Walsh ends probe of Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal

September 18, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After five years and nine months, the special Iran-contra prosecutor shut down yesterday his criminal investigation of the scandal that nearly wrecked the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The action by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh erased any possibility that President Bush's role as vice president when the scandal was developing in the mid-1980s would be probed in detail by a federal grand jury.

Since Mr. Walsh's final official report on his investigation is not likely to be filed for several more weeks, at least, Mr. Bush also will be spared the chance of being criticized publicly by the prosecutor before the November election.

A court document filed recently by aides to the prosecutor raised some doubt about Mr. Bush's longtime claim that he had been "out of the loop" when the Reagan administration was secretly selling arms to Iran and supplying arms to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.

The Iran arms deals were intended to obtain the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon -- at a time when Mr. Reagan was saying publicly that no deals would be made for the freedom of those hostages.

The Nicaraguan arms transfers were carried out during a time such transactions were outlawed by Congress.

When the scandal became known publicly in late 1986, Mr. Reagan's top aides feared that he might be impeached.

At several points since then, it had appeared that Mr. Walsh might pursue criminal charges against Mr. Reagan himself, but that idea was dropped several weeks ago.

With the end of the probe, two other potential targets of charges -- former Attorney General Edwin Meese and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz -- seemed to have been exonerated, except for some criticism that could come in the final Walsh report.

Prosecutor Walsh, who so far has spent nearly $33 million on the investigation, told a federal court and the Justice Department in separate letters yesterday that three criminal trials already planned will go ahead, but that no one else will be investigated by the grand jury.

Although the prosecutor left himself the option of reopening his probe if something more turned up during those planned trials, further criminal charges appear to be unlikely.

Because of the length of his probe, and the cost, Mr. Walsh has drawn strong criticism in Congress, and has raised serious doubts about Congress' willingness to renew later this year the law under which such prosecutors are named.

Among the trials Mr. Walsh's staff still are readying is the case against former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the highest official of the Reagan administration to be charged with a crime stemming from the scandal. He is to go on trial here Jan. 5.

The Weinberger case is similar to most cases that Mr. Walsh and his staff have pursued: It focuses on an alleged high-level attempt in the Reagan government to cover up the scandal after it broke into public view late in November 1986.

Mr. Walsh began his probe in December of that year with the strong expectation that he could prove that the Iran arms sales and the Nicaragua rebel arms supply network were themselves crimes under U.S. law.

But when controversies over use at criminal trials of secret government documents scuttled the effort to show that the arms deals themselves were illegal, Mr. Walsh switched his focus to what he has called a "pattern of deceit" at the highest levels of the Reagan government to cover up those transactions by hiding details or by making denials to investigators in and out of Congress.

Mr. Walsh's most significant victories in court trials, the convictions of former White House national security adviser John M. Poindexter and former White House secret operative Oliver L. North for roles in the alleged cover-up plot, have been thrown out by appeals courts.

The North case is at an end, but Mr. Walsh still plans an appeal to the Supreme Court to try to get the Poindexter conviction reinstated.

Overall, the Iran-contra investigation has led to three guilty verdicts after trials, one hung jury after a trial, seven guilty pleas, and dismissal of one case. Only one individual, former CIA official Thomas G. Clines, has gone to jail, after a tax-evasion conviction.

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