We suspect President Bush will be harmed by his decision to pardon Caspar Weinberger and others of the Iran-contra players. Many Americans and historians will no doubt believe he did it out of selfish, protective motive. But we also believe Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh harmed his own reputation by saying petulantly on national television that President Bush had become "a subject" of his investigation into Iran-contra.
Mr. Walsh's reputation was already in shreds. He was appointed primarily to find out if criminal acts were committed in (1) the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran and (2) the use of profits from that deal to assist the Nicaraguan contras. After six years, all he has done is prove that a number of members of the Reagan administration broke laws dealing with not telling Congress and Mr. Walsh's probers the whole truth about (1) and (2) during and after the fact. He hasn't even accused anyone of violating laws on the central issues.
Even Caspar Weinberger's famous notes -- said at one time to be the equivalent of the Watergate tapes -- yielded Mr. Walsh no evidence to charge anyone with criminality in swapping arms for hostages or aiding the contras. Instead,, he claimed grounds for charging Mr. Weinberger with lying about his knowledge of the arms deal and about whether he kept notes on related meetings.
We believe executive branch officials should be prosecuted for lying to Congress and to law enforcement officials. 18 U.S. Code Sec. 1001 makes even unsworn false statements to Congress a felony. But if that's all a six-year probe into suspected high crimes in the Reagan White House can come up with, something is wrong. (Ironically, as a direct result of Mr. Walsh's activities, an appellate court has ruled that being dishonest with Congress is not in and of itself a crime.)
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan says he will begin hearings soon regarding reinstating the independent counsel law. It expired this month. Those hearings should focus on the Iran-contra independent counsel experience. If there is to be an independent counsel in the future, the law governing the office should make sure such excess as this is not possible. There needs to be a degree more of executive and/or congressional control and more active judicial oversight of independent counsels. What went wrong in this investigation was an excess of independence and not enough accountability.
The main thing needed now is to put behind the nation this whole sordid Iran-contra affair, in which no one -- not the Reagan administration, not Congress, not the independent counsel -- has performed admirably. If Democrats in Congress try to prolong the agony for partisan reasons, President Bill Clinton ought to remind them in no uncertain terms that he -- and they -- were elected in 1992 to start thinking about this country's tomorrows, and especially its economy. Yesterday's gone.