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Cable TV tests a quasi-judicial role. Unofficial probe, to be aired in Britain and US, attempts to determine Waldheim's culpability in World War II

Waldheim: A Commission of Inquiry HBO, Sunday, (8-11:30 p.m.; repeated in two-hour version June 9, 13, 17, 25, 28, check local listings). Producer: Jack Saltman. A co-production of Home Box Office and Thames Television. Special consultant: Telford Taylor. Host: Morton Dean. On Sunday, one of the most disturbing entertainment television programs of the decade will air on Home Box Office in America and on Thames Television in England amid great transatlantic controversy.

``Waldheim: A Commission of Inquiry'' has been called ``a mockery of the judicial process'' by the Times of London and ``trial by television'' by many observers on both sides of the Atlantic - all without viewing the program, which was taped in nine days, and which will not be seen in its entirety until it airs on Sunday.

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Evidence from more than 30 World War II survivors and 30 researchers working in 19 countries was presented to a panel of five eminent judges from five countries. Presenting counsel was Allan A. Ryan Jr., former director of the Office of Special Investigators, which was responsible for the Justice Department's prosecution of Nazi war criminals in America. Challenging the allegations was Lord Rawlinson, QC, former British attorney general.

The panel of judges was asked to decide whether, ``restricting their considerations solely to statements, documents, and submissions presented at the hearing, they are of the opinion that there is enough evidence to warrant an answer by Dr. Kurt Waldheim to allegations that he wrongly participated in acts which were contrary to the international laws of war.''

The US version of the program utilizes newsman Morton Dean as host and narrator; the British version puts Sir Alastair Burnet in the same role. Although the 54 hours of tape has already been edited (with the approval of both sides), it will not be until Sunday morning that the five judges who have been communicating with each other by phone, conference calls, and letters will render their decision in 15 minutes to be taped that day and added to the end of the program. The program will then be aired in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Italy, and Israel, as well as the United States and Britain.

The judges are Judge Shirley Hufstedler (US), Sir Frederick Lawton, (U.K.), Judge Walter H"ubner (West Germany), Judge Gustav Petren (Sweden), and Justice Gordon Cooper (Canada).

In a transatlantic telephone interview, producer Jack Saltman, still in the editing rooms of Thames Television, defended the concept of the program: ``I do not like the idea of trial by television. It is dangerous. After all, we are basically journalists and television producers, not lawyers or judges. I think that 99.9 percent of the time, such programs are unreservedly wrong. However, there are occasional exceptions.

``We are not having a trial. We are having in effect the equivalent of a grand jury hearing. Evidence is presented to eminent jurists by eminent lawyers. That evidence is being challenged. By the end of the program, they will either decide there is a case to answer and there should be a trial, or that there isn't and there shouldn't be a trial. We are not trying to do any more than a grand jury might do.

``In any event, the public will be able to listen to all the evidence and make up their own minds based on the evidence.

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``If there were any other legal format for this case to be heard, then we should not be making this program. But in reality there is the view of the American and British justice departments that Kurt Waldheim will never stand trial of any sort. And therefore I believe that this television program will never prejudice any real judicial proceeding.''

Mr. Saltman points out that many of the witnesses called are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and presumably within a few decades all of their testimony would be lost. ``We would like to feel that we have done a considerable service in that, entering this testimony on the records, challenged by expert counsel and judged by experienced jurists, we have done something which, had we not done it, would have been lost to history.''

Saltman says that he went to see Dr. Waldheim, who made it clear that he was not in favor of the program. ``Waldheim said that nobody has the right to try him apart from his own Austrian people, and that by electing him they have already made that judgment.'' But, says Saltman, ``as the chairman of the jury pointed out, Waldheim may end up being the most grateful of all. Or he may not....''

Saltman says Thames and HBO were determined to make a unique program that would make no concessions to anybody or anything - only try to get at the truth. The budget, he insists, was sufficient to ensure good researchers. ``Anybody who watches the whole program will be vastly better informed about the nature of Kurt Waldheim's war. There's no hyping it up, no phony theatricality. In my own mind I know we achieved what we set out to do.''

Still in the planning stage are similar programs that will investigate the possibly criminal careers of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Uganda's Idi Amin. How about Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega? Saltman recognizess that he must be very careful in that case, since Noriega might end up in court.

Based on viewing portions of the program, without the judges' conclusions, I found this program fascinating despite the occasional tediousness necessitated by the producer's determination not to sensationalize the case with dramatizations. Call it trial-by-TV or simulated grand jury proceedings, the program genre is unique, innovative ... and, yes, potentially dangerous if misused.

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