Bush pardons Weinberger, 5 others in Iran-contra Walsh says move completes 'cover-up,' alleges president withholds evidence

December 25, 1992|By Lyle Denniston and Karen Hosler | Lyle Denniston and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush made a bold post-electio political gesture and removed a legal thorn from his own side yesterday by pardoning former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger -- a move aimed at putting a dramatic end to the six-year criminal probe of the Iran-contra scandal.

His Christmas Eve pardon of Mr. Weinberger and five other Reagan administration officials immediately brought a new charge of wrongdoing against Mr. Bush himself.

Lawrence E. Walsh, the chief prosecutor of the scandal, reacted to the pardons by saying the president "has now completed . . . the Iran-contra cover-up."

Mr. Walsh accused the president of "misconduct" by failing to give investigators his own notes from the period of the scandal, when Mr. Bush was vice president. Those notes, the prosecutor said, are "highly relevant."

Without saying what he would do, Mr. Walsh said there would be "appropriate action" involving the Bush notes. Since the president's order yesterday did nothing to oust Mr. Walsh from his post, he conceivably could act against Mr. Bush directly.

In addition to Mr. Weinberger, the pardon order also covered five others from the Reagan administration for anything they may have done in the scandal.

They include Robert C. McFarlane, former White House national security adviser; Elliot Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and Clair George, former chief of CIA spy operations.

Mr. Bush said all six officials had been motivated by patriotism, not criminality.

To a degree, the president appeared to be trying to get even with Mr. Walsh, whom Mr. Bush had blamed for conducting a "big witch hunt" and whom Bush aides had excoriated for what they believed to be repeated political acts against Mr. Bush, former President Ronald Reagan and Republicans in general.

Mr. Weinberger used the pardon to lambaste Mr. Walsh as a "runaway prosecutor . . . accountable to no one" who had spared "no effort and no amount of money" to "try to convict me." He said the prosecutor's office had been engaged in "lawlessness and vindictiveness" and had made a "dismal record."

The president's action, which until a few days ago had seemed very unlikely, will have an uncertain impact on Mr. Walsh's probe. He has no deadline on his work, although he has said that he

would not ask a grand jury to issue any more criminal charges. He may decide to do little more than shut down his $35 million-plus probe and issue a final report.

That report, due by May but possibly earlier, is expected to be a blistering summation of the Reagan administration's secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran and the illegal arming of anti-communist contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Mr. Bush made no mention yesterday of nine others who at one time or another have been accused of crime as the scandal unfolded.

Three of those others -- including the famous White House aide at the center of the scandal, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North -- had no need of a pardon because charges against them had been dismissed.

Although Mr. Bush did not mention politics directly in the three-page proclamation, much of the pressure he has received in favor of the pardons has come from GOP leaders and political aides seeking to retaliate for what they saw as blatant political maneuvering by Mr. Walsh.

Support for clemency came early from Vice President Dan Quayle, who considered the prosecution a "political joke," according to one administration official.

Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate minority leader, also made a strong pitch for the Weinberger pardon, and C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, was very much in favor of it, officials said.

Sources close to Mr. Weinberger made it clear that they expected the political argument to carry the most weight with Mr. Bush.

The core of that argument was that the prosecutor may have hurt Mr. Bush's re-election chances by obtaining a last-minute indictment of Mr. Weinberger that undercut the president's past public statements minimizing his own role in the scandal.

The president's pardon order was written in such a way that he could not be accused of protecting himself from action by the special prosecutor. He did not pardon everyone involved -- directly or indirectly -- in the scandal, sparing only six from criminal responsibility.

Mr. Bush did seek to defuse any suggestion that he acted wrongly when he was vice president.

"No impartial person has seriously suggested that my own role in this matter is legally questionable," his statement said. He said he hoped to be able to release to the public his own, still-secret "sworn testimony" to the prosecutor.

The president could have faced added embarrassment about the scandal had the Weinberger case gone to trial in 12 days as scheduled. Testimony and documents expected to emerge in the courtroom seemed likely to further cast a negative light on Mr. Bush's role.

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