Punishment - or presidential pardon?

NOW comes the possible penalties for some of those involved in the Iran-contra affair. Will there be indictments? Will there be presidential pardons? Indeed, the basic question may well be this: Do punishments help in discouraging similar governmental excesses?

In the wake of Iran-contra there is a real question about the deterrent effect the Watergate convictions and imprisonments had on future administrations. But it seems to have made players in the Ford and Carter years more careful and, hence, free of this kind of wrongdoing. Here, somebody will ask, ``How about Bert Lance?'' That, we should remember, was about alleged improprieties by Mr. Lance when he was in the banking business before coming to Washington. Small potatoes, as they say, compared with Watergate.

Iran-contra, as it has unfolded, now appears to have been a uniquely compartmentalized effort (by John Poindexter) from within the White House to provide funds for the Nicaraguan rebels during the period when such aid was cut off by Congress. Lt. Col. Oliver North was the prime implementer. Former CIA Director William Casey's role remains blurred.

The President, Vice-President George Bush, chief of staff Donald Regan, Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were cut off, by Admiral Poindexter, from knowing about the project. Poindexter and Colonel North contend that the Boland amendment, lopping off that aid, did not apply to the National Security Council. But if it does, there are no sanctions in that amendment for those who don't abide by it.

So did Poindexter and North break some other laws? The special prosecutor will soon be giving us the answer.

But much punishment has already been meted out. The daily stories and TV accounts have, over months now, put the Iran-contra participants on the hot seat. And now for them the hearings have certainly been an ordeal.

Indeed, it is arguable that those who in future administrations would be tempted to play similar high-risk games might well, in thinking of the hearings and media crucible that could beset a failed effort, decide to desist.

Again it is quite apparent that all the pain inflicted on the participants of Watergate did not prevent Iran-contra. But the two scandalous activities were quite different. Watergate, as shown plainly on the presidential tapes, did involve former President Richard Nixon. Iran-contra planning, purposely, left President Reagan out of it. Those who initiated and ran Iran-contra obviously never saw Watergate as a reference point or precedent to what they were undertaking.

Looked at one way, as Poindexter and North see it, they were only carrying out the President's foreign policy - that the contras be sustained. Looked at another way, as Sen. Paul Sarbanes depicts it, this was a staff-led junta, operating right within the Reagan administration and, in reality, challenging the very authority of the President.

The feeling in Washington political circles, both Democratic and Republican, is that North will probably not be indicted - but that if he is indicted, he will get a presidential pardon. There is not so much certainty about whether Mr. Reagan would be as forgiving with Poindexter.

When former President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, his stated reason was that he believed that he had to get Nixon behind him - that to leave the former President vulnerable to trial and possible conviction would so distract the public from his own presidency that he simply wouldn't be able to get anything done.

But President Ford was a very compassionate man. And there are those who profess to know the real thinking on his pardon decision who say that Mr. Ford believed that Mr. Nixon had already gone through enough mental pain before he was forced to resign.

With Watergate, it was a subsequent president who had to deal with the pardon. With Iran-contra, the president who will have to deal with this question (should there be indictments) will be making judgments on his own people.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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