Just when it looked like Oliver North might never be brought to trial for his part in the Iran-Contra scandal, the case seems to be on the verge of proceeding again.
But the public had better be prepared for more such cliff-hangers, and it had better hope that any future obstacles can be overcome.At stake is much more than whether or not the courts can put the former lieutenant colonel on trial. Also at issue is what is more important - national security or a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial.
Even more important is the potential impact of this case on how responsible and accountable this nation's government is going to be. If the North trial doesn't continue, the damage could be serious.
Until Wednesday, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh had demanded that the administration have a representative in the courtroom during the North trial to raise objections over the possible disclosure of national secrets. This demand brought objections from U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell on the grounds that such intervention would allow frequent interruptions of the trial for arguments over classified information. Such frequent interruptions, the judge insisted, could deprive North of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
But now a compromise agreement has been reached. Under it, the special prosecutor will notify Thornburgh whenever classified data has been ruled relevant to the case. That would give the attorney general the option of scuttling any or all of the criminal counts against North.
It still isn't clear, however, whether the new arrangement won't lead to as many interruptions as the old one.
The Justice Department, representing the U.S. intelligence community, realizes that North knows more of the secrets involved in the Iran-Contra case than anyone else and fears he might disclose sensitive information without its having been cleared.
For their part, North's attorneys claim they must be allowed to show that former President Reagan and other top administration officials offered inducements to foreign governments in soliciting military aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
But it's no secret that the Reagan administration, thwarted by Congress in its efforts to provide U.S. funds to the Contras, sought aid for the rebels from other countries, starting in 1984. That much was disclosed by the 1987 congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra affair.
What wasn't disclosed were the identities of officials in other countries who helped in the Contra aid effort. And it's hard to see why the disclosure of all such details is essential to this part of North's defense.
But is isn't hard to see what's likely to happen if this case is ever allowed to collapse without North's being brought to trial. In such an event, North would in effect get a pardon without the White House's ever having to take responsibility for it.
Worse yet, if the government could not try North on charges of lying to Congress, obstructing justice, and taking illegal gratuities, what would keep anyone else with access to national secrets from breaking the law? Indeed, what would keep the President himself - say, another Richard Nixon - from claiming that the end justifies the means and getting away with it?
America is supposed to be a nation of laws, not of men. That means the law applies to all and no one is above it. A dangerous precedent will be set if we start making exceptions for someone who happens to have access to important secrets.