|Bush Pardons 6 in Iran Affair, Aborting a Weinberger Trial; Prosecutor Assails 'Cover-Up'
York Times | December 25, 1992
Six years after the arms-for-hostages scandal began to cast a shadow that would darken two Administrations, President Bush today granted full pardons to six former officials in Ronald Reagan's Administration, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
Mr. Weinberger was scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 5 on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and efforts by other countries to help underwrite the Nicaraguan rebels, a case that was expected to focus on Mr. Weinberger's private notes that contain references to Mr. Bush's endorsement of the secret shipments to Iran.
In one remaining facet of the inquiry, the independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, plans to review a 1986 campaign diary kept by Mr. Bush. Mr. Walsh has characterized the President's failure to turn over the diary until now as misconduct.
Decapitated Walsh Efforts
But in a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh's effort, which began in 1986. Mr. Bush's decision was announced by the White House in a printed statement after the President left for Camp David, where he will spend the Christmas holiday.
Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President's action, charging that "the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed."
Mr. Walsh directed his heaviest fire at Mr. Bush over the pardon of Mr. Weinberger, whose trial would have given the prosecutor a last chance to explore the role in the affair of senior Reagan officials, including Mr. Bush's actions as Vice President.
'Evidence of Conspiracy'
Mr. Walsh hinted that Mr. Bush's pardon of Mr. Weinberger and the President's own role in the affair could be related. For the first time, he charged that Mr. Weinberger's notes about the secret decision to sell arms to Iran, a central piece of evidence in the case against the former Pentagon chief, included "evidence of a conspiracy among the highest ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public."
The prosecutor charged that Mr. Weinberger's efforts to hide his notes may have "forestalled impeachment proceedings against President Reagan" and formed part of a pattern of "deception and obstruction." On Dec. 11, Mr. Walsh said he discovered "misconduct" in Mr. Bush's failure to turn over what the prosecutor said were the President's own "highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests for such documents."
The notes, in the form of a campaign diary that Mr. Bush compiled after the elections in November 1986, are in the process of being turned over to Mr. Walsh, who said, "In light of President Bush's own misconduct, we are gravely concerned about his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations."
In an interview on the "McNeil-Lehrer Newshour" tonight, Mr. Walsh said for the first time that Mr. Bush was a subject of his investigation. The term "subject," as it has been used by Mr. Walsh's prosecutors, is broadly defined as someone involved in events under scrutiny, but who falls short of being a target, or a person likely to be charged with a crime. In the inquiry into the entire Iran-contra affair, a number of Government officials have been identified as subjects who were never charged with wrongdoing.
What Charges Are Unlikely
The prosecutor said he would take appropriate action in Mr. Bush's case, implying he might contemplate future legal action against the President for withholding relevant documents. But prosecutors have said in the past that charging a President or former President with wrongdoing would be highly unlikely without overwhelming evidence of a serious crime.
C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, said today that Mr. Bush had voluntarily supplied the disputed material to Mr. Walsh, asserting that the notes contained no new information about the affair. Mr. Gray said Mr. Bush wanted make the notes public, but did not say when.
President-elect Bill Clinton, at a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., to announce his remaining Cabinet selections, said he wanted to learn more about the pardons, adding, "I am concerned by any action that sends a signal that if you work for the Government, you're beyond the law, or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body under oath."
Mr. Bush, in a statement accompanying the pardon, seemed to anticipate his critics, acknowledging that his decision might be interpreted as an effort to "prevent full disclosure of some new key fact to the American people." He said, "That is not true."
Asserting that "no impartial person has seriously suggested that my own role in this matter is legally questionable," the President sought to position himself on the side of greater openness. Mr. Bush said he had asked Mr. Walsh to provide him with a copy of his testimony to the prosecutor, which he would make public.
Lobbying by Ex-Reagan Aides
Today's action followed intensive lobbying by former Reagan aides to pardon Mr. Weinberger and a series of meetings in recent days at the White House, culminating with the President's decision this morning. Republicans, long angered by the prosecution, were incensed by the new indictment of Mr. Weinberger four days before the election. The indictment said Mr. Weinberger's notes contradicted Mr. Bush's assertions that he had only a fragmentary knowledge of the arms secretly sold to Iran in 1985 and 1986 in exchange for American hostages in Lebanon.
Mr. Weinberger was also charged with testifying falsely to Congress that he did not recall whether Saudi Arabia had ever contributed to the contras. Prosecutors said his notes showed that he had known of the Saudi contributions.
Records made public over the years included no evidence that Mr. Bush knew about he secret efforts to arm the Nicaraguan rebels, but they did suggest he knew of Iran operation almost from its inception in 1985 and took part in crucial meetings where the arms sales were openly discussed as an arms-for-hostages swap. The Reagan Administration's public policy was never to bargain for the freedom of hostages.
Mr. Bush said today that the Walsh prosecution reflected "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences."
