The Walsh Report on Iran/Contra

January 21, 1994

Seven years and $37 million dollars after its investigation began, the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters has issued a report. Most Americans have only a vague recollection of what exactly "Iran/Contra" meant. In brief, the administration of Ronald Reagan undertook to sell weapons to Iran, which was against its own policy, and used the proceeds from the sale to supplement its other support of anti-Communist forces in Nicaragua, which was a violation of congressional policy.

When the story broke in 1986, there was widespread belief that President Reagan and his top lieutenants had committed many criminal acts in this endeavor. A court appointed Lawrence E. Walsh as independent counsel to investigate. Over the course of the next seven years, Judge Walsh carried out his mandate to prosecute criminals on high with great zeal. In so doing, he created many critics. Much of the criticism was partisan and unfair. But now that his final report is in, it is clear that much of the criticism is deserved.

Only four persons were convicted of crimes -- not for the Iran/Contra operation but for covering it up or profiting. Only one went to jail -- for tax evasion. Seven others pleaded guilty to relatively minor violations, were fined, given probation, community service. Three others were charged with cover-up but never tried; one case was dismissed for lack of evidence; two men were pardoned by President George Bush before trial. Not exactly the results expected if "Iran/Contra Matters" had been a Watergate-magnitude crime, as advertised.

Part of the explanation for this is that much of the initial reaction to the story was overwrought. Another part is that Mr. Walsh's office was inept. Mr. Walsh agreed to many plea bargains that did not really advance his theory of the case (that officials right up to and including Ronald Reagan had committed high crimes). His staff also was guilty of such bungling as losing classified material and overlooking crucial documentary evidence until it was too late to do any good.

Mr. Walsh's final report offers little new information to any who recall the earlier reports by a special commission and two congressional committees. What is new is unfair and speculative innuendo about the culpability of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and a few other high level officials even while admitting that the evidence suggests they committed no crimes. This was uncalled for. The independent counsel law requires explanations of why individuals are not indicted, but this should be used to protect innocent suspects' reputations. Mr. Walsh used it as pretext to condemn those against whom he could not make a case.

Iran/Contra revealed that a determined president can shut Congress out of foreign policy by secrecy and obstruction. That is wrong and dangerous, and Congress has not yet taken the needed steps to prevent its happening again. Perhaps the Walsh report will provoke it to. If so, at least some good shall have come of this seven-year excess.

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