WASHINGTON — A special judicial panel today named Lawrence E. Walsh, a former prosecutor, federal judge and president of the American Bar Assn., as independent counsel to conduct a criminal investigation into arms sales to Iran and the transfer of profits to the Nicaraguan contras.
Walsh, 74, of Oklahoma City, who was a deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower Administration, was sworn in late this morning.
In appointing Walsh, the three-judge panel took the unusual step of giving him a broader mandate than Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III had asked in seeking the independent inquiry.
Meese, in his formal request Dec. 4, asked that a special prosecutor examine the sale of U.S. arms to Iran and subsequent diversion of up to $30 million of the proceeds. He said the inquiry should extend to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the alleged mastermind of the scheme, and anyone in or out of government who helped him.
Meese did not, however, mention the contras.
The court extended Walsh's mandate to include "the provision or coordination of support for persons or entities engaged as military insurgents in armed conflict with the government of Nicaragua since 1984."
Meese had asked that the inquiry begin "from in or around January, 1985" to the present.
It was in 1984 that Congress cut off appropriations for military assistance to the contras. Democrats in Congress had petitioned the judicial panel to look beyond the Iran arms sale and the diversion of funds to the contras and see whether congressional restrictions on the U.S.-backed rebels had been violated by the Reagan Administration.
Walsh, the seventh special prosecutor assigned since the 1978 Ethics in Government Act took effect after Watergate, said he will "talk to whoever is necessary" to conduct a thorough investigation.
"I obviously will need information and help from the executive branch," he said.
Walsh said he was not prepared to discuss the issue of immunity, which President Reagan has recommended as a way of getting all the facts from North and former White House national security adviser Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, who have refused to testify about their role in the affair.
Walsh, a Democrat who has mainly served in Republican administrations, has a long background in government prosecutorial and judicial work, which started when he was an aide to Thomas E. Dewey in Dewey's gang-busting days as a New York state prosecutor.
In 1975 he served as president of the American Bar Assn., the nation's largest organization of lawyers. He was the chairman of the ABA judicial review committee which approved the nominations of Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell as Richard M. Nixon's choices for Supreme Court vacancies. Both nominations were rejected by the Senate.
His experience in foreign affairs, something Meese said is a necessity for the investigation, is limited to his role in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris.