When Edwin Meese handed in his resignation as U.S. attorney general earlier this month - to be effective the end of July or early August - he declared he could leave his Cabinet post with a clear conscience because he had been "vindicated" by a special prosecutor.

Meese, who had been under fire from several quarters for what critics called illegal or unethical actions, was the subject of a 14-month investigation. When the independent counsel declined to file any criminal charges, Meese said he was cleared of any wrong-doing.However, the official report of that investigation was released this week, and while it, indeed, declined to prosecute Meese, it hardly "vindicated" the attorney general,

Special Prosecutor James McKay said Meese "probably violated U.S. laws," but those violations did not warrant criminal charges because there was no evidence Meese "acted out of motivation for personal gain."

What that seems to be saying is that Meese broke the law, but that he was more careless or lacking in good sense than trying to gain from criminal acts.

The probe explored Meese's filing of income tax forms and failing to mention stock sales; conflict-of-interest problems; and helping now-indicted Wedtech Corp. get government contracts. The report also said that some aspects of the investigation could not be completed because key figures refused to testify.

After the report was released, Meese continued to declare his innocence. One of the attorney general's comments does deserve consideration. He complains that the report refuses to file criminal charges, yet says he probably broke the law. This gives Meese all the negative publicity, without a chance to clear himself in court.

That is a very real problem. Every person should have a chance to defend himself. It hardly seems fair to spell out how someone probably broke the law, then say that no charges will be filed.

Rather than vindication, the special prosecutor's report guarantees that Meese will leave government service under a cloud - the same cloud that has cast shadows over his entire term as attorney general.