Iran-Contra's Final Page

AT three volumes, 2,507 pages, and $60, Lawrence Walsh's final report on his Iran-contra probe is unlikely to become America's hottest coffee-table accent.

But the special counsel has provided a valuable service, despite his critics and the effort's $37.6 million price tag.

The report, released on Tuesday, offers little that is new. But it fills in details that help round out the overall story, which began in 1986, when a Lebanese newspaper first reported the arms-for-hostages deal. The scandal intensified when it was learned that money from the arms sales was diverted to supply weapons to US-backed rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, in violation of United States policy and law.

Mr. Walsh's detractors rail at what they see as a prodigious waste of taxpayers' money for little or no result. Looked at another way, however, his seven-year effort cost about 16 cents apiece for every American, a small price to pay to help fill out the truth in a conspiracy and coverup that touched deeply on constitutional questions.

While investigators found no credible evidence that President Reagan violated the letter of any law, the report cites Mr. Reagan's ``disregard for civil laws'' as establishing a climate in which subordinates assigned to carry out his policies ``felt emboldened to circumvent the laws.''

The investigation was not, as former President Bush has suggested, an attempt to criminalize historic disagreements between the executive and legislative branches over the conduct of foreign policy. It was an attempt to determine whether the executive branch knowingly violated the laws it is constitutionally directed to enforce.

The report also supports the widely held view that Mr. Bush, who consistently claimed to have been ``out of the loop'' on the question of arms sales to Iran, was in fact kept fully briefed on that element of the Iran-contra effort.

Presidential pardons, overturned convictions, and in some cases blunders by investigators themselves have blunted the impact of Walsh's effort. But its lessons are clear: Winning the White House by whatever landslide is no license to ignore or violate the law, in spirit or in letter; and Congress, in its zeal to get to the truth (or to milk a scandal for all the political points it is worth), can through its grants of immunity thwart another vital objective - the pursuit of justice.

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