The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up
By Lawrence E. Walsh
Norton 544pp $29.95
Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh had a lot to get off his chest. After a distinguished career as a prosecutor and corporate lawyer, he gave up semiretirement to become a court-appointed special prosecutor in the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra entanglement. It was a task to which the country-club Republican devoted seven years, from 1987 to 1993. Thus far, history has not been kind to Walsh's pursuit of the top government officials and shadowy intelligence officers he and others believed responsible for the arms-for-hostages debacle. Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up is his attempt to set the record straight.
Too bad, then, that Walsh's tome, while historically crucial, is so ponderous and disorganized. This is an important book that lays out the difficulties facing all independent counsels who try to uncover criminal acts by powerful people.
No doubt, Walsh's main objective in Firewall--a title that refers to the barrier President Reagan's subordinates built to protect him from impeachment--is to disabuse readers of the idea that Iran-Contra was a rogue operation or that Reagan was a passive player. The events in a nutshell: In 1985, Reagan tried to win release of seven American hostages by authorizing sales through Israel of antitank missiles to Iran. This transaction violated an existing arms embargo. Reagan also failed to notify Congress that Israel was reselling the U.S. weapons, as the law required. When CIA officials realized they had no authorization for their agency's involvement, they asked for and got the President's signature on a backdated document. They later lied when testifying to Congress that they thought the shipments contained not weapons, but oil equipment.
Reagan also authorized direct sales of weapons to Iran. National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North, set up a system that included private arms dealers, tax-exempt foundations, retired CIA officers, and Liberian-registered ocean freighters. North got weapons at cost, then marked them up threefold with the profits going to the Contras, who were waging a civil war in Nicaragua. North ran the Contra operation out of the White House, despite a congressional ban against funding their operation. All this mischief was revealed in the fall of 1986, when a Lebanese journal wrote about the sales to Iran and when a plane carrying weapons to the Contras was shot down in Nicaragua.
The scandal put the entire country on edge. The President was at risk of impeachment for failing to notify Congress of the weapons sales and for violating the Contra-funding ban. Worse, Walsh suspects that the hostage negotiations with Iran were deliberately dragged out because each missile sale produced profits for the Contras. But as Walsh reveals, the gravest danger to democracy was the organized cover-up by the White House and the national-security community. One of the worst moments, according to Walsh, was when then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, put in charge of an internal investigation, instead turned a blind eye as North destroyed enough documents to break his shredder.
Walsh points out that his quest was not a bust. Of 14 indictments, he won 11 convictions including those of North and Poindexter, later overturned on technicalities. But six years of work came unglued when President Bush issued his Christmas, 1992, pardon of ex-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and three CIA officials. Bush by then had lost his reelection to Bill Clinton and blamed Walsh, whose election-eve indictment of Weinberger included a footnote implying Bush knew more than he let on.
Some of the most surprising revelations concern the attempts to prosecute Weinberger for lying about the existence of notes he had taken at White House meetings. By the summer of 1992, Walsh's probe had become the subject of frequent Republican attacks--often led by then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Walsh was aghast when Reagan friend and former National Security Adviser William Clark approached him with what he describes as a quid pro quo: Accept a no-contest plea from Weinberger, and not only would the political attacks cease but GOP heavyweights would also heap praise on him.
To be sure, Walsh made mistakes. His investigation took too long, but Walsh had to contend with uncooperative foreign governments and witnesses. He underestimated the impact of the footnote implying Bush's culpability. At first he failed to use his subpoena power to go after CIA documents, naively relying on agency compliance.
In the end, Walsh gives a dense, though well-documented, counterpoint to the notion that he was biased against Reagan Administration officials--or just plain nutty. The book is especially useful now, as another independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, relives many of Walsh's nightmares. Starr, too, is being portrayed as a partisan out to get a President. And we are told that his probe has taken too long, is too costly, and is mired in issues no one cares about anymore. Funny thing, Starr's work centers not on the original wrongdoing--the Whitewater land deal--but on what he suspects is a cover-up. This time around it's a Democratic Administration. Don't they ever learn?