The confusion with which Lawrence E. Walsh’s final Iran-contra report was received was strikingly reflected in The New York Times of January 19, 1994. A news report by David Johnston emphasized that the report “presented few fresh facts,” and that Walsh had “persevered on a trail that seemed to be growing cold.” A news analysis by David E. Rosenbaum said that the report “added nothing but small details to what was already known about the case.” An editorial was somewhat warmer—the report vindicates “the law’s requirement for a full report of his investigation.” On the op-ed page, Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive in Washington were much the warmest: the report “set the record straight on the major players in the scandal.” Thus the Times provided its readers with two negative news reports, one moderate editorial, and one totally uncritical op-ed piece.
One reason for this strange reception is the very nature of the material. It was issued in three large volumes—572 pages of Walsh’s own report, 1,150 pages of responses by those mentioned, and 785 pages of other, subsidiary matters. These 2,501 pages appeared after interest in the Iran-contra case had subsided. Walsh and his assistants took almost seven years from his appointment in December 1986 to issue their final report. It is full of excerpts from material that had not been made public, and the material itself is so voluminous that one cannot imagine how all of it could ever be made public. An outside observer must take the excerpts on faith, which was not true of previous reports. The hearings of the joint congressional committees on which earlier studies could be based were published in twelve volumes of hearings, two volumes of appendices, and twenty-seven volumes of private testimony, all printed in full. Walsh’s final report rarely refers to these volumes; instead, much of it is based on altogether new material, some of it gathered in the last two years of his investigation.
This new material is derived from previously unpublished grand jury testimony, Swiss financial records, private notes by former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger and former chief of staff Donald Regan, notes for secretary of state George P. Shultz by his executive assistant, Charles Hill, a diary by former vice-president George Bush, and much else of this type. For the most part, I found that the new material, with one notable exception, was generally familiar from previous work on the subject. Nevertheless, the new material substantially enriches the story and provides most of the alleged evidence for the report’s charges against some of the principal participants in the affairs. It is one thing, for example, to read Shultz’s testimony at the congressional hearings; it is another thing to read Hill’s notes on what Shultz told him soon after the event.
Walsh has been criticized for taking so long, but there was some reason for his delay. Many of the notes and diaries did not come into his possession until 1991 and 1992, in the fifth and sixth years of the investigation. Hill’s notes were obtained in 1990 and 1991; Weinberger’s notes in November 1991; Regan’s in 1992; former president George Bush’s personal diary in 1993; and other notes appeared belatedly. The charges against Shultz and Weinberger are largely based on the Hill and Weinberger notes.
Walsh also had to persevere against all sorts of difficulties. The congressional immunization from prosecution of Oliver North and John M. Poindexter of the National Security Council staff presented Walsh with an ultimately insuperable barrier to their successful prosecution. After they were tried and convicted, they were freed on the grounds that their immunized testimony at congressional hearings may have influenced witnesses in their trials. Though Walsh was appointed at the initiative of the Reagan administration, his investigation was not welcomed by it or by the Bush administration. They put various obstacles in his path, especially when it came to getting classified documents. During the North trial in 1988, his legal team requested documents from the White House, whereupon 15,000 pages were produced that had not previously been available to Walsh despite comprehensive requests. The case against Joseph F. Fernandez, the CIA’s former station chief in Costa Rica, was dismissed, because the Bush administration refused to declassify information necessary for the trial.
When the investigation began, Walsh expected to decide on major indictments by early fall 1987. But requests to the CIA in February 1987 for documents were not answered for a year; key documents were delayed for months. The controversy over documents in the Fernandez case dragged on for months in 1989. In the final phase, a peculiar mix-up long delayed the use of Weinberger’s notes. They had been deposited in the Library of Congress in two parts, classified and unclassified. Walsh’s men assumed that the Iran-contra material would have been placed in the classified section and went away empty-handed when nothing turned up. Only in 1991 was it discovered that the Iran-contra material was available in the unclassified section. Why Weinberger should have put it in the unclassified section is not explained; the story is something like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”
In his press conferences, Walsh has been far more unrestrained than in his final report. In the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on December 24, 1992, he accused Weinberger outright of “lies” and complained that Weinberger deliberately “hid” his notes “where they shouldn’t be.” Walsh’s final report does not go that far. Weinberger’s response, covering almost two hundred pages, blames the “sloppiness and carelessness” of Walsh’s representative at the Library of Congress for the mix-up. Probably the reason was that Walsh’s man never imagined that notes about Iran-contra matters would be put in the unclassified section and, therefore, simply passed it up.
