THE Whitewater controversy claimed a political casualty last weekend with the resignation of White House chief counsel Bernard Nussbaum. Mr. Nussbaum referred to ``those who do not understand, nor wish to understand, the role and obligation of a lawyer, even one acting as White House counsel.'' However, his departure was necessary.
Nussbaum and five other administration officials, including Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's chief of staff, have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Little Rock, Ark., to explain why Nussbaum was briefed last fall on Treasury investigations into a failed Little Rock savings and loan to which the Clintons have ties. The grand jury, convened Feb. 16 at the request of special counsel Robert Fiske Jr., is interested in meetings at which Treasury officials may have briefed Nussbaum about the probe.
These meetings, at the least, did not avoid the appearance of White House meddling. Since December, the administration has been under a cloud for slowness in supplying documents to investigators; the investigators themselves have moved slowly in the savings and loan probe.
This latest episode serves to fuel suspicions that the White House is trying to obstruct justice. It raises the prospect that Congress may begin its own Whitewater probe.
For the moment, lawmakers should hold off. Mr. Fiske seems to be pursuing his investigation with vigor. His grand jury has subpoenaed a courier for a Little Rock law firm that once employed Mrs. Clinton and other top administration officials; the courier said the firm asked him to shred documents that carried the initials of Vincent Foster, the late deputy White House counsel.
While the administration needs to be mindful of Watergate's lessons about interfering in criminal investigations and obstructing justice, Congress must be mindful of Irangate and how their hearings and grants of immunity for testimony made later criminal prosecutions difficult.