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Fifth Amendment capitalists

The news on Monday was that President Bush was unveiling his controversial wartime budget. Russia and China warned the United States not to attack Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iran of giving refuge to Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives.

But the top headline in many of the Monday newspapers went to former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay and his surprising change of mind about testifying on Capitol Hill. This was one indicator of a story taking hold.

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Another was that we were hearing some well-known names in new connections. Former Fed chairman Paul Volcker will help the Arthur Andersen accounting firm clean up its act. David Boies, of Microsoft lawsuit and Gore election fame, is defending another of the Enron principals. Mr. Lay's lawyer, Earl Silbert, was the original Watergate prosecutor. The Enron mess is clearly where the legal action is.

The Justice Department said no special prosecutor was needed and told the White House not to shred any Enron-related papers. The subpoenas started flowing from congressional committees, the harbinger of confrontations to come.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy invented the term "Fifth Amendment communists." Soon we may have a new class of "Fifth Amendment capitalists."

All this is to say that the rubble of the collapsed energy empire has the potential to alter the political landscape. It goes deeper than the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s, because it victimized so many more people.

The dismayed and angry victims among employees and investors and those whose pension funds included Enron stock add up to a significant political force.

It is too early to say how far the stain will spread and who will be most damaged. The Bush administration is striving to represent this as a financial, not a governmental scandal. It is hastening to close the stable door on the protection of pension funds and monitoring of accountants.

So is Congress, many of whose members have been getting rid of their most recent Enron checks.

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As fate would have it, all this comes at a time when America is examining itself and its values. If homeland security is to have real meaning, it must include a sense of security about the ethics of our corporate culture and government regulators willing to protect the public interest against corporate corruption.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.