By 1991, Walsh decided that the notes by Hill and Weinberger made Shultz and Weinberger vulnerable to prosecution on the grounds that they had been guilty of deliberate deception. Until then, Walsh had successfully prosecuted a number of lesser figures, such as Elliott Abrams, the former assistant secretary of state, and Clair E. George, the CIA deputy director of operations. With the suddenly available notes of Hill and Weinberger, Walsh set out to catch “bigger fish”—Weinberger and Shultz. Weinberger was indicted in June 1992; Shultz was not indicted on the grounds that his testimony may not have been “willfully false,” and his punishment was reserved for Walsh’s final report. Weinberger never went to trial, because he—and five others—were pardoned by President Bush in December 1992. It was the first time in American history that a president issued a pardon before a trial and conviction. President George Washington had waited for the conviction of two leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1795 before he pardoned them. But Washington’s example was not good enough for President George Bush.
Walsh’s record as independent counsel has been one of frustration and disappointment. His victories have been minor, his failures major. He has sought revenge in his frequent public statements and, at the bitter end, in his final report. The question is whether the report can justify his long and expensive investigation.
Much of Walsh’s final report is filled with narratives of the Iran-contra episodes. They are somewhat repetitive because of the form he has chosen to employ. Instead of telling the story consecutively, he has broken it up into chapters dealing with the various alleged or convicted defendants. Since their activities overlapped, a good deal of repetition resulted.
In the use of previously unavailable material, this may be the first case on record in which the grand jury testimony, supposedly secret, has been made public to such an extent and for such a purpose. There is no explanation why the committee of three judges in charge of Walsh’s work permitted the publication of such testimony. As in other cases, Walsh uses excerpts which fill out the stories but do not provide new revelations.
These narratives are largely straight-forward reconstructions of the story. They are preceded by a brief general summary and followed by brief general observations. These sections of summary and comment sometimes go beyond what may be found in the narratives, as if they had been written by different hands. In effect, Walsh’s final report is not easy to characterize in a few words. To its credit, it has made use of previously unavailable material which we would not have if Walsh’s investigation had not ferreted it out. But it also contains contradictions and problems inherent in its prosecutorial style. This report was not, after all, written by a disinterested historian; it is the work of a team of lawyers bent on seeking out wrongdoers and evil-doers. As the report itself says:
Although the Independent Counsel also had a reporting function, his first responsibility, in contrast, is the prosecution of criminal conduct. Accordingly, it is not primarily his duty to develop for the public a knowledge of what occurred.
What is of greatest interest in the report is not what it says about North, Poindexter, and others who actually carried out the arms sales. Walsh is primarily interested in the higher-ups who were responsible for setting these activists in motion. He pays special attention to former presidents Reagan and Bush, to former attorney general Edwin Meese III, and, above all, to former secretaries Shultz and Weinberger. The report stands or falls on its treatment of the main political figures in the government.
