Lesson of `Iraqgate'

GOVERNMENT intrigue is a staple of history. But democracies such as the United States are based on principles of openness designed to avoid secrecy to the greatest extent possible.

In recent decades there have been a number of occasions when secrecy or subterfuge have been employed by those in power to misrepresent the reality of a situation. Some have become so ingrained in our national consciousness that we give them nicknames.

Watergate, which ultimately cost Richard Nixon his presidency, is perhaps best known. Others: Iran-contra, the violation of democratic principles that almost pulled Ronald Reagan off his pedestal; and now "Iraqgate," which came on George Bush's watch and threatens to tarnish the triumph the outgoing president is credited with in the Gulf war.

Iraqgate may be the most bizarre of these intrigues - a tangled trail of various kinds of US aid to Iraq to prosecute its war with Iran, at that time America's chief adversary in the Gulf area. An Italian bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, and its branch in Atlanta were involved. It also turned out that the CIA was aware of the Italian bank's role.

In short, a possible gaffe, if not a scandal, at least indirectly involving the White House, could have surfaced in the middle of the president's quest for a second term in office.

Requests that Attorney General William Barr appoint an independent counsel to look into the case were rebuffed. Finally, under growing pressure, Mr. Barr induced a retired Republican federal judge to examine the case.

After the election, Judge Frederick Lacey found no grounds for inquiry by an independent council. President-elect Clinton says he will have his attorney general look into the matter after he takes office.

Iraqgate's residues cast a shadow on the Bush presidency. There are times when, for reasons of national security, potentially disruptive situations may justifiably be shielded from the public. But they are very few; and, if such a situation should occur, it should be ended quickly and the reason for censorship clearly justified.

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