The shredders at the Environmental Protection Agency tore it, of course, but even before they were discovered, the conduct of the Reagan administration in the matter of the House of Representatives vs. EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch was giving off strong fumes of Watergate.
Ever since it began, with the citing of Gorsuch for contempt by the House on Dec. 16, the Reaganites have acted as if cover-up and claims of executive privilege, Richard M. Nixon's famous failed strategy, were the only means of dealing with Congress in a crisis over the withholding of documents.
Although it is his duty to bring Gorsuch to justice, Attorney General William French Smith has been operating as "the president's lawyer"--Nixon's noxious phrase for Richard G. Kleindienst when the latter was the country's chief law enforcement officer and supposedly "investigating" Watergate.
When Gorsuch, in one of the climactic hearings preceding the contempt citation, was testifying on Dec. 2, Smith sent up Assistant Attorney General Ted Olson to represent her. Stanley Brand, general counsel to the clerk of the House, says he thinks that the Justice Department was building a conflict-of-interest case against prosecuting her.
Right up to the minute of the unprecedented vote, House leaders and lawyers were attempting, under the auspices of House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), to negotiate a compromise with White House agents.
They reached a written agreement with Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee's investigations and oversight subcommittee, who has been trying since March to wring from Gorsuch information about the workings of the toxic waste "Superfund." Levitas was so willing to compromise that he agreed to permit subcommittee members to view the disputed documents only at the EPA. At the last moment, the White House declared the arrangement "unacceptable."
And within one minute of the 259-to-105 vote to cite Gorsuch, at 10:01 p.m., the Justice Department filed a suit against the House calling the contempt charge "unconstitutional and unseemly."
To Brand, the sequence of events indicates that the White House was not negotiating in good faith.
The White House, which had directed Gorsuch not to fork over the documents, seemed amused by the House's presumptions. Its numerous publicists did not trouble to address the issue, which is whether polluting corporations are paying their cleanup bills, but set about trying to shame the House out of any drastic action.
Gorsuch was reported at one point to be in the hospital, supposedly driven there by the strain of it all. Then word came that she was going to be married. It seemed they were trying to make unthinkable the idea of sending to jail a little lady who was not only sick but in love.
But none of this was as frivolous as the lawsuit the Justice Department filed against the House, a bizarre exercise in which government lawyers argued that the House had no business trying to coerce a member of the executive branch into giving information that might be embarrassing to the president.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney Stanley Harris inquiring about the progress of the affair. He got an insulting reply in which Harris informed him that the House was doing things "outside the legislative sphere."
But a U.S. District Court judge threw out the Justice Department's lawsuit, and the White House suddenly became aware of the urgent need for "damage control." Last Wednesday night, after the decision came down, James A. Baker III, President Reagan's most skilled political operative, called Levitas to reopen negotiations.
By then, it was too late. The day before, acting on a tip from inside EPA, Jack O'Hara, counsel of Levitas' oversight subcommittee, dispatched two investigators to an office adjacent to that of Rita M. Lavelle, the Superfund administrator, who was fired last week. There they found two shredders, which by all accounts have been as busy of late as the CREEP shredders on the morning after the Watergate break-in.
It isn't as if Reagan were not surrounded by Watergate alumni who can tell him at first hand of the polluting effects of stonewalling and shredding. Baker's aide, Richard G. Darman, saw it all from the right hand of Elliot L. Richardson. White House counsel Fred F. Fielding was John Dean's deputy. Reagan's communications director, David R. Gergen, was a Nixon speechwriter.
In the summer of 1974, with impeachment looming, Gergen wrote a memo to Nixon chief of staff Alexander M. Haig Jr.: "It is time we faced up to the fact that this operational work is a full-time task. It can no longer be done with the left hand."
Maybe Gergen should write it again.