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The Sheriff Gains

February 25, 1988

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III says that he saw no evil in a 1985 memorandum from his old friend and sometime lawyer E. Robert Wallach, which among other things talked about making concealed payments to Israel's Labor Party as part of an arrangement to assure the security of an Iraqi oil pipeline. Indeed, Meese says that he's not sure if he even saw the memo at all, or if he did whether he paid any attention to it. That's a bit strange, considering the document was flagged "PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL--FOR YOUR EYES ONLY." It's also more than a bit convenient, in view of the questions since asked about whether the information that Wallach passed on should have alerted Meese to the possibility that bribery was being discussed--in which case, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the attorney general is authorized by law to take action.

Wallach is currently under indictment on unrelated conspiracy and racketeering charges. At the time he wrote his memo he was acting as a private attorney for the pipeline project. What legitimate connection was there between the attorney general of the United States and a Middle Eastern oil pipeline? None, really. Meese seems to have been brought in only as a sort of pipeline himself, specifically as a conduit for putting interested parties in touch with President Reagan's national-security adviser, at the time Robert C. McFarlane. He was, in short, approached as a go-between or a fixer.

The pipeline, as it happens, was never built, although it might have been a pretty good idea. Its purpose was to give Iraq an alternative route for exporting oil after it lost its access to the Persian Gulf because of war with Iran. Out of this, and amid concerns about possible international oil shortages, came the idea for a new $1-billion oil pipeline to run from the Iraqi fields through Jordan, along its border with Israel, down to the port of Aqaba.

The problem was that Iraq, which has been in a state of war with Israel since 1948, feared for the security of its pipeline. A Swiss businessman named Bruce Rappaport, who has close ties to Israel and who was a partner in the pipeline project with the Bechtel Group Inc., reputedly came up with an answer. As Wallach told the story, Israel would be given up to $70 million a year, in the form of either cash payments from the pipeline's profits or in reduced oil charges, to let the pipeline operate unhindered. "A portion of those funds," Wallach wrote in the key part of his memo, "will go directly to (the) Labor (Party)."

A proposal for bribery? Maybe, although since Rappaport is not a U.S. citizen the applicability of the law in this case is in doubt. The central issue here, though, turns not so much on an arguable point of law as on a substantial point of ethics.

Ed Meese--once again--has been shown to have a remarkable affinity for getting himself involved with matters on the outer margins of propriety. Once again fair questions are being raised about his judgment, his conduct, his favors for friends, his lapses of memory, his professions of innocence stemming from ignorance. And once again the President repeated Wednesday night the by-now-ritual statement that he has confidence in his attorney general. Probably never before in history has a President been called on so often to endorse one of his Cabinet officers. But not for a long time either has a Cabinet officer so stubbornly clung to his post well beyond the point where it had become clear to everyone else that his character had made him a huge national embarrassment.

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