None dare call it treason when a former US President intrigues with the head of an unfriendly foreign government. But when Jimmy Carter met with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega on February 2, Vice President Quayle had the courage to say: “Obviously, when you have a former President meeting with heads of state we don’t meet with, it has a chance of complicating matters.” To say the least.

Both Carter and the Vice President were in Caracas attending the inauguration of Venezuela’s new president, but while Mr. Quayle was on official business, Mr. Carter was only a tourist playing at diplomacy. It’s a game that virtually anybody can play: Jesse Jackson, Jim Wright, Armand Hammer, Dr. Bernard Lown. The only trouble is, it is patently illegal. The Logan Act of 1799 was designed to prevent just this sort of usurpation of executive functions, and it does not matter if the usurper is a Soviet-loving physician, a Soviet-loving businessman, a shifty politician, or an ex-President. This is not Mr. Carter’s first offense. Two years ago, he and Gerald Ford arranged a conference in Atlanta, at which they collogued with Soviet representatives and did their best to portray the United States as the chief obstacle to arms reduction. Carter even openly contradicted Navy Secretary John Lehman’s description of Soviet treaty violations. Mr. Carter should be tried, convicted on his own testimony, and given the maximum sentence.

The paltry fine ($5,000) and prison term (three years) might deter future amateurs from meddling into affairs of state, but beyond that the United States needs to rethink its treason laws, which have always erred on the side of timidity. It is difficult to imagine any great nation in history tolerating such intrigues between leading citizens and the heads of foreign and unfriendly governments.

The great Athenian statesman, Themistocles, was exiled on just such a charge, and in the reign of Charles II the Earl of Danby was impeached on charges of high treason, because as treasurer he had written a letter to his ambassador to France, instructing him to cut a secret deal with Louis XIV. The first charge against Danby was that he had engrossed royal power by conducting affairs of state without the participation of the secretaries of state or the Privy Council.

A more recent and more familiar case is the Norwegian statesman Vidkun Quisling, who as a leader of a party out of power intrigued with the Germans, who eventually installed him as their puppet ruler. Of course, Mr. Carter does not expect such favors from Daniel Ortega or his Soviet friends. It is reward enough to be back on the evening news. (TF)