THE IMMEDIATE interest of the latest tale of intrigue to unfold around the name of Edwin Meese III is what its impact may be on the standing and tenure of the much-investigated attorney general. Press disclosures of the past few days have only begun exploring a matter that a special prosecutor has been probing for some months. Any impulse to rush to judgment of Mr. Meese has to be checked by considerations of fairness and by a recognition that the whole story remains to be told. But the political effect of these new disclosures and allegations about the government's chief law enforcement officer is bound to be severe.
If it is too early to say what if any laws or proprieties Mr. Meese might have violated, however, it is not too early to express astonishment at two particular aspects of this affair. The first concerns the easy access to his presence and office that Mr. Meese seems to have been ready to extend to old friends. In this case, his former lawyer, E. Bob Wallach, evidently brought to him a matter of the utmost legal and international delicacy. It concerned a plan for an American firm, the Bechtel Group, to build a billion-dollar oil pipeline for Iraq (blockaded by Iran) through Jordan and for ensuring Israel's sufferance for the project. Some part of the plan that went across Mr. Meese's Justice Department desk, it seems, concerned a payoff to Israel's Labor Party. No part of the plan is known to have been consummated, but what concerns the investigators now is whether Mr. Meese, whose lawyer describes his involvement as "very limited . . . passive only," handled the project in the right way.
The other astonishing thing is confirmation of the pattern of out-of-channels foreign-policy-making seen to such dismal effect in the Iran-contra affair. Smack in the middle of this episode of big money and high policy were assorted unofficial actors such as Mr. Wallach and Bruce Rappaport, a Swiss businessman who apparently was helping smooth Bechtel's way with the Israelis. Quite out of the action, from available reports, was the agency that should have been in the center of it -- the State Department, where former Bechtel official George Shultz had recused himself from any dealings with his old firm. This may help explain why, in 1985, two secret projects were moving through Washington. One, involving the arms sales, was meant to reach out to Iran; the other, involving the pipeline, was to assist Iraq. Not surprisingly, both failed, leaving behind an array of wreckage of which Mr. Meese's current embarrassment is but one part.