WASHINGTON -- The finale is now being readied in the long-running drama of a special prosecutor's criminal probe of the Iran-contra scandal, with no sign that former President Ronald Reagan will be the tragic figure in the last act.
But there may yet be an unexpected plot twist: As a result of the nearly six-year-long investigation, there may never be another independent prosecutor with powers to equal those of Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.
Mr. Reagan will have to endure a sharp volley of criticism in the Walsh final report, later this year, though that is now expected to be less scathing than it would have been as recently as a year ago. But the former president apparently runs no risk of going to jail, or even to trial, and President Bush, vice president during the scandal, might escape criticism altogether.
Among the outcomes now anticipated, when the $31.4 million Walsh investigation at last closes down, will be one that Mr. Walsh did not intend and few in official Washington genuinely expected: the whole idea of special prosecutors with full independence may be cast aside, perhaps permanently.
Congress, unable to salvage the special prosecutor law in a way that President Bush would accept, is thinking seriously about letting the law expire at the close of this calendar year -- meaning that, for the first time since 1978, no criminal probe of scandal in high places in government could be done by anyone but the government itself.
other words, one of the principal "reform" laws adopted by Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon will die -- at least for an interim period.
It may be quite difficult to revive, and Capitol Hill sources say that any revival would have to be accompanied by new limits: No future prosecutor would ever have the open-ended budget, the unlimited time, and the totally free hand that Mr. Walsh has had.
Although there is still talk among congressional Democrats of an attempt to keep the special prosecutor law on the books for a brief extension beyond Dec. 31, that reportedly represents a VTC distinctly minority view on Capitol Hill. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a key Senate sponsor of the extension idea, is ready to start moving, but on the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Tom Foley has said he wants to put the whole matter off until next year.
When the law does go out of existence, Mr. Walsh's enduring and very expensive investigation of the Iran-contra affair probably will get most, if not all, of the blame.
No one, including Mr. Walsh, expected so much time or money to be spent on the probe he started in December 1986 into the secret plot to sell U.S. arms to Iraq in exchange for American hostages, and the shift of some of those arms sales profits to buy arms for the anti-communist "contra" rebels in Nicaragua.
The prosecutor's hunt for crimes in the scandal that shook the Reagan presidency has now reached the point that a good deal of official Washington is no longer so sure that independent prosecutors could ever be held in check effectively.
Congress is moving forward with an angry demand -- initiated by Republicans, but not resisted by Democrats -- for a report by the end of the year from its auditing agency, the General Accounting Office, on exactly how much Mr. Walsh has spent. The results surely will be used to make the case that no prosecutor should ever be turned as loose as Mr. Walsh was.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas persuaded the Senate to endorse the GAO report idea unanimously on Monday, after complaining of the "never-ending Iran-contra investigation" and of Mr. Walsh's "inability to understand the simple fact that it is time to leave Iran-contra to the history books."
As much as the time and money spent riles the Walsh critics, they also fret openly that Mr. Walsh constantly retains the opportunity to stir up anxiety about new indictments lurking in the background. The surprise criminal charges against ex-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in mid-June, making him the first Cabinet officer to be indicted in the scandal, is cited as proof that no one from the Reagan era is yet safe from the Walsh reach.
The reaction to the Weinberger indictment was so harsh on Capitol Hill that Mr. Walsh felt obliged to send up a seven-page explanation and justification for his probe, including a promise to be done by "this summer."
Washington is quick to believe speculation that more indictments are coming -- although knowledgeable sources indicate that is less than a 50-50 prospect at this point. The latest flurry of excitement over the Walsh probe came last weekend, when the Washington Post reported that Mr. Reagan and three of his former top aides -- Edwin W. Meese III, his attorney general; George P. Shultz, his secretary of state, and Donald T. Regan, his White House chief of staff -- might face criminal charges.