A potential scandal of Watergate proportions may be looming in the official cover-up of secret mass burials of Panamanian civilians killed by the U.S. bombing in the invasion last December.

A segment in the CBS program "60 Minutes" Sept. 23 revealed a deliberate attempt by the Bush administration to conceal the extent of civilian casualties. The program also disclosed the action of U.S. army personnel, acting under orders, to scoop up thousands of corpses and stash them away in unmarked graves. The number of such dead, according to "60 Minutes," was in excess of 4,000. This figure is in stark contrast to the estimate of 250 civilian casualties given by U.S. officials.The invasion was presented to the American people as a surgically clean operation with a minimal loss of civilian life. President Bush, when asked at his press conference following the invasion to provide a figure of civilian casualties, gave the impression that the number released officially was correct. He said that a precise count was not then obtainable. In the light of the current documented revelations, the question logically arises whether the president was part of a cover-up.

What is involved here is not just misstatement or concealment but the action of the U.S. government in ordering the mass secret burial. Tampering with the dead bodies in this manner exposes the government to charges of war crimes.

Equally serious, of course, is the possible involvement of the White House in a cover-up that runs counter to American traits of honesty and decency.

If the CBS revelations are inaccurate or distorted, the record must be cleared. If, however, the facts can be substantiated, then appropriate action under the law will have to be taken, no matter how high the culpability may reach.

The Panama episode is part of a continuing series of events pointing to a fundamental change in the relationship of government to the American people. No principle was more important to the American founding fathers than the need to prevent concealment and deception by government. When the founders spoke of a government of laws, not men, they had in mind the tendency of men in office to substitute their personal security for the national security and to carry out policies contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. It is now known that the U.S. government lied systematically to the people about various aspects of the Vietnam war.

One such act of irresponsibility was revealed recently with the disclosure of a deliberate official cover-up of the use and effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. During the war, the government indignantly denied charges that we were using chemical warfare weapons in Vietnam. But the grisly truth came out when thousands of American veterans of the war had to be treated for incidental exposure to the poisonous chemical.

The issue before the American people today is whether the progressive erosion of moral principle in government represents a clear and present danger to their institutions.

"Secrecy" has become not just a matter of withholding information but a style of government in which deceit, underground action involving violence and criminality are becoming standard operating procedures.

The allegations of secret mass burials in Panama need to be investigated by the appropriate congressional committees, and the responsible, or rather the irresponsible, parties must be fully identified and brought to justice under the law. The dead in Panama may have been secretly buried, but we must not allow the event itself to be buried or the deed to go unpunished.

Our foreign policies and actions are carried out in the name of the American people. The big difference between what happened in Nazi Germany and what is happening now is that the American people not only have the opportunity to redress despicable actions but have a mandate to do so. Our future as a free society requires it.