WASHINGTON — THE NEXT voice you hear will be that of some apologist for the Reagan and Bush administrations excoriating special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh for doggedly pursuing the Iran-contra affair. Walsh inevitably will be accused of conducting a political vendsqueeze a real live official of the Central Intelligence Agency, Alan Fiers, into admitting that he and several of his superiors knew about Iran-contra and lied to Congress about that knowledge. That revelation comes as no surprise to anyone the least sophisticated about how Washington works. The notion that the whole thing was some wild-eyed scheme hatched by Oliver North and John Poindexter has always required you to believe 15 impossible things before breakfast.
But it has been like pulling teeth for Walsh to get even that much on the record. So why bother?
The answer is that a society governed by law has no option but to learn as much as possible about how far the illegality extended. Although Reagan administration officials scoffed at the Boland amendment prohibiting U.S. aid to the contras at the time, it was the law and it was broken. The only questions are (1) who broke it? and (2) what other laws were broken in covering up the original illegality?
In the first instance, Fiers' admission of guilt leads to obvious questions about several others who were questioned by Congress, as was Fiers, and insisted they really didn't know what was happening. The first on that list is Clair George, the CIA's deputy director for operations at the time, whom Fiers has named. But there are other bigger fish about whom new questions arise.
One clearly is Robert M. Gates, whom President Bush has nominated for director of central intelligence. At the time the scandal broke, Gates was the deputy director, second in command to the late William J. Casey, and the immediate superior of George. If Casey and George both were fully aware of the scheme, how was Gates kept in the dark? And if so, why would they do that?
Another central figure is Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs at the time and perhaps the leading champion of the contras within the administration. Like Fiers, he testified that he didn't know about the illegal diversion of money to the contras until it was disclosed by then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese in November of 1986. Fiers now says that his testimony was false and that he had known since the early spring of 1986. In light of the fact that Abrams met frequently with both North and Fiers as members of an interagency task force on Central America, how did he avoid knowing about the diversion of money?
Then there is Donald Gregg, the ex-CIA man who was national security adviser to Vice President George Bush and was later rewarded by Bush with a plum appointment as ambassador to South Korea. He, too, denied knowing about the contra supply operation although he was in frequent contact with North and with a longtime CIA associate, Felix Rodriguez, who was directly and heavily involved in the operation. The Gregg connection, if any, is the one that is most politically touchy because it once again raises questions about whether Bush himself, as vice president, was kept in the dark about the whole thing, as he always has insisted.
There is, of course, no assurance that further inquiries by Walsh or Fiers' testimony to a grand jury will resolve these ambiguities about the Iran-contra business. But the deal made with Fiers -- he was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanors rather than face felony counts -- may open the whole can of worms.
There are precedents. Early in 1973 the Nixon White House seemed to be successfully stonewalling the prosecution of the Watergate affair until James McCord, one of those convicted of the original break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, wrote an extraordinary letter to Judge John J. Sirica -- a letter in which he disclosed that the Watergate burglars had perjured themselves as part of a White House cover-up. As Sirica later wrote of the letter: "This was just the beginning of the end. But there was no stopping it."
At this point, there is no reason to believe Fiers' plea bargain has similar apocalyptic implications. But Lawrence Walsh should find out.