Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III pledged to a key Senate panel Wednesday that he will move to assure that independent counsels will be allowed to complete their investigations, despite constitutional attacks on their office.
Meese then reached agreement with Lawrence E. Walsh, independent counsel in the Iran- contra case, that Walsh will accept a "backup" appointment by Meese to carry on his investigation if a federal court questions Walsh's authority, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
The sources said Walsh won Meese's assurance that he would enjoy the same degree of independence in pursuing the inquiry that he has had under the special three-judge panel that appointed him.
Challenge by North
Meese is expected to urge a federal court today to reject the challenge to Walsh's authority filed by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a key figure in the Iran affair. Meese is expected to cite procedural grounds, yet unspecified, rather than to defend the constitutionality of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act under which Walsh was appointed.
At the same time, CIA director-designate William H. Webster met Wednesday with President Reagan and told reporters that he hopes his successor as FBI director will maintain the bureau's "independence from partisan political influence" and be deeply devoted to the rule of law.
"That's the most important," Webster said. "Everything else comes after that."
'A Solvable Problem'
Asked to assess the damage of the Iran arms scandal on the credibility of the government and Reagan, Webster said: "It would be foolish for me to say it hasn't been a problem, both nationally and internationally. But we've come through a lot worse problems and I think this is a solvable problem and not one that's insolvable."
A friend of Webster, who had 11 months left to serve in his 10-year term as FBI director when he accepted the CIA nomination, said Webster accepted the nomination to help "assure that the agency is not just a political offshoot of the Administration. He hopes and believes that he will bring stability to the agency," the friend said after a conversation with Webster.
Meese Testifies on Budget
Meese, testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Justice Department's budget request, said that, "if we could clone Bill Webster, we would be able to have the person instantly" to fill the FBI director's job. Meese said he expects "a nationwide search" for a new FBI chief.
While moving to bolster Walsh's investigation of the Iran scandal, Meese stopped well short of saying that Walsh's position is free from constitutional doubt. Meese said Justice Department officials as well as "legal scholars" have "serious concerns" about the ethics act, which North has challenged on grounds that the Constitution provides for the executive branch, rather than a court, to sponsor prosecutions and investigations.
A "backup" appointment by Meese, an executive branch official, seemingly would help circumvent that problem in Walsh's case. A hearing on the constitutional challenge is scheduled in federal court here today.
Justice Dept. Raised Issue
It was learned that the Justice Department, in a secret filing last month with a special three-judge court, raised the constitutional issue itself indirectly in another case. In that brief, the department challenged the authority of independent counsel Alexia J. Morrison to expand her investigation of former Assistant Atty. Gen. Theodore B. Olson beyond that one official.
Meese, in seeking the appointment of an independent counsel in that inquiry, had specified Olson as the sole target of the investigation. Court approval for Morrison to investigate two other officials Meese has exempted would grant the counsel greater authority than Meese or Reagan has authorized, the Justice Department said.
The allegations against Olson involve false testimony to Congress about the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rebel Leader Testifies
Meanwhile, Nicaraguan rebel leader Adolfo Calero made his second appearance Wednesday before a grand jury that Walsh has impaneled to investigate the diversion of profits from Iran arms sales to support the rebels.
Calero, who heads the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, said he was turning over voluminous bank records to Walsh's investigators.
He said he has not been given a grant of immunity for his testimony and that he has not invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.