Iran-contra cover-up went to top, Walsh says

January 19, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Seven years after starting the Iran-contra probe, the special prosecutor formally ended it yesterday by concluding that President Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush committed no provable crimes but played willing roles in a culture of deceit that led to a criminal cover-up.

Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, in a 566-page report that provoked more than a thousand pages of sometimes blistering responses from those named, said the scandal that started to unravel in the fall of 1986 reached to the very top of the government.

The affair, he said, had four main parts: illegal sales of arms to Iran in a hoped-for swap for U.S. hostages, illegal secret aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, illegal use of proceeds of the Iranian arms sales to buy weapons for the contras, and then an illegal, high-level cover-up to protect Mr. Reagan when the scandal broke.

Specifically rejecting the conclusion of congressional investigators six years ago that the affair was the doing of a handful of middle- and lower-level aides acting on their own, the special prosecutor summed up the main finding of his $37.7 million investigation:

The few named by Congress "were not out-of-control mavericks who acted alone without the knowledge or assistance of others." They "kept their superiors -- including Reagan, Bush, [Secretary of State George] Shultz, [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger and other high officials -- informed . . . and their superiors either condoned or turned a blind eye to them."

Citing his conclusion that there was an attempt to cover up the affair after it became public, Mr. Walsh said Mr. Reagan "knowingly participated or at least acquiesced in the efforts" of his aides "to minimize or hide" the president's role.

At a news conference here, Mr. Walsh said he had never "come close" to seeking a criminal charge against Mr. Reagan, even though the report several times suggests that the president "skirted" the law.

Still, Mr. Walsh told reporters that Congress "certainly should have . . . considered" impeaching Mr. Reagan. He also criticized the congressional investigating panels for failing to question Mr. Reagan or Mr. Bush, saying the committees "went off on the theory of a runaway conspiracy, which proved to be an unsound thesis."

Volumes of detail

The one-volume Walsh report plus a 785-page volume of background documents offered a vast array of details, and quotes at length from previously secret diaries and personal notes, and from secret grand jury testimony. A third volume contained responses by those named.

Finished in August, the report was not released until yesterday because of a fight over Mr. Walsh's right to make the report public.

The report became as controversial as the probe itself, which was the longest and costliest ever conducted by a special prosecutor.

Mr. Reagan, in a 122-page answer, angrily accused the special prosecutor of concocting a "preposterous" theory of a cover-up and said the final report "is several hundred thousand words wrong." He said Mr. Walsh had become "vindictive" and had "used his office to harass individuals and otherwise to damage the lives of the persons he was given license to investigate."

The special prosecutor's report also lambasted Mr. Bush, though it acknowledged that the probe "did not develop evidence" that would prove the then-vice president broke any criminal law. But Mr. Walsh strongly implied that President Bush actively obstructed the final stages of the probe in 1992 by failing to disclose a private diary he kept after the scandal became public. The president turned the diary over to Mr. Walsh after an aide inadvertently revealed its existence a month after the 1992 election.

"The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete," the report commented.

Pardons assailed

In the report and at his press conference, the special prosecutor also harshly criticized President Bush for issuing a series of Christmas Eve pardons in 1992 -- a move that Mr. Walsh blames for scuttling the rest of his work and forcing him to abandon any possible charges against Mr. Bush himself.

Yesterday, he told reporters that "there was no excuse for the pardon. . . . I think that was the most unjustifiable act."

Mr. Bush's lawyer, former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, filed a 32-page report which accused Mr. Walsh of running an investigation that was "biased . . . from the beginning" because it was an attempt to criminalize what amounted to a foreign policy dispute between the White House and Congress.

While most of those identified in the report have left Washington or otherwise passed from the scene, one of the key figures in the scandal -- former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North -- is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat from Virginia. The report devoted a chapter to Mr. North's criminal conviction -- later overturned on appeal -- but adds little new. Mr. North did not offer a reply to the final report.

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