Beyond the Billy case

Can any positive results flow from the sorry episode of Billy Carter, the Libyans, and the White House? Yes, in at least two ways. * The White House can follow through on its pledge that the President and his advisers will carefully review certain views of the special Senate subcommittee that released an "interim" report on its Billy Carter inquiry last week. The White House particularly noted the question of whether there is need for improvement in coordinating interagency use of intelligence information -- something that seemed obvious in the subcommitte finddings. There are substantive matters of governmental procedure that could be bettered by this and subsequent White Houses through acting on a review of what the subcommittee questioned in the present case.

* More basically effective than improved procedures would be a heightened presidential sensitivity in present and future administrations to the questions of judgment raised in situations awkwardly blending policy and propriety. Even though President Carte concedes no chastened sense of having made any "ill-advised" decisions -- as the subcommittee says he -- it is hard to believe that any president would not now think twice before making or authorizing such decisions again.

These decisions include using Billy as a diplomatic go-between with the Libyans, thus potentially enhancing his stature in their eyes for his own commercial purposes; using secret intelligence information as a basis for warning Billy; withholding similar information from Justice Department attorneys charged with investigating the case.

Billy Carter himself "merits severe criticism," says the subcommittee. But it does not find that he influenced government policy or was shown favor by the criminal division of the Justice Department because he is the President's brother. It makes no charges of illegality or definitely unethical conduct on the part of officials.

So a long inquiry has shown the case to be no closer to a Watergate than anyone expected in the first place. To assure the public no stone is being left unturned, the Justice Department is proceeding with an internal investigation of Attorney General Civiletti, whose resignation has been called for in some quarters because of his role in the case.

This investigation should not be allowed to give the appearance of languishing like the one to do with Billy Carter. For, despite all the explanations given during the subcommittee hearings, the question of veracity raised in relation to Mr. Civiletti and the White House looks like a loose end. *TIt is the kind of thing corroborating that improved procedures of new guidelines -- such as those Mr. Carter has issued in relation to governmental treatment of his family -- are no substitute for a sharp and constant ethical awareness according to which certain acts would simply be unthinkable. Presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler's statement to the subcommittee is quietly thought-provoking in its lawyerlike description of what happened.

Iclosure to the public, Mr. Cutler asked Mr. Civiletti to confirm a previous assurance that there had been no contact between the White House and the Justice Department concerning the conduct of the Billy Carter investigation. Mr. Civiletti provided this confirmation, and President Carter reviewed and approved the resulting statement. Then Mr. Carter found a note of a conversation with Mr. Civiletti the previous month which "he said he had completely forgotten." Mr. Civiletti quickly corrected his previous statement. He later told the subcommittee he had made a serious mistake in denying the conversation earlier.

When an attorney general misleads a White House counsel, not to mention the American public, somehow the proper tone for candor has not been set in a White House that publicly prides itself on candor. When a President so swiftly forgets a conversation involving a way of lifting the prospect of prosecution from his brother, there appears to be a need for that keener administrative alertness to ethical implications which the Billy Carter case could help to produce.

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