WASHINGTON — Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh will return to Washington this week much earlier than planned to decide whether to target President Bush in his investigation of a cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Walsh, concerned that Bush's pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures on Christmas Eve could be an attempt to shut down his investigation, plans to confer with his staff and "conclude whether we should go forward or not."
The White House reiterated Saturday that the President, in response to Walsh's charges, will release the personal notes that he took during Iran-Contra meetings--notes the independent counsel claims he withheld as part of the cover-up.
A White House spokesman said the material would be made public as soon as Walsh's office gives the White House a copy of Bush's 1988 interrogation by the independent counsel's office. Such information is not normally released in the middle of an investigation.
Walsh disputed a claim by the White House that his request for Bush's notes was not issued until just before Weinberger's trial, which was to begin early next month.
"Early in 1987, we sent a very comprehensive and a very specific request to every office involved in Iran-Contra, including the vice president's (Bush's), that included all handwritten notes, tape recordings and documents," said Mary Belcher, spokeswoman for the independent prosecutor. "It was one of those endless lawyer's sentences that covered everything.
"The real issue is why the notes weren't produced five years ago when the (Iran-Contra) congressional committees and we asked for them."
Sources indicate that although Walsh has not yet decided whether to further question Bush, it is regarded as likely that he will do so.
The Iran-Contra affair centers on U.S. arms sales to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, with proceeds from the sales going to help finance rebel forces in Nicaragua.
The prosecutor in Weinberger's case said Saturday that Bush may have granted pardons in the scandal to avoid being a trial witness, the Associated Press reported.
"There's a serious question as to whether George Bush granted this pardon because the defense told him that he would be a witness in the case if it went forward," said James J. Brosnahan.
Meanwhile, Bush's strategy of seeking bipartisan support before issuing the pardons to Weinberger and the other Iran-Contra figures appears to be undermining calls by some Democrats for congressional hearings on the pardons.
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who served as vice chairman of the Senate committee that investigated the scandal, said in an interview Saturday: "All this Congress needs is more hearings on Iran-Contra. The people would laugh Congress out of town."
Rudman, as well as several Democrats in Congress contacted by the White House, agreed in advance to support the Weinberger pardon. The White House campaign caused a sharp split in the Democratic ranks. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington and Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, President-elect Bill Clinton's choice for defense secretary, approved the pardons in advance, but Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chief sponsor of legislation to renew the independent prosecutor law, suggested Congress should hold hearings on the pardons.
And Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), upon being informed that Foley, Aspin, and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) all had supported the pardons, declared: "You've got to be kidding me. I find that incredible."
Bumpers also took strong exception to a Washington Post editorial that held that Weinberger's pardon "did no particular harm" and that Walsh did his own record in the case an injustice "in saying the pardons stood for the proposition that the well-connected go free."
"I disagree with that strongly," Bumpers said. "It is a simple matter. The well-connected in the executive branch go free when they lie to Congress, and that is bad for the country because the Congress acts on information it gets from the executive."
Walsh had not planned to return to Washington from Oklahoma until Jan. 10, but Belcher said Saturday he decided to return this week to meet with staff lawyers and decide "where we're going."
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) called for Walsh to resign, angrily denouncing the independent counsel "as bitter, petty and vindictive."
"Lawrence Walsh is completely out of control," said Dole in a statement Saturday. "Now he wants to turn his six years of incompetence into a personal vendetta against President Bush."
He concluded: "There is only one final act for Mr. Walsh: immediate resignation."
In Washington, political observers have speculated that if Walsh does target the President, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr might move to fire him.