'Big Bang' Approach Undercuts Senate Probe

The Senate campaign-fund investigation opened with two big bangs, both of which became muted on further examination.

Chairman Fred Thompson's big bang was the assertion in his opening statement that there was an ongoing Chinese plan "designed to pour money into American political campaigns" to "subvert our election process."

Democrats who had seen the same wiretap reports as Senator Thompson challenged his conclusion. He retorted by suggesting that he had backing from the CIA and FBI, which had reviewed his statement. The Justice Department said the review was only for protection of classified information, as well as the FBI's own campaign-finance investigation, and did not cover Thompson's conclusions.

Finally, after further intelligence briefings, Democrats acknowledged that there was clear evidence of a disguised Chinese contribution to the Clinton campaign in 1992 and some indication that Beijing may have had a plan for 1996. That bipartisan comity could have been achieved much earlier had Thompson not found it necessary to open with a big bang.

The Democrats' opening big bang was Sen. John Glenn's disclosure of an offer by John Huang, a key figure, to give limited testimony in return for limited immunity from prosecution. The discussion of that swirled through the week until somebody thought to look up the law on the subject.

You have to go back to the golden oldies to understand the situation.

On May 8, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee met secretly to consider its witness list and immunity for John Dean - his condition for unloading a blockbuster on President Nixon. Republican vice chairman Howard Baker, with his young counsel, Fred Thompson, by his side, vigorously opposed immunity. But with maverick Lowell Weicker supporting chairman Sam Irvin, the committee voted 5-to-2 to grant immunity, and Mr. Baker asked that the vote be announced as unanimous.

Special prosecutor Archibald Cox, in hot pursuit of Mr. Dean for obstruction of justice, objected. But Sam Dash, the committee's chief counsel, argued before Judge John Sirica that it might be more important to inform the nation than to convict an accomplice. In any event, he said, the law left Judge Sirica no discretion because the Senate has power to grant immunity.

What Dean got was not the blanket immunity he was bargaining for, but something called "use immunity," limited to specific questions and answers. That was ironic since Dean, as White House counsel, had helped to write the limited-immunity feature of the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act, signed by Mr. Nixon. In the end, although Dean's testimony helped more than any other to bring Nixon down, he served four months in jail.

Yet, in the cases of Oliver North and John Poindexter, convicted of obstruction of justice in the Iran-contra conspiracy, "limited immunity" ended up saving them from prison. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh had carefully insulated his staff from congressional testimony, but the federal appeals court held that trial witnesses may have been tainted by having heard the testimony.

Which brings us to the present, and to Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. He made a "proffer" - the technical expression - of testimony if immunized from prosecution under the election laws. As before, justice, this time in the person of Attorney General Janet Reno, objected. And as before, if Thompson's committee chooses by a two-thirds vote to grant immunity, nobody can prevent it. But there is no way of shielding witnesses and the jury from being tainted by earlier testimony before a congressional committee. Thompson now says, "There is no such thing as limited immunity."

All this illustrates the perils of headline-hunting, which can end up making the investigators the issue, instead of the investigation. Thompson will surely remember that after the first weeks of the 1973 Watergate investigation, the public was yawning and demanding that broadcasters go back to soap operas.

A serious inquiry is not built on providing a sensation a week.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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