Court orders release of Iran-contra report

January 08, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court yesterday ordered the prompt release of the final report on the Iran-contra scandal, despite the still-secret report's broad accusations of crime by high Reagan administration officials -- including crimes not charged or prosecuted.

Pointedly divorcing itself from anything in the report by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, the three-judge panel said that lawyers for former President Ronald Reagan and others had made "a strong argument" that their rights would be violated by the report's disclosure.

While the court's 29-page opinion left no doubt of the judges' discomfort with the report's contents, the panel concluded that the more important factor was that "the public interest will be served by actual disclosure." It said "a greater unfairness" would be to leave the public only with speculation and leaks about what it is in the report rather than with "the actual report" itself, plus the accused officials' responses that are to be included.

The report, it said, is "rife with accusations of guilt or criminal conduct against persons never indicted or convicted." It is unclear whether the report specifically accuses Mr. Reagan or former President George Bush -- who was vice president as the scandal developed -- of specific crimes, but it is known to be highly critical of both of them.

The court did say that the report names specific officials in the administration and says they were guilty of a cover-up plot and of attempts to "obstruct justice." The court also said the report claims that some officials were "factually guilty" even though their convictions were overturned in court appeals -- an apparent reference to former White House aide Oliver L. North and his National Security Council boss, former Adm. John M. Poindexter.

Only the Supreme Court now could stop public disclosure of the highly critical final judgments by Mr. Walsh, and lawyers for former government leaders are expected to ask the justices to do just that. Those lawyers did not return telephone calls yesterday. In the past, many of those officials or their spokesmen have insisted they broke no laws or were in fact exonerated in the courts.

The appeals court gave all sides that have been warring over release of the report 10 days to go on to the Supreme Court. Thus, the earliest the report could come out would be the week after next. But, if the justices have not acted

within the 10-day span, another delay will be ordered, the judges said.

Mr. Walsh, who began his $36 million probe of the scandal more than seven years ago, finished his report in early August. It reportedly is a three-volume verbal assault on officials from Mr. Reagan on down, for their roles in the sales of arms to Iran in exchange for release of U.S. hostages, and diversion of some of the profits to arm the anti-Communist contras in Nicaragua.

The report has been kept under the court's seal since August because of the dispute over whether any of it should be released.

The three-judge court has twice refused to block the report's ultimate release, but it did order Mr. Walsh last month to do nothing more than physically prepare the document for release, along with an appendix that lets those who are criticized give their side. Mr. Walsh has been barred from answering the challengers.

Some former officials wanted the court to suppress the document altogether, but all of their specific requests for help from the court have themselves been kept secret, and the court maintained that cloak yesterday. It turned down news organizations' requests to see the challengers' legal papers.

The court's opinion summarized the challengers' key arguments, including the claim that they will stand accused of crimes without a grand jury's judgment on whether they should be charged and without a trial at which prosecutors would have had to prove guilt.

The challengers, it added, also have voiced fear that the report would come out with the appeal court's "imprimatur." But, the three judges stressed, they were doing everything they could to wipe out any such impression.

"The independent counsel does not operate under our supervision and his acts, including the writing of the report, do not bear our aegis," it said, adding that any accusation of crimes by persons not prosecuted or not convicted "is no more than the personal opinion" of Mr. Walsh "and it does not gain any heightened stature by being released under the order of this court."

The court noted that there have been leaks of some of the report's broader accusations against top officials, and that Mr. Walsh himself has said what he would report in the end. Those public discussions, the panel said, were "more unfair" to the individuals named than the report itself with the individuals' replies to the accusations included.

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