Investigate, Don't Politic

Calls are multiplying on Capitol Hill for deeper investigation into security breaches at the nation's nuclear-weapons labs, and rightly so. The possibility that lax procedures have allowed dangerous technology to fall into the hands of the Chinese, or anyone else, is ominous.

But if such inquiries are to root out the real problems and correct what needs fixing, Congress must avoid two familiar pitfalls: (1) politicizing the investigation; and (2) seeking scapegoats instead of solutions.

If the point is simply to embarrass the Clinton administration, the inquiry will be pointless. If the aim is to limit national-security damage, the conduct of this and many previous administrations must be examined. (Attorney General Janet Reno has already begun a review of FBI actions.)

House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas was asked the other day if he favored congressional committees delving into the labs' procedures during the Reagan and Bush administrations. He responded that he had no problem with that. We hope his colleagues in both parties will adopt that approach, which proved successful in the bipartisan inquiry conducted over the winter by Reps. Christopher Cox (R) of California and Norm Dicks (D) of Washington.

Too often in these security investigations, the temptation is to place the blame on some individual, get him or her fired, and then claim victory. Often the executive branch, whether it's the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, or whoever, is more than willing to offer up some lower-level career officer as the sacrificial victim.

Certainly bad judgment and poor management can't be tolerated. The issue in security cases is often systemic and procedural flaws that allowed the breaches to occur in the first place. In such circumstances responsibility can be difficult to place; it rarely is put on the top-level administrators who see themselves as too busy with important policy matters to deal with such "trivial" details.

So by all means let the investigations proceed. But if political game-playing, scapegoating, and senior bureaucratic cover-up become the order of the day, no one should be fooled into believing that the nation is consequently more secure.

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