WASHINGTON — Covert operations. Deception on a massive scale. Blatant disregard for congressional prerogatives. Flagrant violations of federal law. Recriminations among top Administration officials. Money laundering. Resignations and firings. Endless rumors. Shocking revelations on an almost daily basis. Stonewalling. Scapegoating. Cover-ups. Internal investigations. Congressional hearings. Queries of "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
All terribly familiar, and all terribly depressing. Is the current scandal over covert arms shipments to Iran and illicit military aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua another Watergate? Not quite. Watergate was a criminal conspiracy. Moreover, the most shocking revelation so far--that a skimming operation took profits made on arms sales to Iran and transfered them to the contras --was made by the Administration.
The Reagan Administration's arms initiative is a much classier operation than Watergate. It is international in scope. It is not a sleazy political burglary but a full-scale covert intelligence operation motivated by a sincere, if misguided, interpretation of national security. George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall once made the distinction between honest and dishonest graft, and it may apply here: illicit activity for the public good, rather than for private gain.
In both cases, however, one finds the same mentality: the assumption that the President is above the law, the view that "reasons of state" can justify anything.
What is at stake is Reagan's credibility. The Administration's credibility has already been challenged several times this fall. According to polls, the public did not believe the President in September when he said there was no deal to exchange accused Soviet spy Gennady F. Zakharov for American reporter Nicholas S. Daniloff. In October, when a plane carrying supplies to the contras was shot down over Nicaragua, the survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, implicated the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Administration officials denied government involvement. Again, the public did not believe the Administration.
After the revelations concerning secret arms shipments to Iran came out, the public did not believe the President when he said, on Nov. 13, "The United States has not swapped boatloads or planeloads of American weapons for the return of American hostages." His own State Department disputed the President's statement that "there has been no evidence of Iranian government complicity in acts of terrorism against the United States." And last week, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III told Americans that no one in the Administration knew about the operation to divert funds from Iran to the contras except Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter.
It has become virtually impossible for a President to regain credibility once it is lost. That was not always so. Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to recover after May, 1960, when the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 Air Force reconnaissance plane inside Soviet territory. At first, the Administration claimed it was a weather observation mission. Within days, however, Eisenhower admitted it was a spy plane and that such flights had been standard procedure.
A year later, in April, 1961, the Kennedy Administration faced a credibility crisis over the Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy, too, acted swiftly to undo the damage by claiming full responsibility. "There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan," he told the press.
Lyndon B. Johnson lost his credibility after the North Vietnamese Tet offensive in 1968. Johnson never acknowledged a policy failure in Vietnam and never claimed personal responsibility for the disaster; he also never regained his credibility. Neither did Nixon, who never acknowledged either guilt or responsibility for Watergate.
The lesson is that when the President's credibility is threatened, action must be taken swiftly and forcefully. No excuses, no cover-ups: "I made a mistake, I am responsible and here's what we intend to do about it."
Reagan has accepted responsibility for the Iran situation but has stubbornly refused to admit what the whole world knows--that the initiative was a mistake. "I don't see that it has been a fiasco or a great failure of any kind," the President said at his news conference. The President does not even accept responsibility for the contra connection, saying last Tuesday, "I was not fully informed on the nature of one of the activities undertaken in connection with this initiative."
The Administration now faces a two-front war. On Iran--the eastern front--Reagan claims responsibility but says there was no mistake. On Nicaragua--the southern front--Reagan acknowledges the mistake ("This action raises serious questions of propriety.") but assumes no responsibility.