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A Chance to Dispel the Miasma of Mistrust

WHITEWATER, Waco, and coming later, Ruby Ridge: The summer festival of investigations got under way this week.

The congressional committees have a fine line to walk, probing for signs of impropriety in the White House and law enforcement agencies without feeding paranoia about Government as the Enemy of the People.

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The word that flashes subliminally on the walls of the hearing rooms is: coverup. What anxiety about Whitewater prompted White House aides, after the suicide of Vincent Foster, to spirit papers out of his files and stonewall the investigating Federal Park Police like a threatening alien presence? In the disastrous decision to storm the Branch Davidian compound with tanks and a gas banned by international treaty, was there any pressure from the White House to hurry up and get the thing over with? Vincent Foster and Webster Hubbell attended planning sessions leading up to that decision. Did they not brief the president?

In the Ruby Ridge shootout, how high in the FBI does responsibility go for the unusually broad authorization to shoot, and why were documents bearing on that decision destroyed? What are we dealing with - jackbooted thugs or just jack rabbits burrowing their way to safety?

And what does it mean that FBI and other federal agents, sworn to enforce the law, engaged in race-hating pastimes in their ''Good Ole Boys Roundup'' in Tennessee?

What is this suffocating aura of irregularity that envelops the federal government? The FBI director has to demote his recently promoted deputy director. A former associate attorney general must testify more or less on his way to prison for other offenses. The body of Vincent Foster, a suicide to all but conspiracy theorists, is figuratively exhumed again.

The misbehavior in our law enforcement agencies creates a miasma of distrust at a time when there are forces ready to exploit and exaggerate that mistrust. How, then, to ferret out misdeeds without totally undermining law enforcement? The congressional committees have an opportunity to clear the air unless they choose for partisan reasons to add to the smog.

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