In the case of former President Reagan, Walsh was confronted with a hopeless problem. By the time Walsh’s investigation got under way, Reagan’s second term was coming to an end. In any case, Reagan could be punished only by impeachment, not by being hauled into court. As a result, Walsh uses various circumlocutions to describe Reagan’s responsibility. He “created the conditions which made possible the crimes committed by others”; he “set the stage for the illegal activities of others.” Reagan, according to Walsh, created the conditions for violating the Boland Amendment, which forbade supporting the contras, by telling Robert C. McFarlane, his national security adviser, to keep the contras together “body and soul.” But Walsh also found no evidence that Reagan ever checked up on how North and others interpreted these three words to finance and assist the contras. In general, Walsh portrays Reagan as a feckless executive who rarely bothered to find out what his subordinates did after he gave them often vague and general instructions. In the end, Walsh decided that Reagan’s conduct “fell well short of criminality which could be successfully prosecuted.”1
Former President Bush also eluded Walsh’s grasp. Bush knew far more than he had claimed to know when he stated he had been “out of the loop.” But the main concern of Walsh’s report is not about what Bush did in the contra or Iran affair but about what he knew about them. For this reason, Walsh devotes much of the chapter on Bush to how long he withheld his diary, which was not produced until 1993. Bush succeeded in avoiding an interview about his diary, whereupon Walsh gives the reader an extended exposition of what he would have asked Bush if he had managed to interview him. These questions are tantalizing but Walsh does not suggest what answers they might have elicited. It would have been especially interesting, for example, to find out what Bush said to North in a telephone call on November 25, 1986, mentioned in Bush’s diary.
In another MacNeil-Lehrer News-hour on January 19, 1994, Walsh differentiated between Reagan and Bush. He excused Reagan on the grounds that he “was acting in what he believed to be the country’s issue.” If so, it is hard to see a difference between Reagan’s alleged motive and those of other Iran-contra participants. Walsh denounced Bush for having pardoned Weinberger “for a selfish purpose”—to “aid his friend, Secretary Weinberger”—and to avoid the possibility that Bush himself might have been called as a witness in a trial of Weinberger. It does appear that Bush’s administration treated Walsh far more roughly than Reagan’s administration had treated him. Walsh was so anxious to punish Weinberger that Walsh held a “mock trial” of Weinberger in December 1992, less than a month before the proposed trial, “complete with testimony, exhibits and multiple juries from a cross-section of District of Columbia citizens.” Bush’s pardon put an effective end to Walsh’s active investigation and prevented Walsh from staging his last legal drama. It was easier for Walsh to excuse Reagan than to forgive Bush.
The three former high officials whom Walsh really seeks to nail are Meese, Shultz, and Weinberger. Each had played different roles but they had one thing in common: all of them had attended a National Security Planning Group meeting on November 24, 1986, at which Reagan, Bush, Regan, Casey, and Poindexter were also present. On the basis of this meeting, Walsh attempts to build a case of “conspiracy” and “cover-up.” It is the climax of his entire final report and more than anything else gives the report a semblance of providing substantial new evidence. To understand why, it is necessary to recall some details of the period.
Meese had learned about the “diversion”—the transfer of funds from the sales of arms to the benefit of the contras—on November 22, 1986, and North had confirmed it to him the following day. North gave Meese a series of fictional cover stories, including one that Israel was responsible for the diversion. At the top-level meeting on November 24, Meese talked about a delivery of arms to Iran a year earlier, in November 1985, but did not mention his recent discovery of the diversion.
The November 1985 incident was what North later called “a bit of a horror story.” In brief, it concerned an abortive deal with Iran, which was supposed to receive from Israel HAWK missiles made in the United States in return for payment by Iran and the release, arranged for by Iran, of US hostages held in Lebanon. After many mishaps, a CIA-controlled plane delivered eighteen missiles in Tehran, which later had to be returned because they were the wrong kind.
This delivery of missiles to Iran in November 1985 was known to Shultz, because then national security adviser McFarlane had told him about it in Geneva during a meeting with the new Soviet leader, Gorbachev. Shultz had mentioned the information to Charles Hill, who had made a note about it. This note was found in November 1986 and enabled Shultz to break through the pretense that none of the Americans in Geneva had known about the deal with Iran. McFarlane had also told Reagan and Regan of the arms deal with Iran.
This incident of November 1985 came back to haunt the administration leaders. When Meese reported on the incident to the high-level meeting on November 24, 1986, he asserted—according to a note by Donald Regan—that the “President did not know” of the arms deal. Regan also said in grand jury testimony that virtually all the others at the meeting were aware that Reagan had known but they did not speak up.
As for Weinberger, he had denied before the congressional committees that he had known about the November 1985 arms shipment to Iran. Yet his notes show that he had been kept informed of the deal with Iran and that McFarlane had telephoned him from Geneva to get the HAWK missiles from Department of Defense stocks.
