Ethical manure

Leslie H. Gelb

December 29, 1992|By Leslie H. Gelb

MY problem with President Bush's self-described act o "honor, decency and fairness" is not that he pardoned a clatch of ex-officials involved in the Iran-contra affair, but that he pardoned their crimes.

I might well have pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the others myself. And if I were Bill Clinton, I would pardon George Bush in advance of any charges, and quickly, just to put this unseemly mess behind us and get on with the task of reconstructing America.

But first, our leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, must make clear to Americans that the crimes committed were crimes -- and not, as Mr. Bush called them, acts of "patriotism." Nor were the prosecutions based merely on "policy differences" between Congress and the executive. Unless this distinction is vivid for us all, we cast aside at our peril the core issue of democratic government -- the accountability of public officials to the law.

I don't want to reduce what Reagan-Bush officials did during the Iran-contra episode to fine points of law. The issue is a common-sense one of right and wrong and public trust.

In its simplest form, the deal was this: The Reagan-Bush team helped sell arms to Iran in return for the release of Americans held hostage by Iran's allies in Lebanon. The team used proceeds from the sales and "donations" solicited from third countries to arm Nicaraguan rebels, or contras, in their fight against the communist government of Nicaragua.

The Iran half of this melodrama violated the spirit and/or letter of laws banning the trafficking in arms with a terrorist state. And Iran had been designated as a terrorist state under the law. The deal also broke the spirit and/or letter of a law that requires congressional approval of arms sales to any state. The administration never notified Congress of the transaction, so Congress never approved it. President Reagan's approval of these acts in no way substituted for congressional authorization.

The Nicaraguan part of the scheme violated a law expressly forbidding the transfer of arms to the contras. The administration contended that the ban applied only to government "departments or agencies," and not specifically to the president's National Security Council staff. Huh? Huh? The Reagan-Bush team also clearly circumvented the law's intent by soliciting money from other countries to buy arms for the contras.

After all these acts were publicly exposed, the Reagan-Bush team committed other crimes such as lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Oliver North of the NSC staff lied under oath to Congress and destroyed evidence. Remember his secretary, Fawn Hall, who put secret documents in her boots and underwear to get them out of the White House before FBI investigators closed in? Several CIA operatives also lied under oath to congressional committees about what they knew and what had been going on. Mr. Weinberger denied under oath having notes pertaining to the Iran-contra transactions. He lied.

These acts were all committed with obvious intent to deny XTC evidence to and impede the investigations of lawfully constituted bodies. If the criminality is not clear, then we might as well abandon all efforts at human communication and return to prehistoric grunting.

Mr. Bush, in his pardon proclamation, resorted to post-modernistic ethical manure. For all intents and purposes, he decriminalized acts committed in the name of patriotism, so long as the patriots sought no personal financial gain.

No kidding. Here's how he justified pardoning five of his fellow officials: "First, the common denominator of their motivation -- whether their actions were right or wrong -- was patriotism. Second, they did not profit or seek to profit from their conduct." Catch that "whether their actions were right or wrong."

Then, without so much as wagging a finger at these "patriots," Mr. Bush went on to attack the prosecutors "for the criminalization of policy differences." Breaking laws on arms sales and dealing with terrorists, mere "policy differences"?

What that really means is "mere laws" and "mere democracy" to the self-proclaimed patriots who think they are above the people's laws.

Leslie H. Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times.

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