Probe to continue despite Bush offer to release notes Walsh asks why he was ever denied Iran-contra diary

December 27, 1992|By Karen Hosler and Lyle Denniston | Karen Hosler and Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The White House offered yesterday t release all of President Bush's personal notes related to the Iran-contra scandal, but that won't sidetrack a special prosecutor's probe into why the notes were withheld for so long, a spokeswoman for independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh said.

"The real issue is not what notes or records will be made public now," said the spokeswoman, Mary J. Belcher. "The real issue is why were the notes not produced five years ago when [Mr. Walsh] first asked for them and when they may have been of real value."

Mr. Bush, who has already been labeled a "subject" of Mr. Walsh's inquiry, could become a "target" facing possible criminal charges if the prosecutor finds evidence that he was involved in an attempt to conceal his role in the scandal.

But it was unclear yesterday whether a specter that has haunted Mr. Bush throughout his presidency would bring real harm during his final weeks in office or if the president and Mr. Walsh were simply acting out the final scenes of what has become a nasty personal feud.

The offer to release notes from a previously secret diary that Mr. Bush kept from 1986 to 1988 came as the White House scrambled to dispel charges that the president's Christmas Eve pardon of six Iran-contra defendants was part of an attempt to cover up his involvement in the scandal.

A White House spokesman said yesterday Mr. Bush would make public all of his notes as soon as a transcript of sworn testimony he gave in January 1988 was released to him.

The spokesman said Mr. Bush would also make public that transcript of the 1988 questioning by the independent counsel's office.

Bush aides appeared confident that simultaneous release of all the material would support Mr. Bush's long-held contention that he was "out of the loop" during plotting of the arms-for-hostages swap even though he served as vice president and sat in on many related meetings.

Ms. Belcher said there was no quid-pro-quo deal for simultaneous release of the material nor any negotiations under way. Mr. Walsh and his staff are scheduled to consider the matter early this week as they contemplate how to proceed in the wake of Thursday's pardons.

The prosecutor's staff is not certain that it would be legal to release the Bush testimony. It was part of their investigation before a grand jury, and all grand jury proceedings are required by law to be kept secret.

But Ms. Belcher argued that the tug-of-war over documents should not cloud the fact that the existence of Mr. Bush's notes had been kept secret for more than five years.

She described the president's withholding of the notes as "a serious matter" that would have been pursued whether or not the pardons had been granted and regardless of whether a deal is struck over public release of the diary material.

The partly handwritten notes became known to Mr. Walsh Dec. 11 when someone in the office of White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray announced their existence in a phone call, Ms. Belcher said.

Since then, the White House has been slowly turning over the documents to Mr. Walsh. As of yesterday, some gaps remained, the spokeswoman said.

By Mr. Walsh's reckoning, those documents have been overdue since 1987 when his office first asked top officials of Ronald Reagan's administration to turn over personal notes, tapes and other records related to the Iran-contra affair.

During interviews Thursday night, Mr. Walsh described the withholding of that material as the ultimate slap from a public official who had earlier described his investigation as "a witch hunt."

"I do not understand how such a reservoir of contemporaneous records could be withheld from the Congress and from us, but we will find out," he said on the ABC program "Nightline."

This criticism from Mr. Walsh doesn't come as a surprise, White House officials said.

"Walsh has been part of a partisan, political effort that's gone on for seven or eight years," one senior administration official said. "We didn't expect he would go quietly."

Mr. Bush's pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants was characterized by the president as not only as a humanitarian gesture but as an effort to right the wrongs of a prosecutor run amok.

He charged that Mr. Weinberger and the others were being punished by those who disagreed with the policies they were carrying out.

Besides trying to secure the release of hostages from Lebanon by selling weapons to Iran, the plotters illegally diverted profits from the arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels.

The Reagan administration had already lost the battle to aid the contras legally because of objections from the Democratic-led Congress.

Also pardoned were former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane and three former officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, Clair E. George, Alan D. Fiers Jr. and Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge.

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