This is the background for Walsh’s charge that all those present at the November 24, 1986, meeting were guilty of “conspiracy” and “cover-up.” Walsh’s report alleges that Meese “invited” senior administration officials “to conceal President Reagan’s involvement in the November 1985 HAWK missile shipment to Iran.” In another reference, “Meese appeared to have spearheaded an effort among top officials to falsely deny presidential awareness of the HAWK transaction.” And in a third, Meese “was trying to signal the other senior advisers that the official position should be that the President didn’t know.”
We are asked to believe, then, that Meese invited, spearheaded, and signaled and that the others present willingly participated in the proposed concealment. To do so, they allegedly took part in the strategy “to make…McFarlane, Poindexter and North the scapegoats whose sacrifice would protect the Reagan Administration in its final two years.”
There is no doubt that McFarlane, Poindexter, and North tried at various times to cover up aspects of the Iran-contra affairs. But to make them mere “scapegoats” in a plan contrived by more senior officials does extraordinary violence to their central roles. Walsh evidently concocted this strange strategy in his zeal to get at the higher-ups whose responsibility he was primarily interested in.
Of these higher-ups, Walsh makes Meese the impresario of the conspiracy and cover-up. It does not take much effort to imagine that Meese was anxious to protect Reagan. But Meese did not know very much on November 24, 1986, or better yet, he knew little more than North had told him two days earlier. Once North had confirmed the diversion of funds to the contras, Meese’s interest had switched to the diversion, and away from the November 1985 arms deal which had been his original concern. Meese’s press conference on November 25, 1986 was largely devoted to the diversion, and on that occasion he had simply repeated North’s fictitious cover story about the Israeli responsibility for the diversion.
The revelation of a diversion had thrown Meese into a panic. He and Regan decided to make it public without delay because they thought that otherwise Reagan could be threatened with impeachment. Walsh says that Meese was primarily interested in “a damage control effort,” which is no surprise. But his damage control took the form of moving quickly to hold a press conference, to bring the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and FBI into an investigation, and to request the appointment of an independent counsel on December 4, 1986, only two weeks after he had learned about the diversion.
In short, whatever Meese’s other faults may be, it is hard to believe that he orchestrated a finished strategy of conspiracy and cover-up on November 24, 1986, simply because he allegedly denied to those at the meeting that Reagan had known about the November 1985 arms deal. These alleged conspirators never held a meeting at which they conspired and supposedly carried out a conspiracy just by listening to Meese’s denial. In his press conference on November 25, 1986, Meese had in fact stated that the President had been “informed generally” about the Israeli shipment of weapons to Iran in the late summer or early fall of 1985 but that the “details” of the November 1985 shipment had been made known to him only in February 1986.2
Walsh, however, was not primarily interested in Meese’s role in the alleged conspiracy and cover-up. Though Meese allegedly “spearheaded” the conspiracy and cover-up, he was let off with the explanation that “the short life of the effort to insulate the President” and the passage of time had made a possible conspiracy charge against him “futile.”
Shultz and Weinberger were peculiar conspirators. They were, as Walsh admits, the only two members of the Reagan administration who consistently opposed the arms deal with Iran. It was Shultz who remembered that McFarlane had told him about the November 1985 shipment and who insisted that Reagan could not continue to plead ignorance. He was so determined in his opposition that Casey wrote a letter to Reagan to get Shultz fired and put Jeane Kirkpatrick or Senator Paul Laxalt in his place—all duly noted in Walsh’s report.
Yet Shultz was present at the November 24, 1986, meeting and thus allegedly took part in the conspiracy. All that Walsh claims is that no one at that meeting spoke up to correct Meese’s misstatements. Yet Walsh also admits that Shultz had told Meese two days earlier that President Reagan had recalled knowing about the November 1985 shipment of arms to Iran. Walsh’s main count against Shultz has nothing to do with the November 24, 1986, meeting. Rather the report claims that Shultz had known more about the Iran initiative than he had previously testified to:
The evidence contained in contemporaneous notes supports the thesis that Shultz and others in the department opposed the initiative. But it does not support the commonly accepted corollary: that they were prevented from monitoring the initiative. In fact, Shultz and his senior officials did monitor the initiative.
