Walsh turns spotlight on Bush Prosecutor to examine notes for evidence of cover-up

December 26, 1992|By Aaron Epstein and Owen Ullmann | Aaron Epstein and Owen Ullmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Instead of turning out the lights on the Iran-contra scandal, President Bush found yesterday that his Christmas Eve pardons of six Reagan administration defendants had turned the investigative spotlight on him.

Independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, who has called the pardons "an arrogant disdain for the rule of law" and who declared Thursday that Mr. Bush was "the subject now of our investigation," said in an interview yesterday that he was examining Mr. Bush's personal notes from 1985 to 1988 for evidence of a cover-up at the highest levels of government.

"We've got to evaluate what we've got. . . . We asked for all his notes, and we thought we had them. We were surprised when additional notes were turned over to us on Dec. 11," said Mr. Walsh, who added that there were still gaps in the notes.

A source close to the investigation said yesterday that prosecutors planned to question Mr. Bush about why he failed to turn over the notes, the Associated Press reported. Mr. Walsh's office had planned to interview Mr. Bush but put it off until after the Nov. 3 election -- and now Iran-contra investigators "will want to talk to Bush in detail about these latest matters," said the source.

There was no comment yesterday from Mr. Bush, who was spending the holidays at Camp David, Md., with his family.

Mr. Walsh said that by issuing the pardons, the president might have wanted to avoid being called as a defense witness -- and facing cross-examination by prosecutors -- at the now-canceled trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

"That's a possible explanation," Mr. Walsh said.

The Weinberger trial would have provided "new light on the cover-ups" and the role played by "President Reagan and other Cabinet members," Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Walsh had charged the Iran-contra defendants with lying to Congress to cover up clandestine efforts in the administration of President Ronald Reagan to sell weapons to Iran and use the profits to furnish military supplies to Nicaraguan rebels despite a congressional ban on such aid.

"If he [Mr. Bush] had something to hide, he would have been less likely to grant a pardon," countered A. B. Culvahouse, who went to the White House as Mr. Reagan's legal counsel after the scandal broke. "As we've just seen, that only draws more attention."

Legal experts said the pardons, while appearing to close doors on Mr. Walsh, actually gave him new latitude to pursue his investigation to the highest level of government.

They said Mr. Walsh now could more effectively summon Mr. Weinberger and other pardoned witnesses before a grand jury to ask them about the Iran-contra activities of Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan. Those who were pardoned would be unable to claim a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination for past conduct.

Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University, said, "Weinberger and the others can't plead self-incrimination because they can't incriminate themselves. If they lie, they could be charged with perjury. But if they plead a lack of memory, there is nothing Walsh could do about it."

Mr. Walsh said the White House had failed to furnish all of Mr. Bush's notes to investigators despite repeated requests.

One of Mr. Walsh's assistants, James Brosnahan, who was to prosecute Mr. Weinberger at a trial next month, said earlier, "When you get the secretary of defense and a vice president who is now president withholding notes on a subject, you can assume it is because they view it as terribly serious -- and that's what happened in this case."

Several current and former White House officials denied that Mr. Bush withheld notes germane to the Iran-contra affair.

One former official said Mr. Bush had given Mr. Walsh all relevant notes in 1987. But Mr. Walsh wants "to see everything from a certain time period [1985-87] even if the documents have nothing to do with Iran-contra," the official said.

That is untrue, Mr. Walsh replied. "The notes we just received are relevant to Iran-contra," he said.

A current White House official, who asked not to be identified, said the notes Mr. Bush retained dealt with "other topics." Still, the official said, the president is willing "to cooperate and turn everything over."

Late yesterday, Mr. Walsh was still upset by the pardons. "I did not think he would do it," he said. "I didn't think he would want to go out of office with anything that looks sordid."

The pardons are intensifying the controversy over Mr. Walsh and the law that authorizes special prosecutors. Congress permitted the statute to expire Dec. 15 but will reconsider it in the next session. President-elect Bill Clinton supports such a law.

The law was motivated by President Richard M. Nixon's firing of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. It placed responsibility for investigating high-level misconduct in the hands of a court-appointed prosecutor who is beyond the control of the president or his Justice Department.

Mr. Bush and other Republicans have charged that Mr. Walsh has become a runaway prosecutor, pursuing a politically motivated investigation without legislative deadlines or budget limitations. Mr. Walsh's Iran-contra inquiry has lasted six years and consumed $31 million.

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