WASHINGTON — President Bush granted Christmas Eve pardons to former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other former government officials Thursday, wiping out all pending criminal prosecutions in the Iran-Contra case.
In an angry statement, the Iran-Contra independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, accused Bush of "misconduct" and declared that the pardon was part of the cover-up that "has continued for more than six years."
And in a potentially explosive revelation, he said it was recently discovered that Bush himself kept personal notes on aspects of the arms-for-hostages affair. He said prosecutors have been denied access to some of them "despite repeated requests" and added ominously that this "will lead to appropriate action."
The flurry of dramatic events, which began with the midday issuance of the White House's Christmas season pardon list, meant that instead of winding down after a term of unprecedented length, the Iran-Contra investigation was erupting anew with the suggestion of a higher target and greater implications.
Walsh declined to say what action he might take against Bush. In an interview broadcast later, however, he did acknowledge that Bush is "the subject now of our investigation" and that the potential grounds are having "illegally withheld documents" from Iran-Contra investigations.
Of Bush's notes, he said: "We have some already and some have been withheld still. There are months missing. . . . "
The White House declined comment on the charges, although an official who asked to remain anonymous said: "We've turned over all the documents. Everything we can turn over we have turned over."
In addition to Weinberger, Bush pardoned Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state; Robert C. McFarlane, former national security adviser, and former CIA officials Clair E. George, Alan D. Fiers and Duane Clarridge. All were in President Ronald Reagan's Administration.
A presidential pardon is absolute. It wipes out all convictions, pending charges, appeals or even possible future prosecutions.
Weinberger, 75, who was due to stand trial early next month on perjury charges as the highest ex-official to be charged in the affair, told reporters: "I am pleased that my family and I have been spared the terrible ordeal of a lengthy and unjustified trial."
He added: "I am absolutely confident that I would have been acquitted." He was accused of lying to Congress and Walsh's investigators about the Iran-Contra affair and concealing key notes of White House meetings about plans for Iranian arms sales to try to free American hostages in the Mideast.
George, the CIA's former No. 3 official who was convicted on two perjury charges earlier this month, also thanked Bush and said he will "focus on eliminating the pressing financial debt" he has incurred by defending himself through two trials.
The President, in a written statement about the pardons, said the six-year investigation had gone on long enough and that those he was pardoning had acted only in what they believed was the nation's interest, not for their benefit.
All "have already paid a price" that is "grossly disproportionate to any misdeeds or errors of judgment they may have committed," he said.
Bush called Weinberger "a true American patriot who has rendered long and extraordinary service to our country" during seven years in the Reagan Administration and previously in three posts in the Richard M. Nixon Administration. The former California assemblyman was state director of revenue during Reagan's term as California governor.
Bush said he felt the independent counsel's investigation had outlived any justification it had when it was convened by a panel of federal appellate judges six years ago at the recommendation of then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
In Los Angeles, Reagan said he was pleased by the pardons.
"These men have served their country for many years with honor and distinction," he said, adding that he was "glad that this long ordeal has ended for them and their families."
President-elect Bill Clinton told reporters in Little Rock, Ark., he was concerned it signaled that if you are a high government official, "you are above the law."
Bush's action held some historic and legal risks for him.
By clearing away the other cases, the pardon allows the independent counsel to focus on Bush's role in the Iran-Contra affair--a course that Walsh hinted he will pursue.
Walsh indicated specific interest in Bush's sworn insistence that he had no detailed knowledge of the plan to swap arms for hostages. "The statute of limitations has run out on the substance of the crime, on the cover-up itself," he said in one interview. But "the statute of limitations can always be revived by a false statement under oath."
Meanwhile, the pardon attracted the attention of legal scholars and historians who will assess Bush's presidency and its legacy.