Shultz is said to have agreed that he would have testified differently at the congressional hearings if he had previously reviewed Hill’s notes, on which Walsh’s belated knowledge is based. But all this refers to Shultz’s confessional testimony, not to his alleged participation in the Meese-spearheaded conspiracy. Yet we are told that Shultz had “committed” himself to both the Iran and contra programs. In the end, Walsh decided not to prosecute Shultz “because there was a reasonable doubt that Shultz’s testimony was willfully false at the time it was delivered.” Again, Shultz’s alleged role in the conspiracy has faded away.
The only top official left was Weinberger. Here, too, the charge against him largely goes back to what he knew about the November 1985 shipment of arms to Iran, not to his participation in the alleged November 24, 1986, conspiracy and cover-up. Much is made of the differences between Weinberger’s previous testimony on the shipment of arms and the statements in his Library of Congress notes. The five counts in his indictment wholly concern his alleged knowledge of the Saudi Arabian funding of the contras and the arms shipment to Iran. In the text of Walsh’s report, however, some slippery language says that he “acquiesced” in the arms shipment and that he was a “knowing participant” in it. This acquiescence and participation are based on his department’s provision of the arms after they were decided on by President Reagan against his insistent and admitted opposition.
Clearly, Walsh’s report was written in a militantly prosecutorial vein and sometimes oversteps the bounds of logic and fair play. It alleges a conspiracy and cover-up that are never made clear or convincing. From time to time it uses more extravagant language than is usual in a legal document. The objective and factual portion of the report suffers from the excesses.
The one contribution of the final report that was not already familiar to me is a detailed account of the “money trail”—the ways the money was paid for the arms sent to Iran. The congressional committees were not able to follow the trail in any detail, because they did not have the Swiss bank accounts used by former major general Richard V. Secord and his business partner, Albert Hakim, who were used by North to help run the “Enterprise”—their name for the secret system by which arms were sold to Iran and funds diverted to the contras. Walsh’s investigation was more fortunate. It obtained the full Swiss financial records of the Enterprise, bank documents from other foreign countries, US financial records, and immunized testimony by Willard Zucker, the financial manager in Geneva. Most of the Swiss records were made available as early as November 1987.
As a result, the chapter on “The Enterprise and Its Finances” clears up for the first time where all the money went. It contains some surprises.
We already know the general mechanics of the deals involving arms shipments and release of hostages. Secord was introduced by North into the arms shipments as an “agent” of the CIA. He ostensibly bought arms from the CIA which bought them from the Defense Department, after which Secord sold them to Iran. To mask the transactions, Secord and Hakim set up an assortment of corporate accounts—Energy Resources International, SA, Lake Resources Inc., Hyde Park Square Corporation, and eight others. Secord and Hakim also had investment accounts in Switzerland under their own names and seven other designations. Secord testified at the congressional hearings that North controlled his activities, financial and otherwise.
In fact, North made the chief financial decisions. At a meeting in London on January 22, 1986, North, not Secord, negotiated with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman, about the sale of a thousand TOW missiles. The Department of Defense had mistakenly decided to sell them for $3,469 per missile instead of the $8,435 they should have cost as result of a slip-up in the paperwork; Ghorbanifar was willing to pay $10,000 per missile or $10 million for a thousand. After the release of the hostages, North and Ghorbanifar agreed on a sale of three thousand more TOWs, for a total of $40 million. In effect, North intended to get a total sales price of $40 million in return for a cost of $3.7 million.
The rest of this story, together with what happened to the surplus, is told in Walsh’s report:
On or about February 7, 1986, $10 million was deposited in an Enterprise account by the Iranians. On or about February 10–11, 1986, $3.7 million was transferred from the account to a CIA Swiss account. Between February 18 and 27, 1986, 1,000 TOWs, in two installments, were shipped to Iran. Secord’s direct expenses in connection were less than $1 million. The surplus was almost $6 million. Subsequently, in March and April 1986, the Enterprise made deliveries of weapons to Central America.
