Iran-contra scandal enters its final act

December 28, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- George Bush and Lawrence E. Walsh, two o the government's more improbable gladiators, are slugging it out publicly in an angry -- and very unusual -- Washington spectacle. The capital city has not seen the likes of it in nearly 20 years, not since the "Saturday night massacre" of 1973, when a harried president fired his pursuer, the Watergate prosecutor.

But what is going on is not likely to become a constitutional crisis, as it did then.

And what is happening now probably will not make as much history, as the noise level suggests.

Mr. Bush, who has had to work hard to prove he could be truly combative, and special Iran-contra prosecutor Walsh, who for decades has been so courtly as to be thought incapable of a temper tantrum, have been spending the season of holiday good cheer in political pugilistics.

But there is no prospect that Mr. Bush will be hauled involuntarily before a grand jury, no prospect that Mr. Walsh will make a case that the president is guilty of anything that should have driven him from office, and very little prospect of any great new revelations about what Mr. Bush did or did not do as vice president during the Iran-contra operation.

The president's Christmas Eve pardons, with a stinging rebuke of Mr. Walsh, and the prosecutor's effort in response to pile shame upon Mr. Bush, appear to be but the last gasps of the

Iran-contra scandal as a topic for political recrimination.

Next month, the president will leave office without being in the dock as a witness or as an accused, and Mr. Walsh will spend his 81st birthday contemplating the final windup of his six-year probe of the Iran-contra affair.

After being nettled for years by whispers that he knew more about the illegal arms-for-hostages deals than he had let on and after months of Republican pressures to do something to stop Mr. Walsh's investigative juggernaut, Mr. Bush snatched away the prized prosecution that Mr. Walsh and his staff had been readying as their final act.

His pardons, which even Mr. Walsh readily concedes were unchallengeably legal, may well have scuttled the prosecutor's long-term ambition to prove that there was a massive, and very high-level, Reagan administration plot to cover up the worst parts of the scandal.

The planned trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had held enormous promise for offering that proof, as Mr. Walsh and his staff saw it.

He has long held the absolute conviction that there was what he calls "a pattern of deceit" at the top of President Ronald Reagan's government, and he has spent years in the pursuit of evidence to prove that "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- the legal ** standard he had to meet.

A man who learned a long time ago, as a youthful investigator of corruption for New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, how to go after scandal tenaciously, Mr. Walsh has been as dogged in pursuit of the Iran-contra affair.

He conceded yesterday in an interview that what he has been doing for six years "can look like a very stubborn operation." He admitted that he has frequently thought about having gone too far.

He said he almost gave it up, near the very beginning, when Congress decided to grant legal immunity to key scandal figures Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, but then he chose to push on. He almost gave it up again, after Mr. North and then Mr. Poindexter were convicted, thinking maybe he should leave it at that.

But he was rejuvenated with the discovery of Mr. Weinberger's personal diary with its provocative entries allegedly showing that everyone at the top of the government -- including Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush -- knew that they were dealing illegally with Iran. When Mr. Weinberger refused to cooperate, he was charged with being a part of the cover-up. "He put himself in the box," Mr. Walsh said yesterday.

That was the breakthrough Mr. Walsh had sought. And, as it turned out, that also was the beginning of the downfall.

The time he had taken (then approaching six years) and the money he had spent (rising above $35 million) had been getting him into deeper and deeper political trouble, with Republicans in particular. "It gave them an easy line of attack," he recalled yesterday.

But, he said, what he had been getting was only "a lot of grumbling." Then, he said, "the vehemence [against me] sharply escalated after the Weinberger indictment."

With the Weinberger trial set to start Jan. 5, he began hearing more talk of a pardon. He thought, he said, it would never occur. "I didn't fully recognize that the attacks on me, on [deputy Craig] Gillen, on our office as a buildup to a pardon."

He refused to believe, Mr. Walsh said, that Mr. Bush himself would see "some political need to attack me." He suggested he did not see a need for that even after a substitute Weinberger indictment, released four days before the election, cast new doubt on Mr. Bush's public version of his non-role in the scandal.

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