IN DEFENDING his agency's background investigation of Labor Secretary Donovan during his Senate confirmation hearings, FBI Director William Webster remarked that if the FBI is to be "the certifier of someone's reputation" that "has to be made more clear to us." We see the problem differently: if the FBI isn't certifying someone's reputation, then it ought to make that fact a whole lot clearer than did Francis M. Mullen--then the FBI's executive assistant director--in testifying before the Senate Labor Committee.

In that testimony, Mr. Mullen--since nominated by the administration to be director of the Drug Enforcement Administration--went well beyond a simple reporting of what the FBI had or had not found in its brief investigation. He characterized the inquiry as "thorough and exhaustive" and, in response to questions about the short duration of the effort, he replied that "time was not a restraining factor." He reaffirmed in a letter to the committee shortly thereafter that he "stood by the results" of the investigation, which "surfaced no information which would reflect unfavorably upon Mr. Donovan in any manner." Two months later, Mr. Mullen again wrote Labor Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch assuring him that the FBI had received no additional information relevant to Mr. Donovan and his firm.

It is now obvious that the FBI's investigation wasn't all that thorough. Additional allegations have been made on the basis of other investigations and materials subsequently unearthed in the FBI's own files. One item of especial interest is a wiretapped conversation in which reputed mobster William Masselli talks about an invitation to fly to a social event with Mr. Donovan. Mr. Mullen admits that he knew of this information. However, when Sen. Hatch asked him at the confirmation hearings whether the FBI had reviewed "every one" of its hundreds of organized crime wiretaps for mentions of Mr. Donovan or his construction firm, Mr. Mullen said that the bureau had, and that no references had been found. He also stated in response to questions by Sen. Hatch about New York sources that they had not revealed "any information at all" about Mr. Donovan's alleged alliance or association with organized crime figures.

Mr. Mullen explains that he had mentally limited his reply to New Jersey wiretaps--the Masselli tap was in New York. In other words it wasn't a real lie because he had his fingers crossed. Mr. Mullen says he did this because he didn't think the conversation was "pertinent." The committee clearly thought that the question of whether Mr. Donovan and his firm had social or business ties with mobsters was of considerable relevance to Mr. Donovan's fitness to be the Cabinet officer in charge of labor policy. Sen. Hatch specifically questioned Mr. Donovan about the Masselli connection. Mr. Donovan testified that while Mr. Masselli had a subcontract with his firm, he had met him three times at most "in passing, on the job site." Judging the relevance or credibility of the wiretap information was the committee's job-- not the FBI's.

Sen. Hatch has now decided that his committee will conduct a formal investigation of the FBI's role during the confirmation hearings. That's a good idea. Whatever the relevance of the withheld material, it is clear that the FBI didn't do its job as either the committee or the public understood it.