In the spring of 1986, North again dealt with Ghorbanifar. At a meeting in Paris, North agreed to sell HAWK missile spare parts to Iran for $15 million. North arrived at this figure by multiplying the price obtained from the CIA by a factor of 3.7. Walsh’s report tells the rest:
On or about May 14–15, 1986, $15 million was deposited for the Iranians to an Enterprise account. On May 16 and 21, 1986, a total of $1.685 million was deposited by Israel into an Enterprise account to pay for the replenishment by the United States of the 504 TOWs shipped by Israel to Iran in August and September 1985. On May 15, 1986, $6.5 million was transferred by the Enterprise to a CIA Swiss account for the HAWK spare parts for Iran and the replenishment TOWs for Israel. On May 16, 1986, North reported to Poindexter in a computer note that “the resistance [contra] support organization now has more than $6M [million] available for immediate disbursement.” In May 1986, the Enterprise again shipped weapons to Central America for the contras.
In October 1986, Iran paid $3.6 million for five hundred TOWs or $7,200 each. The CIA charged $2.037 million.
In all of 1986, Walsh found that Iran paid $30 million for arms; the United States received $12 million; $2 million went to the Enterprise for expenses; about $16 million was kept by the Enterprise as profit.
The most stunning revelation is where all the money went. Although largely arranged for by North, it went into financial accounts controlled by Secord and Hakim. Secord profited by over $3.6 million; Hakim by somewhat less than $3 million; the contras obtained a minimum of $3.6 million, but the sum was probably $1.1 million more for a total of $4.7 million. The United States is now litigating in Switzerland to get the money back from Secord and Hakim, who are maintaining that it belongs to them.
North seems personally to have obtained nothing more than a security fence at his home worth $16,000, which he subsequently repaid and eventually regretted. Secord and Hakim were rolling around in so much money that they seem to have been sorry that North was left out of it. This may explain the $200,000 investment account—called the “B. Button account”—which they tried to set up for North’s children. Zucker, the financial manager, met with Mrs. North in Philadelphia to get information about the children, but she failed to see him a second time and the deal was never consummated. The $200,000 is still frozen in Swiss bank accounts.
Hakim used to describe himself as a businessman but Secord liked to present himself as a patriot. It now appears that both were getting millions of dollars for themselves out of the lucrative arms trade with Iran. The profits largely came from the fact that they were paying the CIA, which was itself paying the Department of Defense, ludicrously low prices for the arms and charging Iran exorbitantly high prices for them.
As he runs for senator from Virginia in the 1994 election, North should have some delicate explaining to do, for example, why he permitted Secord and Hakim to get away with such unconscionable profiteering from his deals with Ghorbanifar and Iran. Though he did not benefit much personally, North knew what the contras were getting, which was less than what Secord and Hakim together got. In effect, the contras’ share did not really come out of the money from Iran; it resulted in large part from the low prices charged by the Department of Defense and thus from every taxpayer in the United States.
Despite the somewhat overwrought language in some parts of Walsh’s report, its final observations and conclusions are sober and thoughtful. They deserve respectful attention.
The most disturbing reflections in the report concern the relations between Congress and an independent counsel. Congress was determined to conduct its own Iran-contra investigation and hearings. Walsh quickly sensed that Congress’s actions would adversely affect his own work. The reason was that the congressional committees intended to give North, Poindexter, and Hakim immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony. Walsh urged the committees to delay granting immunity as long as possible, but they were bent on beginning their public hearings in early May 1987 and planned to issue a public report by November 1987. After much urging, North’s testimony was put off until June 15, 1987. In addition, North drove a hard bargain and agreed to testify only under conditions which made it impossible for congressional committees to know what he was going to say and be able to prepare for it.
Immunity from prosecution was the congressional sword hanging over Walsh’s head. How seriously he took it may be gathered from this comment in his report:
No adverse factor shaped or constricted Independent Counsel’s criminal investigation more than the congressional immunity grants to North, Poindexter and Hakim.
