`Mole in the DNC' - a Bestseller?

WHAT are popular espionage novelists like John le Carre or Len Deighton to write about, now that all the spies are in from the cold? Maybe they should turn to politics. For it appears that some of the cloak-and-dagger types have gone to work for candidates.

Can it be that Republican Party chairman Rich Bond has hired James Bond? Or (to shift genres) that Poirot was sleuthing for Perot?

Whimsy aside, political snooping seems to be a very serious growth industry. The national offices of both major parties have "opposition research" staffs whose intelligence efforts reportedly go well beyond simply reading old newspaper clippings about political opponents. The Democratic National Committee has even hired private investigators to check into Bush family business dealings. And if the Republican National Committee hasn't gone to outside investigators, it's probably only because they have enou gh diggers inside - like those who in 1984 dug up financial information harmful to Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign.

With the race down to two, the effort to dig up dirt on the opposition - or to hit back quickly if some is thrown your direction - may intensify.

Political spying (and its cousin, dirty tricks) is hardly new. It's getting more widespread, though. Actual criminal conduct, as during Watergate, is of course wholly unacceptable in politics. But what about snooping that isn't illegal? What lines should be drawn?

The probing of an opponent's government or business career through legal and ethical means is generally proper, as most of the information unearthed would be relevant to the opponent's performance in office. What about more personal and private matters relating to an opponent's marriage or affairs, family, or finances? It cannot be said that all such information would be irrelevant to voters' legitimate concerns, though much of it would be.

But while the ethical lines may be blurry, much of this political peeking around corners is unsavory. Candidates should be aware that many voters will make decisions not just on what a candidate discloses about opponents, but also on what he or she did to acquire that information.

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