Line by Line, Item by Item

May 30, 1991

The Supreme Court's refusal to hear arguments on the Oliver North trial procedure probably means that the convictions of Colonel North -- and his old boss Adm. John Poindexter as well -- will be overturned. That is too bad. The evidence that these two men committed unlawful acts with serious consequences for the nation is undeniable.

What the court upheld without comment was a ruling by a court of appeals panel that the North convictions and indictments may have been tainted by witnesses' exposure to Mr. North's immunized testimony before two special congressional investigating committees. The appeals court judges didn't say that it was tainted, only that it may have been. They would have the trial judge review all the testimony "witness by witness, line by line, item by item" in a search for taint. If any is found, the convictions cannot stand.

It seems to us this imposes an impossible responsibility on a prosecutor. Some witness, friendly or unfriendly to Colonel North, is bound to say that he or she cannot now remember if one line or one item of testimony may have been related to reading news accounts or seeing Colonel North on television before the committees. That would do it. But Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel prosecuting the case, is correct to try. Congress needs to know if prosecution following hearings is a real possibility. If it isn't in this case, it isn't at all. Mr. Walsh and his staff took extraordinary precautions to insulate its witnesses and investigators from the North testimony.

In retrospect, some critics say the congressional hearings were unwise. We agree they were, insofar as the goal of convicting Colonel North, Admiral Poindexter and others was concerned. But in Congress' defense, it should be remembered that at the time of the hearings, there were other and more serious concerns about the role of officials far above those two military men. That included the president and vice president.

Congress could have delayed holding its hearings a little longer to protect Mr. Walsh's cases, but not much longer. It had to act. We can't really fault lawmakers for holding hearings. The principal problem we have with the congressional effort was that it really failed in the end to discover and reveal to the public what really happened in the Iran-Contra affairs. Much more detailed information was developed by the independent counsel.

Because we think what happened in the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and elsewhere during the whole business is important for the citizens of a democracy to know, we hope that whatever happens to his cases in court, Mr. Walsh will go ahead with his plans to publish as much candid detail -- witness by witness, item by item -- as is possible in a report on his investigation.

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