Bush hires lawyer for Iran-contra Ex-attorney general to represent him

December 31, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush hired former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell yesterday to handle any dealings he may have with the continuing criminal investigation into the Iran-contra scandal.

Mr. Bell, a former federal judge, is an Atlanta lawyer known for his skill at negotiating in difficult situations.

The disclosure came after the president defended his decision to pardon former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other Iran-contra figures. He called the pardons a "very difficult call," but one he clearly had the power to make.

By hiring a lawyer, Mr. Bush did not necessarily convey concern about his legal future. Former President Ronald Reagan has had a private lawyer for years handling continuing dealings with the xTC Iran-contra investigation, and Mr. Reagan has never been threatened seriously with the possibility of criminal charges. As Mr. Bush's attorney, Mr. Bell is to have two legal assignments, according to the White House:

First, he will try to persuade Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent special prosecutor in the Iran-contra affair, to publicly release the transcript of Mr. Bush's sworn, five-hour question-and-answer session with investigators in January 1988. Mr. Bush wants the transcript released as part of his effort to show he has nothing to hide.

The White House said yesterday that Mr. Walsh refused Tuesday to give the president a copy of the transcript. Mr. Walsh's office said he had refused only "at this time," and would continue to keep the president's request in mind.

Second, Mr. Bell is to provide legal help for the president once he is out of office, should any need for that arise as Mr. Walsh's six-year probe winds toward a conclusion in the coming months.

The special prosecutor said the president is not now at risk of being charged with any crimes connected to the illegal arms sales to Iraq and the illegal supplies of arms to anti-government contras in Nicaragua.

Mr. Walsh has said, though, that Mr. Bush became a "subject" of his investigation on Dec. 11 when the prosecutor learned that the president had kept a diary in late 1988 as the scandal was beginning to unfold. Mr. Walsh said that entries in that diary may bear upon his investigation.

The White House notified prosecutors of the existence of that diary, and was continuing to supply parts of it to Mr. Walsh yesterday. "The production is still ongoing," an aide to Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Bush's new lawyer is a Democrat who served as attorney general in the administration of fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Bell, an old friend of Mr. Bush, publicly supported the president for re-election over Democrat Bill Clinton. In another controversial endorsement, Mr. Bell supported former President Reagan's doomed nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court.

Reacting to the hiring of Mr. Bell, the special prosecutor said: "I'm glad the president will have the advice of an able lawyer who understands both litigation and the rule of law."

Mr. Bell's recruitment brings him back in touch with the Iran-contra affair for a second time. In 1987, Mr. Bell negotiated the release of Eugene Hasenfus, an American mercenary convicted of helping to supply arms to the anti-government contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Mr. Hasenfus, a soldier of fortune recruited to aid the contras, survived when his plane was shot down inside Nicaragua in October 1986. The downing of that plane was one of the key incidents that first brought the Iran-contra scandal to light.

Before departing for Somalia yesterday, Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House that Christmas Eve pardons should not appear to have put any government official above the law.

"Nobody is above the law," he said, "and I believe when people break the law that's a bad thing." He said he had read "some stupid comment to the contrary."

The president did not say, however, whether he thought anyone had broken the law during the scandal that plagued the final years of the Reagan presidency and that has dogged his own years in the White House.

Since his Christmas Eve proclamation pardoning Mr. Weinberger and five others, Mr. Bush has been under almost continuous attack from Mr. Walsh and Democratic members of Congress.

Yesterday, it appeared that a sizable segment of Americans also were troubled about the pardons. A USA Today-CNN Gallup Poll found that the public disapproved of the pardons by a margin of 54 percent to 27 percent.

Forty-nine percent said they thought the president had acted "to protect himself from legal difficulties or embarrassment for his own role in Iran-contra." Mr. Walsh has publicly said this was the motive for the pardons.

In his brief exchange with reporters, the president firmly defended his own record of public service, commenting:

"I've read some rather frivolous reporting that I don't care about the law. I pride myself on 25 or more years of public service, of serving honorably, decently, and with my integrity intact. And certainly I wouldn't feel that way if I had a lack of respect for the law. And I don't think there is one single thing in my career that could lead anybody to look at my record and make a statement of that nature."

The furor over the pardons appeared to have abated somewhat here, although Mr. Weinberger continued to make the rounds of television talk shows to defend himself and the pardons.

At the special prosecutor's office, Mr. Walsh reportedly met with his staff to assess what remains of their investigation now that all pending cases have been scuttled by the pardons.

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