Question of Politics
He added: "These differences should have been addressed in the political arena without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of some of the combatants. The proper target is the President, not his subordinates; the proper forum is the voting booth, not the courtroom."
In his comments, Mr. Bush said he was trying to "put bitterness behind us," asserting that each of the men he was pardoning had a long record of public service and had already paid a heavy price for their involvement in the affair in damaged careers, hurt families and depleted savings.
The Iran-contra affair, the worst scandal of Mr. Reagan's Presidency, came into the open in the fall of 1986 with the disclosure of two intertwined secret operations: the arms sales to Teheran, and the diversion of profits from those sales to help finance a covert weapons supply network to the contras, set up in 1985, after Congress barred direct aid to the rebels.
Besides Mr. Weinberger, the President pardoned Robert C. McFarlane, the former national security adviser, and Elliott Abrams, the former assistant Secretary of State for Central America. Both officials had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress about support for the contras.
Others Who Are Pardoned
The President also pardoned Clair E. George, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine services, who was convicted earlier this month, at his second trial, of two felony charges of perjury and misleading Congress about both the contras and the Iran initiative -- crimes for which he faced up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Two other intelligence officials were granted clemency, Duane R. Clarridge, the former head of the C.I.A.'s European division, who was awaiting trial on charges that he misled Congressional investigators about a missile shipment to Iran in 1985.
The other was Alan D. Fiers Jr., once a rising star with the agency, who had pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information about the contras from Congress and who later decided to cooperate with the prosecution, becoming Mr. George's chief accuser at both his trials.
Mr. Bush described Mr. Weinberger as a "true American patriot" and he said clemency was granted both to spare him torment and cost of lengthy legal proceedings as well as out of a concern for the health of Mr. Weinberger, who is 75 year old.
Mr. Weinberger, who was asked at a news conference today whether his notes contained any entries that might be embarrassing to Mr. Bush, replied: "No, certainly not. There's nothing in those notes that in any way contradicts what President Bush said, or what President Reagan said."
But not since President Gerald R. Ford granted clemency to former President Richard M. Nixon for possible crimes in Watergate has a Presidential pardon so pointedly raised the issue of whether the President was trying to shield officials for political purposes. Mr. Walsh invoked Watergate tonight in an interview on the ABC News program "Nightline," likening today's pardons to President Richard M. Nixon's dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in 1973. Mr. Walsh said Mr. Bush had "succeeded in a sort of Saturday Night Massacre."
Democratic lawmakers assailed the decision. Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine, the Democratic leader, called the action a mistake. "It is not as the President stated today a matter of criminalizing policy differences," he said. "If members of the executive branch lie to the Congress, obstruct justice and otherwise break the law, how can policy differences be fairly and legally resolved in a democracy."
The main supporters of the pardon were Vice President Quayle, the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, and Mr. Gray, one senior Administration official said today. The decision, discussed in private, seemed to coalesce in the last three weeks although Mr. Bush was said to believe that Mr. Weinberger had been unfairly charged ever since the former Reagan Cabinet officer was first indicted in June.
Throughout the deliberations, Mr. Bush consulted with Attorney General William P. Barr and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, who had sat on a Presidential review panel that examined the affair in early 1987.
In lengthy Oval Office meetings in the last week, Mr. Bush and his advisers, none of whom offered a sharp dissent, discussed how to balance their desire to grant a pardon with their realization that such an act would almost certainly provoke hostility.
In the end, Mr. Bush's advisers decided he could surmount his critics
by expressing, as did in his statement, his willingness to make public
additional documents about the affair, like his statement to the prosecutors
and Mr. Weinberger's notes.
Independent Counsel's Statement on the Pardons
Following is a statement by the independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, regarding pardons granted today by President Bush.
President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office -- deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence.
Weinberger, who faced four felony charges, deserved to be tried by a jury of citizens. Although it is the President's prerogative to grant pardons, it is every American's right that the criminal justice system be administered fairly, regardless of a person's rank and connections.
The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed with the pardon of Caspar Weinberger. We will make a full report on our findings to Congress and the public describing the details and extent of this cover-up.
Weinberger's early and deliberate decision to conceal and withhold extensive contemporaneous notes of the Iran-contra matter radically altered the official investigations and possibly forestalled timely impeachment proceedings against President Reagan and other officials. Weinberger's notes contain evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public. Because the notes were withheld from investigators for years, many of the leads were impossible to follow, key witnesses had purportedly forgotten what was said and done, and statutes of limitation had expired.
Weinberger's concealment of notes is part of a disturbing pattern of deception and obstruction that permeated the highest levels of the Reagan and Bush Administrations. This office was informed only within the past two weeks, on December 11, 1992, that President Bush had failed to produce to investigators his own highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests for such documents. The production of these notes is still ongoing and will lead to appropriate action. In light of President Bush's own misconduct, we are gravely concerned about his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations.