Washington reels from one scandal to another

AT THE end of a week in which charges were brought against a former defense secretary, Clark Clifford, over the BCCI banking affair, and the trial began of Clair George, the former head of covert operations at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), over his role in the Iran-Contra affair, Washington is gasping from the weight of scandals bearing down on it.

The nation's capital, already held in record low regard by the American people, faces an extraordinary outbreak of high- profile political inquiries which can only reinforce the popular perception of an establishment in decay and may, in the end, wound the Bush administration itself. The scandals are especially shocking because they threaten to disgrace so many figures formerly considered pillars of respectability and authority in government, from Mr Clifford perhaps eventually to Ronald Reagan.

Mr Clifford, charged this week with covering up the purchase by BCCI of Washington-based First American Bank, was a friend and servant of four presidents going back to Truman. There was an overwhelming poignancy about a press conference given by the 85- year-old and now frail Mr Clifford, and his co-defendant Robert Altman, a wealthy Washington lawyer, as he dismissed the allegations and appealed for the chance to clear himself in an early trial. 'As long as I have the strength and the health to do it, I will fight each day. I am spending the rest of my life to get my good name restored,' he pledged.

Facing charges in the Iran- Contra imbroglio, meanwhile, is another former defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger, who served under Mr Reagan. Mr Weinberger, who claims innocence, fell foul in June of a 5-year-old inquiry into the Reagan adminstration's role in the Iran-Contra affair of 1986, when funds raised by the illegal sale of arms to Iran were diverted to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Last week, reports suggested that the special prosecutor in charge, Lawrence Walsh, was preparing to deliver charges against Mr Reagan himself, and his former secretary of state, George Schultz. Mr Bush, who was Mr Reagan's vice-president, seems for now largely to have been passed over in the investigation.

Clair George, meanwhile, is standing trial already for the role he played, as number three in the CIA at the time and in overall charge of covert operations, in withholding from congressional committees vital information about the operation to transfer funds to the Contras. It was masterminded by Colonel Oliver North, who has already been acquitted. The trial, which had one of Mr George's former colleagues in tears as he testified against him, attracted intense media coverage.

For President Bush, however, the most threatening of all the inquiries is the dogged attempt by two congressional committees to get to the bottom of the administration's dealings with Iraq in the months before the Gulf war. Leading the inquiry is a Democratic Representative from Texas, Henry Gonzalez.

He has compiled evidence to suggest that Mr Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, disregarded the warnings of their own federal departments and continued to extend credits to Saddam Hussein, allegedly for non-military use, but which were in fact used to build up the Iraqi army. At first largely ignored, Mr Gonzalez's investigation into what has already been dubbed 'Iraqgate' is increasingly drawing attention as a potentially lethal harpoon aimed straight at the White House. In the latest development, Democrat members have formally asked for a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations. Mr Bush has dismissed the probe as a politically-inspired 'witch-hunt'.

ANAHEIM - President Bush attacked his Democratic rivals in California on Thursday, saying their proposals for cutting defence spending would threaten national security, AFP reports.

On the campaign trail in southern California, Mr Bush told employees of a robotics firm that despite the end of the Cold War, the United States continued to face military threats, such as that posed by Iraq. 'Someone has to speak up for the military muscle that gives meaning to American leadership,' he said. 'Someone has to say, even now that we've won the Cold War: America is safe . . . so long as America stays strong.'

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