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Walsh Indicates Bush Himself May Be Target

December 25, 1992|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's stunning assertion Thursday that President Bush withheld personal notes on the Iran-Contra affair and took part in a six-year "cover-up" means the long-running investigation may now escalate into a new phase--with Bush himself a possible target.

As a result, the Christmas Eve pardons of major Iran-Contra figures that Bush may have hoped would close the book on the case have instead generated new controversy. And that controversy is likely to haunt the outgoing President for months and possibly years to come.

"He can't pardon himself, and he didn't," James Brosnahan, the prosecutor who was to have tried the now-pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, said Thursday.

Bush portrayed the pardons in terms of justice for officials who had only done their patriotic duty--he likened his action to the pardoning of Confederate soldiers after the Civil War.

But Walsh's accusations, along with the disclosure that Bush has been withholding personal notes on Iran-Contra despite repeated requests to produce such material, suggested a more self-serving motive. By heading off Weinberger's impending trial, there is less potential for more damaging revelations to emerge about Bush's own role as vice president in the affair, in which arms were secretly sold to the Iran in hopes of winning the release of American hostages, with the proceeds of the sales funneled to Nicaraguan rebels despite a congressional ban on such aid.

The pardons inevitably evoke memories of President Gerald R. Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard M. Nixon for Watergate.

Walsh pledged to take "appropriate action" on the Bush notes, the existence of which was not publicly known until Thursday. Walsh's staff has gained access to some of the notes but not all of them, and he is expected to seek complete disclosure.

Walsh's staff refused Thursday to discuss exactly what the prosecutor may do. But Walsh responded to the news that Bush was pardoning Weinberger and other high-level officials involved in Iran-Contra by issuing an extraordinary written statement, which strongly suggested that Walsh--clearly angry and frustrated--is not ready to fold his tent.

"The production of these (Bush's) notes is still ongoing and will lead to appropriate action," Walsh 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."

Asked whether he would try to take legal action against Bush, Walsh answered tersely: "I don't want to speculate."

It is not clear whether the notes, which the White House told Walsh about only two weeks ago, contain any smoking gun. But the belated admission that such potential evidence exists, coming five years after the House and Senate Iran-Contra committees called on Bush to produce all relevant materials and coming after repeated requests by Walsh's office, places Bush in a seemingly compromising position.

Indeed, the White House official who informed Walsh that Bush had taken notes relevant to the Iran-Contra case--apparently notes on meetings or conversations--declared that he was "embarrassed" by the situation, according to Brosnahan.

"We didn't know" that Bush dictated and maintained typed notes that included the Iran-Contra period, the frustrated prosecutor said. "Nobody knew."

"People are prosecuted routinely for failure to produce documents that were requested," Brosnahan said.

He contended that the pardon of Weinberger sets the "worst possible precedent for future cover-ups" because it amounts to " . . . a blueprint for covering up" misdeeds by powerful government officials.

"It's exactly the wrong signal--an elitist signal," he said. Walsh, in his statement, linked the belated disclosure of Bush's notes with "Weinberger's concealment of notes"--for which he was being prosecuted.

"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," Walsh said, noting that his office had worked on the case for some six years without knowing Bush had been holding back "his own highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests for such documents."

The Bush pardons, coupled with Walsh's reaction, may influence the already heated debate over whether Congress should renew the independent counsel law, known as the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which expired Dec. 15.

Critics have contended that the law creates prosecutors with unlimited time and money who operate outside the checks and balances that regulate other federal prosecutors--and that some, including Walsh, have produced relatively little.

The law's defenders say the overall record of independent counsels has been good and that they are the only way to assure honest investigations of high-level officials in the executive branch.

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