Oracle Corp.’s defense for hiring a dirty-tricks firm to go through the trash of Microsoft-friendly advocacy groups is that Oracle specifically ordered its hench firm not to do "anything illegal." What a stirring moral exemplar for the children. It belongs right up there with "no controlling legal authority."

Oracle’s official mouthpiece also brayed that "Left undisclosed, these Microsoft front groups could have improperly influenced the outcome of one of the most important antitrust cases in U.S. history." How laughable.

We’ll start by taking exception to this characterization of the Independent Institute and the National Taxpayers Union, which were defending free-market policies long before Oracle developed its interest in political cash-giving and the seamier side of business activism. Yes, Microsoft supports groups that support Microsoft. Anybody who knows how such groups work knows their stock-in-trade is ideological consistency. They win support precisely because they aren’t for sale.

In other words, these groups are about as far on the ethical spectrum as you can get from IGI, the Terry Lenzner "investigative" firm that Oracle hired to rake through their trash. Mr. Lenzner has done similar work for Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones matters, and, it turns out, rather different work for Microsoft in tracking down and turning in software pirates. The distinction is worth underlining: between hiring an investigative firm to track down criminals and using it to intimidate and silence political opinion that you find inconvenient.

For that matter, such groups operate in a different ethical universe than Oracle and its flamboyant CEO Larry Ellison, whose often narcissistic behavior has been detailed at length in books and media profiles. Mr. Ellison accords a grand dimension to slimy antics, claiming yesterday that he was doing his "civic duty" by making sure the antitrust trial wasn’t tainted by dangerous svengalis like Independent Institute chief David Theroux, whose letter appears in our columns today.

Such cynical guff is a disguise, of course, for an attack on free speech. The courts are perfectly capable of handling cases such as this one that are subjects of public controversy. They do it all the time. But the Microsoft prosecution also raises broad policy questions that the public has every right to discuss.

The groups attracting the attentions of the smelly Mr. Lenzner are hardly the only ones questioning the government’s anti-Microsoft jihad. Larry Summers, the Treasury Secretary, went out to Silicon Valley recently to give a speech that conspicuously sounded like a defense of Microsoft. Should we expect to see Mr. Ellison hanging around Treasury now in his Armani shades looking through garbage?

Polls also show that large public majorities support Microsoft. But Oracle apparently has decided that it’s not in its own interest for such debates to be freely joined without Microsoft’s friends being subjected to harassment and spying. We’re still waiting for somebody at the Justice Department to check out the charges that some of the anti-Microsoft information leaked to the press came from laptops stolen from the offices of the Independent Institute.

The irony is that Mr. Ellison doesn’t face much competition from Microsoft in his core database business. He bragged recently about having "Gates-like" market share. His incessant lobbying has been aimed prospectively at forestalling the emergence of a rival, in Washington rather than in the marketplace. If Bill Gates had done this, then pawed through his adversaries’ trash, he would be led away in handcuffs.

All this is something for voters to think about in November. Today’s amazing economy was built by entrepreneurs and inventors testing their ideas in the marketplace, not sabotaging each other in Washington. That people like Mr. Ellison have discovered the political uses of people like Mr. Lenzner has to be a bearish signal. It’s also a sad commentary on the real nature of the Clinton cultural contribution to the economic boom generated by the American people.