Preventing Watergate II

Politics

THE IMMEDIATE task before Senator Ervin's Select Committee is that of determining exactly how widespread was knowledge about the multitude of buggings and shady transactions known as the Watergate affair. But before the Committee's term expires in February, the seven members will attempt to sift through the thousands of pages of transcripts and formulate new legislation designed to prevent an elections scandal of this type and incredible magnitude from occurring again.

But can the Committee formulate an election regulation system so foolproof that some future group of "well-meaning men" could not attempt another political espionage operation--a "Watergate II"? Unfortunately, the odds would appear to be against it.

Senator Ervin and the other six Committee members may be able to draft legislation to prevent what we saw in 1972 from happening again, but it would be more than presumptuous to expect them to formulate an all-purpose campaign scandals bill that could completely prevent any kind of election hanky-panky from again tainting the American political scene; as we are beginning to see from the Committee's hearings, even the most stringent precautionary regulation of campaign expenditures and contributions can be easily bypassed by a few shrewd men with a laundry bag, cash, and an office wall safe.

Rather, what Senator Ervin and the Committee should develop is a more effective means of dealing with a scandal after it occurs: a means that would obtain the truth for the people as soon as possible, something our present system has failed to do with Watergate. 13 months have now passed since the Watergate burglars were captured in the Democratic National Committee headquarters, yet we still do not know exactly who approved the break-in and the subsequent cover-up. These months of anxious waiting have resulted in a gradual erosion of much of the public's trust of its Federal government--and especially of its President. A similar version of trust abroad has further weakened an already unstable dollar.

What should have happened last summer--long before the American people went to the polls--is what has been unfortunately delayed until the present: a complete investigation into the who, what, when, where, and why of the Watergate break-in(s). To be sure, there were those who did attempt a pre-election investigation--most notably Rep. Patman's Banking and Currency Committee--but for one reason or another (White House pressure has been mentioned as a possibility), these hearings never got off the ground. What we needed was an independent investigating body that would have begun immediately and automatically to examine the Watergate evidence and continue, working as expediently as possible, until the complete truth became known. No such body existed, of course, and thus the American public marked its ballots entirely unaware of the air of illegal activity that had permeated the corridors of the White House.

SENATOR ERVIN and the Committee should take advantage of their opportunity to make certain that this kind of delay does not happen again. They should prepare legislation to create a permanent organization to investigate and report on election scandals. So that this organization would itself be out of the realm of political electioneering, it would most appropriately fit as a special branch of the Federal court system. Three judges might be a proper number for this unique tribunal, which would act as an investigating grand jury, with complete power to issue subpoenas, grant immunity, and deliver indictments as it deemed necessary. Since election scandal investigation would be the sole duty of this Court of Election Irregularities (for lack of a better name), it would be able to completely concentrate on such investigation--as opposed to the present process in which the judge's attention is spread among several diverse cases at the same time. Most importantly, however, this Court would begin investigation immediately upon receiving reports of a possible violation, and would not be subject to the penetrating influence of those in power who might not wish such investigations to take place.

Hopefully, fear of being discovered by this investigating apparatus would deter would-be conspirators from illegal actions. Hopefully, this Court would never have to be called in to "find facts" about another election scandal--no matter how big or small. But since there may be those who fail to learn from the gross mistakes of others, we should eliminate the possibility of being caught with our pants down a second time.