Walsh's Iran-Contra Probe Comes to an End As Whimper, Not Bang

Seven years, 5 million pieces of paper later, $35 million final report is ready to be issued

THE offices are stripped down. A staff that once numbered more than 100 lawyers and investigators is now down to just six caretakers. The papers - all 5 million of them, enough to fill 172 sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica - have been carted over to the National Archives.

Seven years and more than $35 million after it began, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation into the Iran-contra affair is finally drawing to a close. Only one step remains: releasing the final report. But the document, slated to come out sometime this month, promises to be as controversial as every other part of the longest probe into alleged executive-branch misconduct in US history.

Mr. Walsh's final fusillade reportedly will accuse former President Reagan of creating an atmosphere that allowed top lieutenants, including Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, to lie about the sale of arms to Iran and the use of proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan contras.

The report also allegedly accuses Mr. Reagan of approving the arms sale and diversion, even though aides informed him they might be illegal. Close observers of the investigation say that the independent counsel's report will accuse President Bush of prevaricating when he said he was ``out of the loop'' during the Iran-contra decisionmaking process.

``The final report will be the most complete compilation of evidence about the Iran-contra operations and the extensive coverup,'' says Peter Kornbluh, editor of a newly published book, ``The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History.'' ``It provides the verdict of history.''

But those on the receiving end of the independent-counsel investigation are already crying foul over Walsh's last statement.

``I think the report is outrageous, disgraceful, and despicable,'' says Elliott Abrams, a former State Department official who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts in the Iran-contra affair before being pardoned last Christmas Eve by President Bush. ``The prosecutor is charging people with the commission of crimes after he dropped the charges against them in court. It's alien to the American system of justice.''

The final report caps several long and convoluted investigations into the Iran-contra affair. The Reagan administration's apparent violation of statutes ranging from the Arms Export Control Act to the ``Boland amendment'' barring aid to the contras first came to light in 1986.

The affair was investigated by Attorney General Meese, then by the administration-appointed Tower Commission, and finally by two committees of Congress. The congressional committees issued their final report - castigating the White House for ``deception and disdain for the law'' but not pinning the blame on the president - and left the field clear for Walsh in 1988.

SINCE then, the independent counsel has compiled a legal record that even supporters concede is not very impressive.

Only one person involved - ex-Central Intelligence Agency operative Thomas Clines - went to prison. White House aide Oliver North and national security adviser John Poindexter were convicted but had their verdicts overturned on appeal.

The investigation effectively ended a year ago when Mr. Bush issued his pardons, which prevented the prosecutor from pursuing the case all the way to the Oval Office. And while Walsh may have found evidence that implicates Reagan and other top officials, the statute of limitations has run out.

Supporters of Walsh's efforts point out that his lack of success is not entirely his fault. The North and Poindexter convictions were thrown out, for example, because Congress had earlier granted them limited immunity. The prosecution of ex-CIA officer Joseph Fernandez was aborted because the Bush administration refused to turn over classified documents.

Now supporters hope the final report will stand as a monument to warn future administrations about the consequences of subverting Congress's will in foreign policy. Critics of Walsh, on the other hand, see his report as a symbol of the excesses that characterized the inquiry.

The probe, they charge, essentially criminalized honest differences of policy between the executive and legislative branches by selectively prosecuting some administration officials.

Walsh also has been criticized for wasting a good deal of the taxpayers' money on such lavish expenses as a suite at the Watergate hotel. Consequently, Congress has been reluctant to reauthorize the independent-counsel statute without fiscal safeguards. In the end, critics charge, Walsh leaves many allegations but little proof of high-level wrongdoing.

``Walsh went well beyond what anybody ever intended for the independent prosecutor,'' says retired Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican who was vice chairman of the Iran-Contra Committee. ``It's fine for a congressional committee to be very critical of President Reagan. That's not the job of the independent counsel.''

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