Iran-contra prosecutor left a major legacy despite claims he'd been outmaneuvered

tags: Lawrence Walsh, Iran-contra

The passing away of Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh on March 19, at age 102, is an appropriate occasion to recall some of the extraordinary outcomes of his investigation into the most significant political scandal of the 1980s.

The Iran-Contra affair stirred up profound political passions. Walsh found himself at the center of seemingly perpetual controversy from the time of his appointment in late 1986 until his last major case against a former cabinet official — Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — jolted to a halt in December 1992. By then the former judge had become the villain to supporters of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, as well as those he targeted for prosecution. For his part, Walsh denounced in the sharpest terms the presidential pardon (by Bush) that abruptly ended the investigation: "The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed."[1]

Although many considered his success record spotty, Walsh managed to produce at least two major accomplishments. One was to expose the extent of President Reagan's (and Vice President Bush's) role in the scandal. The other was to create a public record of high-level malfeasance and government dysfunction that has since largely been forgotten but will have lasting historical value.

The independent counsel's task was monumental — enormously difficult to carry out yet fundamentally important for the causes of legal accountability, restoring public faith in government, and historical accuracy. His memoir of the prosecution (Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, W.W. Norton, 1997) portrays his surprise, frustration and anger at the many ways his investigation was impeded at every level.

First, Congress, which was planning its own grand inquiry in 1987, granted immunity to several key targets, knowing it would put major barriers in the way of the prosecution. Second, the White House, according to lawyers for the Office of Independent Counsel (OIC), initially delayed production of records then tried to drown the process in useless paper. Third, the intelligence community, still bruised by the pummeling it had taken at the hands of congressional and media investigations a decade before, threw a thick blanket of secrecy over its involvement, leaving at least one judge in a state of "bafflement."[2] Fourth, the Justice Department, first under Edwin Meese III and then Richard Thornburgh took unprecedented steps to side not with the prosecution (as might be expected of the nation's chief law enforcement officers) but effectively with the defense, arguing against the use of classified information in court and even against the OIC's right to pursue its task. Fifth, members of Reagan's cabinet, including Vice President Bush, failed to turn over to investigators for both Congress and the independent counsel relevant notes and diaries that had specifically been sought. It took more than five years before Walsh's staff was able to force Bush, Weinberger, Chief of Staff Donald Regan and aides to Secretary of State George Shultz to acknowledge the existence of much of this crucial evidence.

The courts themselves were another stumbling block for the OIC. At the trial level, judges forced the prosecution to drop its case-in-chief — a broad charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States — against several defendants. At issue were the immunity grants and the inaccessibility of classified evidence (or even substitute information designed to protect intelligence sources and methods). At the appeals level, after winning convictions against two of his main targets, ex-National Security Council staff member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North and former National Security Advisor Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, two different panels of judges vacated the verdicts on grounds relating to Congress's immunity grants. Although Walsh and some of his colleagues acknowledged their own strategies and decisions contributed to these outcomes, the high sensitivity of the issues and politicized nature of the cases doomed their efforts from the start.

Walsh's final defeat came at the hands of Reagan's successor in the White House, George H. W. Bush, who granted surprise pardons to six prior and would-be Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas eve 1992. Walsh was enraged. In an interim report to Congress, he called the act a "grave disservice to the citizens of this country."[3] To Newsweek magazine, he said: "It's hard to find an adjective strong enough to characterize a president who has such contempt for honesty."...

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