Washington prepares to deal again with Iran-contra scandal


WASHINGTON -- With reluctance and even some pain, Washington is getting ready to deal again with a now-dated scandal that much of America may have forgotten but that still haunts President Bush and may yet linger into next year's campaign for the presidency.

The Iran-contra episode, a secret affair of global intrigue that exploded into a public scandal four years and seven months ago when a C-123K cargo transport was shot down over southern Nicaragua, is returning to Washington's political and legal consciousness.

Events here last week revived official interest in the complex scandal, which involved secret deals to sell U.S. arms to Iran, in hopes of inducing the release of U.S. hostages, and secret arrangements to use some of the proceeds of those arms sales to pay illegally for weapons for the U.S.-backed contras fighting the Communist regime then in power in Nicaragua.

President Bush, apparently willing to take the risk of setting off new congressional inquiry into the scandal, last week chose as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency a man sure to face new questions over what he knew about the scandal: Robert M. Gates.

The nomination of Mr. Gates, now deputy White House national security adviser, opened the way for early June Senate hearings at which the only controversial issue may be whether Mr. Gates was part of an attempted cover-up of the scandal during the Reagan administration. He was the CIA's No. 2 official then.

Last week, across the street from the Capitol, there was another occurrence, and it is one that holds even more potential for keeping the scandal visible for many more months, perhaps for another full year.

At the Supreme Court, lawyers completed filing documents that will give the justices their first chance to look at the most celebrated criminal trial arising from the scandal: the conviction of former White House aide Oliver L. North of three crimes.

If the justices agree later this month or next to review that case, they are expected to take up to a year to reach a final decision.

That could mean that the case will be publicly argued and decided even as next year's presidential primary elections are occurring -- giving Democrats occasions to raise questions again about the scandal and to speculate anew about Mr. Bush's role in the affair when he was vice president.

Mr. Bush, who bristles at the mere mention of the scandal, has made clear he thinks there is nothing further to investigate, including his role. He and the staff he had as vice president, however, are mentioned often in the now-vast array of documents about the affair.

In fact, within moments after an arms-carrying air transport was shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, leading to the first disclosures of the arms transfers arranged by Mr. North for the contra rebels, one of Mr. North's secret operatives telephoned a Bush aide to report the loss of the secret plane.

All of that and much more is old information, of course, but the scandal so far has not receded completely into the background here.

If the Senate hearings over the Gates nomination produce no significant new revelations, and if the Supreme Court should choose simply to turn aside the pending appeals in the North case, that may remove the last significant reasons for keeping the scandal a live issue.

The special prosecutor who has been probing the criminal side of the scandal, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, is said to be nearing the end of his investigation, which began four years and five months ago and at last count had cost $25.2 million. He wants to file his final report by June 20.

There remains at least an outside possibility that more criminal charges will emerge from the Walsh probe and that some could be leveled at former key Reagan administration aides, and possibly at Bush assistants.

Mr. Walsh has filed one of the two pending appeals to the SupremeCourt in the North case, seeking to revive two of three criminal verdicts set aside last summer by a federal appeals court here. The two are Mr. North's convictions for helping in an attempted cover-up of the scandal and for accepting an illegal gift. The third conviction was for illegally destroying or altering government documents.

Another appeal was filed by Mr. North, seeking to get all of the case against him thrown out so that there could be no new trial.

The Supreme Court has complete discretion to hear those appeals or simply to deny review. If the justices deny review, Mr. Walsh reportedly is inclined to make one last try in the trial court to preserve his case against Mr. North and avert a new trial.

The appeals court ruled in Mr. North's favor by ordering a searching review of all of the testimony against him, before the grand jury that indicted him and during his 1989 trial, to determine whether any evidence was influenced by testimony that Mr. North gave to Congress in 1987 under a promise of immunity.

Although the Supreme Court's conservative majority might have an abstract interest in the constitutional issues behind the appeals court ruling, that same majority may not be eager to help prolong the North case.

The appeals court split along ideological lines, and that may happen in the Supreme Court, too.

In the past few years, Washington has developed a decided reluctance to keep talking about the Iran-contra scandal, even though it has found reasons occasionally to do so.

As Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., remarked last week about the revived interest following the Gates nomination: "I believe Iran-contra has been investigated enough. We're not likely to learn anything new."

A Democratic colleague, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, said he detected in the Senate a reticence to press new questions about the scandal.

"People want to put it away," Mr. DeConcini said of the mood among his colleagues.

Even so, the Arizonan plans -- as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- to demand more explanations from Mr. Gates about his role.

News reporters continue to dig out Iran-contra documents that pose issues about what Mr. Gates did when word of the scandal was circulating in Washington in late 1986. The Intelligence Committee staff is itself reviewing what Mr. Gates had said before on the subject.

He was nominated by former President Reagan to be CIA chief four years ago, but he asked that his name be withdrawn then, after questions over his role continued to bedevil that nomination.

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