Prosecutor ends long, costly probe with few doubts

January 20, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As 82-year-old Lawrence E. Walsh strides out of the limelight and back to Oklahoma this week, he suffers few real doubts that what he did in the seven-year, $37.7 million probe of the Iran-contra scandal was right.

This much-vilified special prosecutor only wishes he'd done more, faster and at less cost.

By oversimplified arithmetic, every one of the 11 convictions he got cost the taxpayers in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. And even Mr. Walsh sometimes describes his ultimate accomplishments modestly. His final report, he said as it was released Tuesday, "adds some new facts to the historic record. . . . I believe that justice was done to the extent it could be reasonably done."

But he has kept two presidents at bay since December 1986 and has pursued a truly globe-spanning investigation of one of Washington's biggest-ever scandals. When asked in an interview yesterday to assess his performance, he said simply: "Yes, I think I'm satisfied."

At the end, he concluded that President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush could not be prosecuted for crimes but that they had created the atmosphere that led others to lie to Congress and to other investigators in a widespread cover-up.

Mr. Walsh's massive and sometimes explosive final report has caused deep discomfort and searing anger, but what it does not do is apologize. Neither does Mr. Walsh. "Did I get into a wasteful undertaking?" he asked himself. "I don't think I did. Did I perhaps hang on to a pursuit that had turned unpromising? I don't think so."

Over and over, he has questioned how he has used the money and the time, wondering about the choices he made at the critical junctures -- "the judgment points," he calls them. He has answers for all of those questions, and together the answers add up to contentment.

In his career, he has been a federal judge, head of the American Bar Association, deputy attorney general, Vietnam peace treaty negotiator, and crime-buster with Gov. Thomas Dewey in New York a half-century ago. Compared with those, he said, he judges his performance as Iran-contra special prosecutor "pretty high -- it was not perfect. We felt we brought out a very large amount of what there was to know [about the scandal] -- and a lot more than people thought we would."

"Several of the others were less frustrating." The reason, he said, is that "I had control of those."

Much of the Iran-contra probe, he said, was shaped by control that others had: Congress, giving immunity to his key prosecution targets; the intelligence community, holding back secrets; the Justice Department, siding with his targets at times and frustrating his document demands at others; and President Bush, granting pardons on Christmas Eve 1992, putting an end to the last phase of the probe.

A publicly gentle and modest man Mr. Walsh is privately $H stubborn and can be verbally and tactically aggressive if he thinks he is being thwarted. And, he definitely thinks he was thwarted, repeatedly, over the past seven years.

Tomorrow, he goes home to Oklahoma City, leaving behind more political wounds than truly ruined public careers, a host of critics and not many defenders, and a legacy of promises by members of Congress never again to let a special prosecutor spend as much or take as long or have as much freedom to write a final report.

Limitations on money and time and scope of future probes of government scandal are written into the bill the Senate passed in November to revive the special prosecutor law -- the one that lapsed a year ago, mainly out of congressional frustration with Mr. Walsh.

Similar limitations are being planned for a House bill. There is no doubt that a prosecutor law will be renewed because of demands on Congress for an independent prosecutor to look into President and Mrs. Clinton's involvement in Whitewater Development Corp., an Arkansas land developer.

Although a special prosecutor not truly independent of the Justice Department will be named soon, perhaps even today, to examine the Whitewater affair, says Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a sponsor of the bill, the Clintons' troubles have neutralized Republican opposition to re-enacting that law.

As Mr. Walsh prepares to leave town, he looks forward to completely conquering the one adversary that sometimes bested him over the past seven years: the feeling of being alone.

"I never had a job," he said, "where I was so alone as this one. The aloneness was worse here than anywhere else. All we had going for us was the attention of the media: We couldn't be snuffed out without anyone noticing."

But, that is past, and "I really am glad it's over," he summed up. Having just reached his 82nd birthday earlier this month, he says there are "times when I feel" it is time for a rest. But, he quickly adds: "I think I'll go back and practice [law]."

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