For the Prosecution In the Contra Case

OPENING ARGUMENTS A YOUNG LAWYER'S FIRST CASE: UNITED STATES V. OLIVER NORTH. By Jeffrey Toobin, Viking, 374 pp., $22.95

IN a crowded field of books jostling for attention, this volume is distinctive for two reasons. It's the first inside look at the prosecutions growing out of the Iran-contra scandal; and the author's former boss, Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, tried to block its publication.

Mr. Walsh, a lawyer of vast experience, should have known that an American court would frown on ``prior restraint'' of a book that, despite Walsh's assertions to the contrary, doesn't leak any national-security secrets or disclose confidential grand-jury testimony. He also should have foreseen that his objections would be a PR windfall for the book. So why did Walsh throw himself across the tracks?

Was it pique that an underling, rather than Walsh himself, was first out of the gate with an account of the workings of the Office of Independent Counsel (OIC)? Or could it have been irritation with a portrayal of the aloof Walsh that, though admiring, hints at a judgment-warping zealousness? Possibly, but Walsh might have had a larger reason for his resistance to the book - namely, making a good first impression before the bar of history. It would be understandable if, in Walsh's view, the first glimps e behind the OIC's closed doors should have come from a seasoned lawyer who could have delivered a more weighty assessment of the constitutional, legal, and political issues involved in Iran-contra.

The central weakness of this book is evident in its subtitle: ``A Young Lawyer's First Case.'' Jeff Toobin, twentysomething and fresh out of Harvard Law, finds himself in the middle of the biggest criminal case of the decade. That's a premise for a terrific dinner-party story, less so for a book about great national events.

Be that as it may, the obviously bright and energetic Toobin has written an engaging story of high courtroom drama. In November 1986, President Reagan acknowledged that his administration had engaged in arms-for-hostages transactions with Iran, and he further disclosed that subordinates at the National Security Council had (without authorization, he insisted) used proceeds of the arms sales to secretly bankroll the Nicaraguan resistance forces, at a time when Congress, through the so-called Boland amend ment, had forbidden any US aid to the contras. Walsh was appointed under the Ethics in Government Act to prosecute any criminal wrongdoing in connection with these covert operations.

Toobin chronicles the work of the OIC from shortly after its inception through the trial of National Security Council aide Oliver North in the spring of 1989. An able raconteur, he offers up deft sketches of his fellow prosecutors, of defense lawyers, judges, witnesses, and defendants; and he spins entertaining anecdotes, as when he asked two men at a neighboring table in a Chinese restaurant to stop discussing in his presence North's immunized congressional testimony.

Toobin joined the OIC with visions of Watergate dancing in his head (after a depressing day at the office, he goes to a video store and rents ``All the President's Men''). Alas, the Iran-contra prosecutors have not covered themselves with glory like their Watergate predecessors. Not a single defendant has gone to jail. Walsh's lawyers obtained a couple of slap-on-the-wrist plea bargains, but their conviction of North has collapsed under appeal, and their other centerpiece conviction, that of former nati onal security adviser John Poindexter, will probably share the same fate.

To be fair, the Iran-contra prosecutors faced three enormous hurdles. First, it was never clear that the central elements of the scandal - the off-the-books arms sales and contra-supply network - were criminal activities. The prosecutors ended up dropping the politicized Boland-amendment charges, focusing instead on more mundane but recognizable crimes like lying and stealing. Second, Congress's decision to grant North and Poindexter limited immunity for their congressional appearances made it nearly impossible for the prosecutors to prove that their convictions of those men were achieved without any use of immunized testimony (as the appellate ruling in the North case shows). Third, endless fights with the Justice Department over potential disclosures of classified documents greatly inhibited the prosecutors' efforts.

The OIC prosecutors' skillful exertions to surmount these obstacles, and their partly successful prosecution of Oliver North despite them, makes for a gripping legal drama, which Toobin recounts well. But one awaits with anticipation the meatier studies of the Iran-contra affair that legal and political scholars will produce.

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