Lawrence E. Walsh, Iran-Contra Prosecutor, Dies at 102
By NEIL A. LEWIS
The New York Times | March 24,2014
Lawrence E. Walsh, a former federal judge and a mainstay of the U.S. legal establishment who as an independent counsel exposed the lawbreaking in the Reagan administration that gave rise to the Iran-Contra scandal, died last week at his home in Oklahoma City. He was 102.
Few U.S. lawyers have had as long and varied a career in both the public and private spheres as Walsh. Besides sitting on the federal bench, he was a prosecutor, corporate litigator, counsel to Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, deputy attorney general under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a negotiator at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War.
But it was the Iran-Contra scandal that put him in the public eye as never before. Appointed in 1986 by the judiciary as an independent counsel, Walsh, a lifelong Republican and an early supporter of President Ronald Reagan, came out of retirement at age 75 to unravel a complicated affair that reached from the White House to Tehran to counterrevolutionary strongholds in the mountains of Nicaragua.
At the heart of it were the clandestine efforts of Reagan administration officials to sell arms to Iran, ostensibly to help secure the release of Western hostages in the Middle East, and then use the profits to give covert support to Nicaraguan rebel forces, which were trying to topple the Marxist rulers there known as Sandinistas. Congress had prohibited aid to the rebels, known as Contras.
Walsh spent more than six years and about $37 million on the investigation, the duration and expense of which became ammunition for his critics. They portrayed him as a modern-day Inspector Javert, a relentless, stiff-necked prosecutor who had applied to a highly political event the kind of law-enforcement template he used when he was a rackets-busting district attorney in New York.
His supporters, however, saw him as a model of rectitude, as a public servant trying to uphold the rule of law and demonstrate that even powerful government officials were not above it.
In the end he won convictions, but many were overturned, and six defendants were pardoned by Reagan’s successor, George Bush, who had been vice president during the events of Iran-Contra.
Walsh belatedly tried to confront his critics. Abandoning his earlier reserve, he called many Reagan administration officials brazenly deceptive. In a 1997 memoir, “Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up,” he concluded that Reagan must have known of the basic details of the Iran-Contra operation and that the president’s advisers had tried to shield him by concealing records and personal notes. That shield — a “firewall,” as Walsh described it — was only reinforced by Bush’s pardons.
“What set Iran-contra apart from previous political scandals,” he wrote, “was that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law being applied to perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
The linchpin of the Iran-Contra scheme was Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a 43-year-old Marine and member of the White House’s National Security Council who had destroyed many documents and arranged for others to be smuggled out of the White House in the undergarments of his secretary, Fawn Hall.
But appearing before Congress in the summer of 1987, erect in his beribboned olive-green uniform, North was defiant rather than contrite, arguing that his efforts had been in the cause of freedom and anti-Communism. His testimony, on national television, brought him instant, polarizing fame. His military bearing, forthright manner and professions of patriotism won many admirers, but to his detractors he was an arrogant lawbreaker seeking refuge behind a patriotic facade and a Marine uniform.
Brought to trial, North was convicted, along with Adm. John Poindexter, a former national security adviser.
Walsh’s task had been greatly complicated by Congress’ eagerness to hold its own investigation and offer immunity to witnesses. And when North and Poindexter appealed their convictions, a court overturned them, saying the verdicts may have been tainted by witnesses’ testimony before Congress.
Caspar W. Weinberger, who had been defense secretary, was indicted on charges of concealing knowledge of the events but was pardoned by Bush before he was tried.
The Iran-Contra investigation began a long debate as to the wisdom of the independent counsel law, which authorized the appointment of special prosecutors. Some complained that under the law, enacted by Congress after the Watergate scandal brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974, special prosecutors could transform political disputes into criminal acts, and that with unlimited resources and a narrow task they would feel pressure to bring criminal charges.
The issue provoked another furor in the 1990s, with the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton. Democrats accused Kenneth W. Starr, the prosecutor in that case, of vast overreaching in pursuing criminal allegations stemming from an Arkansas real estate venture. Having seen both parties stung by the law, Congress allowed it to lapse after an unsuccessful effort to impeach Clinton based on Starr’s findings.
Judge George E. MacKinnon, one of the three federal judges who chose Walsh to be independent counsel, said in an interview with NPR in 1995, the year he died, that he was incensed at the criticism leveled at Walsh.
“The reason Republicans are against him is because he convicted Republicans,” said MacKinnon, himself a Republican. He said Walsh had sacrificed a good life in semi-retirement to serve the nation. “No one could have done it better,” he said.