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.
It is rare for a President to exercise his powers of executive clemency for a defendant before his trial, as was the case with Weinberger. The most celebrated case of such a pardon was former President Gerald R. Ford's grant to Nixon, who had resigned in August, 1974, as he faced House impeachment in the Watergate scandal.
Ford could not be accused of a personal conflict in the action because he had not figured in the Watergate scandal. But Bush's role in Iran-Contra has repeatedly been questioned, and evidence prepared for the trial cited Bush's presence as vice president at several high-level meetings.
Bush has insisted he was "out of the loop" on Iranian arms sale discussions. Contemporaneous notes written by Weinberger in 1986 and obtained by the prosecution indicated that Bush was present at a White House meeting at which the hostage deal was debated in detail. The note indicated that Bush supported the swap of arms for hostages while Weinberger and then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz argued against it.
Weinberger, although he told Congress a year later that he had no relevant documents on Iran-Contra, later turned over 1,700 pages of notes and other records on his whole Pentagon tenure to the Library of Congress. In response to a request from Walsh's staff, he made the notes available to investigators in 1990. They ultimately led to his indictment.
Walsh, in his sharp attack on Bush's action Thursday, said: "The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed with the pardon of Caspar Weinberger."
He added that "Weinberger's notes contain evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public." The concealment of such notes kept fresh evidence away from investigators for years "and possibly forestalled timely impeachment proceedings against President Reagan and other officials," Walsh said.
In addition, Walsh said his investigators were informed "only within the past two weeks that President Bush had failed to produce . . . his own highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests for such documents."
Characterizing this alleged failure as Bush's "own misconduct," he said "the production of these notes is still ongoing and will lead to appropriate action."
Walsh drew a parallel between Bush's pardons and Nixon's attempt to thwart the Watergate investigation by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
"It may well be that President Bush has succeeded in a sort of Saturday Night Massacre," he said on the ABC-TV "Nightline" program. "You may remember that President Nixon had Archie Cox fired when he got too close to the presidency. This may be a more subtle way of closing down an investigation. But we have not yet accepted that conclusion. We will check our options, and we will not close it down until we are certain that that's the only appropriate course."
Bush, who was at Camp David for the weekend, said in his statement that he will ask Walsh to provide him with a copy of his own testimony to the investigators so that he can release it publicly to show his candor. "No impartial person has seriously suggested that my own role in this matter is legally questionable," he said.
Even though Walsh's statement appears to underscore charges that Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore made during the campaign that Bush had not adequately accounted for his conduct during Iran-Contra, the confrontation could pose a difficult problem for the incoming Administration.
If Bush and Walsh do battle over a special prosecutor's power to obtain documents from a President, Clinton might find himself compelled to take up Bush's side of the argument in defense of his office's legal rights. "It could be touchy," said a Clinton aide.
In granting clemency to the six, Bush wiped out four criminal convictions on Iran-Contra charges and blocked two pending prosecutions.
Abrams, who in the State Department oversaw U.S. policy toward Latin America, pleaded guilty last year to two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress about the secret government efforts to provide support to the Nicaraguan Contras at a time when such aid was banned by Congress.
McFarlane helped arrange the arms sales to Iran and made a secret trip to Tehran at a crucial stage in the affair. He pleaded guilty in 1988 to four charges of withholding information from Congress.
Of the former CIA officials, Clarridge was accused of lying to Congress about a secret shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran, while George and Fiers were convicted of falsely denying knowledge of the Administration's illegal aid operation for the Contras. Abrams, McFarlane and Fiers were sentenced to probation and to perform community service. George's sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 18. Clarridge was due to go on trial March 15.
Asked why he thought he had been prosecuted by Walsh, Weinberger replied: "He seemed absolutely determined to get somebody, in view of his dismal record."
Only one defendant ever went to jail for offenses in the scandal: former CIA operative Thomas G. Clines, who was convicted of tax-related charges.
Walsh's staff obtained 11 convictions during their six-year tenure, but the two biggest ones were overturned on appeal: those of former White House aide Oliver L. North and former White House National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter.
Seven other convictions resulted from negotiated plea agreements. Bush's pardons did not extend to North and Poindexter, whose cases have been dismissed anyway, nor did the pardons apply to Iran-Contra middlemen who pleaded guilty in the scandal, such as former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord and Iranian-born businessman Albert Hakim.
Staff writer David Lauter in Little Rock and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this story.
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The Iran-Contra scandal involved the November, 1986, disclosure that former President Ronald Reagan's Administration, in violation of his stated policies, secretly sold arms to Iran in the hope of gaining the freedom of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Some of the proceeds from the arms sales were passed on to Contra rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua at a time when such aid was banned by Congress. The Iran-Contra independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, brought 14 indictments and obtained 11 convictions during a $33-million, six-year investigation of how far the ensuing cover-up extended into the CIA and the White House. Walsh's inquiry was the longest since the special prosecutor law was enacted in 1978 in one of the most significant legislative changes of the post-Watergate era.
Iran-Contra Figures at a Glance
A glance at the figures in the Iran-Contra case pardoned Thursday:
* Caspar W. Weinberger, a former defense secretary. He was indicted June 16 for allegedly concealing his notes about the arms shipments to Iran. Prosecutors uncovered the 1,700 pages of notes in 1991 at the Library of Congress. The material details discussions among former President Ronald Reagan and his top aides--including then-Vice President Bush--about the Iran initiative.
* Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. Abrams was sentenced Nov. 15, 1991, to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service for his guilty plea on two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress in the affair. He agreed to cooperate with Iran-Contra investigators.
* Duane Clarridge was the head of the CIA's Western European Division. He was indicted on Nov. 26, 1991, for lying to Congress and the Tower Commission that investigated Iran-Contra. Clarridge was charged with five counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements for allegedly covering up his knowledge of a Nov. 25, 1985, shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran.
* Alan D. Fiers, retired chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force. He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and his testimony gave a boost to the long-running criminal investigation. Fiers was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of community service.
* Clair E. George is the retired chief of the CIA's covert operations division. He was convicted of lying to two congressional committees. Before Bush's pardon, George faced a maximum five-year sentence and a possible $250,000 fine for each of the two convictions. His sentencing had been scheduled for Feb. 18.
* Robert C. McFarlane, former national security adviser. McFarlane pleaded guilty March 11, 1988, to four counts of withholding information from Congress. He was placed on probation for two years, fined $20,000 and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.
Why not North and Poindexter?
Charges against national security aide Oliver L. North were dismissed in 1991 at the prosecution's request. The conviction was thrown out because the judge said key testimony was tainted by information North gave Congress while under immunity. North was convicted in 1989 of destroying documents, accepting an illegal gratuity and aiding the obstruction of Congress. Former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter also had his five felony convictions set aside on appeal.
Source: Times wire services