The Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair died yesterday at the age of 102. His work on the case highlights for me two things. One is the danger of prejudging people based on the labels that are affixed to them; and the other is how we have a system whereby criminal acts in the service of power are excused and condoned at the highest levels.
As to the first point, when he was appointed at the age of 75 after the scandal broke in 1986 that the Reagan administration was running a covert arms–selling business to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the murderous Contras then engaged in overthrowing the Nicaraguan government in direct violation of Congressional restrictions, I like many others thought that this was the beginning of a whitewash because Walsh was a highly successful corporate lawyer, a solid establishment figure with impeccable Republican credentials. But he proved all of us skeptics wrong by doggedly investigating and pursuing the wrongdoers to the highest levels, in the teeth of opposition from the Reagan and subsequent George H. W. Bush administrations and interference from Congress.
But all his hard work was brought to nought because of the contempt that high-level people have for the law. As NPR reports:
Walsh said the investigation was prolonged by years because the very agencies he was investigating — the White House, CIA, State Department and Defense Department — were thwarting him at every turn in an attempt to further cover up misconduct.
Walsh’s critics said he was a zealot, guilty of prosecutorial abuse.
Eleven people pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries, but because Congress had granted limited immunity to the president’s national security adviser, John Poindexter, and his aide, Oliver North, in exchange for their testimony, those two convictions were reversed on appeal.
The biggest prosecution of all — against Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — never came to trial. On Christmas Eve, two weeks before jury selection was to begin in 1992, and shortly before President George H.W. Bush was to leave office, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures.
Walsh was furious.
“President Bush’s pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-Contra defendants undermines the principles that no man is above the law,” he said. “It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.”
Walsh’s ringing indictment is even more true today.