Independent Counsel repeatedly warned the committees that such immunity grants, coupled with the high level of national exposure of the Iran/contra hearings, would pose serious if not insurmountable obstacles to prosecuting central figures.
But the congressional leaders could not be denied their day in the television sun. Overloaded and underprepared congressional committees succeeded in making North a hero and themselves a bickering, publicity-hungry mockery. In the event, Walsh’s desperate efforts to avoid using “tainted” testimony proved to be unavailing. He obtained the convictions of North and Poindexter, only to have them reversed on appeal. The appellate court ruled that Walsh’s witnesses had been unable to avoid knowing about the immunized testimony and threw out the convictions. North pretended that this verdict had vindicated him, which may be a preview of the extent of his trustworthiness in his senatorial campaign.
The question that haunted Walsh’s decision to go ahead with prosecution anyway is, should he have raised the issue of congressional immunity at the very outset and refused to go ahead with this “serious if not insurmountable obstacle” hanging over him? In his report, Walsh is peculiarly temperate. He recognizes the “substantial inequity” brought about by congressional immunity; it enabled “the central figures” to escape punishment while “the more peripheral players” were convicted. But in balancing the rights and wrongs of the issue, he says forthrightly: “When a conflict between the oversight [by Congress] and prosecutorial roles develops—as plainly occurred in the Iran/contra affair—the law is clear that it is Congress that must prevail.” All he asks is that the competing roles of Congress and the independent counsel must be borne in mind and that Congress should give immunity “only in the most extraordinary circumstances.” This does not go far in settling the issue but it is at least raised for public consideration.
Does Walsh’s final report help to justify almost seven years and vast amounts of money spent on his investigation? The answer must be equivocal. On the credit side, Walsh succeeded in digging out notes, diaries, and Swiss financial records that substantially enrich our knowledge of the Iran-contra affairs. Those affairs were so menacing to a healthy democratic and constitutional structure that we can hardly learn too much about them. In the end, historians will be the greatest beneficiaries, if they can live long enough to digest all the old and new material.
Nevertheless, Walsh largely failed to live up to his own prosecutorial objectives. He obtained light punishment for some of the “more peripheral players” and entirely missed “the central figures.” I think that he made a serious mistake alleging a conspiracy and cover-up on November 24, 1986, without being able to sustain it. He ended up in hot pursuit of Shultz and Weinberger, the two consistent opponents of the Iran policy, on the basis of relatively minor charges relating to their memories of past events. His was a flawed but necessary attempt to get at the bottom of events, the secrecy of which made their exposure a matter of extreme difficulty and their repercussions an embarrassment to two administrations.
My impression is that we are not likely to get much more of importance about the American side of the Iran-contra events then we know now. But we still know little about the motives and actions of the hostage takers in Lebanon and the Iranian leaders in Tehran. If they ever tell their side of the story, surprises cannot be ruled out.
Can something on the order of the Iran-contra affairs happen again in the United States? I am not sanguine that we have been inoculated against some sort of repetition. The presidency has become so inflated and Congress so flabby, the secrecy of government so pervasive, and the distance between the electorate and their representatives so great, that only a self-denying president may save us from another such disgrace. After all, the deal with Iran was made public as a result of its exposure by an obscure Lebanese magazine, not by the vigilance of the American press or Congress. The Iran-contra events may be more important as a warning of what can go wrong in the American system than as a bar to its going wrong again.
March 3, 1994
Sometimes Walsh’s report gives with one hand and takes with the other. In reference to Reagan’s knowledge of the diversion of funds to the contras, it states: “No direct evidence was developed that the President authorized or was informed of the profiteering on the Iran arms sales or of the diversion of proceeds to aid the contras. Yet, it was doubtful that President Reagan would tolerate the successive Iranian affronts during 1986 unless he knew that the arms sales continued to supply funds to the contras to bridge the gap before the anticipated congressional appropriations became effective.” ↩
In his response, Meese emphasizes the word “details” to suggest that he had revealed Reagan’s knowledge of the November 1985 shipment but not the “details” of it until February 1986. ↩