the senators, other administration officials will.

Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, whose Department of Justice has handled Billy Carter's foreign registration case, is scheduled to appear Sept. 5 . National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who used the President's brother as an intermediary in seeking Libyan help to free the Americans hostages in Iran, is likely to follow.

Besides the prospect of Carter administration figures, possibly including the President himself, testifying in the midst of the campaign, several other factors bode ill for those hoping Billy Carter affair might fade quietly away:

* Such congressional probes have a history of beginning fitfully, then finishing in a flurry of activity and headlines. "There's a perception that we're not making great progress," says one subcommittee aide, "but few of these investigations ever start quickly."

* The Oct. 4 deadline imposed on the inquiry by the Senate is flexible enough to allow the matter to drift right up to the Nov. 4 election. The subcommittee must submit a report by the deadline (the date that Congress is scheduled to adjourn), but its report may be either "final or interim." It looks increasingly "interim."

* Related aspects of the Billy Carter affair are being examined by at least one other Senate subcommittee, two House committees, and a federal grand jury. Independent findings could emerge from several quarters between now and the election.

The President's brother testified earlier this week to the grand jury in New York exploring any involvement of fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco in efforts to lift a government embargo on a sale of C-130 transport planes to Libya.

Both the President and Democratic congressional leaders clearly had hoped to get the politically embarrassing Senate investigation out of the way much more quickly.

Subcommittee chairman Birch E. Bayh Jr. (D) of Indiana originally had planned to wind up hearings by Labor Day -- the traditional start of the fall election campaign.

And President Carter had volunteered as early as July 29 to become only the second chief executive to testify before a congressional committee. (The other was his predecessor, Gerald R. Ford, in 1974.) Perhaps with the campaign calendar in mind, he offered to do so "the sooner, the better."

Although any presidential appearance now looms later rather than sooner, the approaching election continues to serve as a prod on the investigation.

"The context of an election year," says special counsel Philip W. Tone, himself a Republican, demands that the inquiry be completed "as fast as possible ," while being "thorough and fair."

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