After a federal trial judge in Washington dismissed Oliver North's conviction yesterday, the star of the Iran-contra affair said he considered himself, "totally exonerated, completely." In fact, Colonel North's convictions of obstructing Congress and accepting an illegal gift were dismissed not because he was innocent but because he didn't receive a fair trial.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had previously ruled that if any testimony against him was related in any way to Colonel North's immunized testimony before the congressional committees that investigated the Iran-contra affair, the conviction must be thrown out. Robert McFarlane, who was Colonel North's boss as the national security adviser at the White House, then testified in the review of the trial record that watching Colonel North before the committees affected his trial testimony. Judge Gerhard Gesell had no option but to dismiss the conviction, and would have done so even if Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh had not requested it.
Congress now comes under further and intensified criticism for having held the hearings when it did and granting Colonel North immunity. Mr. Walsh asked it not to at the time. We see the critics' point, but what was Congress to do?
The story was an explosive one. There were suspicions even of presidential and vice presidential involvement as wrongful as that in the Watergate case. Congress simply could not wait until Mr. Walsh's trial preparation was completed nearly a year later.
As for granting so central a figure immunity, that clearly was a mistake. All can see that in retrospect, but at the time many thought a previous Supreme Court ruling allowed both a congressional hearing and a trial if certain precautions were taken.
Precautions were taken, but, obviously, not effective ones. The circuit court said the conviction was suspect, and the Supreme Court in effect upheld that ruling. Congress must not make that mistake again. There should be no thought of giving any witnesses immunity in the hearings on the nomination of Robert Gates as director of central intelligence, for instance.
Criticism of Mr. Walsh's prosecution and of the law that authorized it will become more intense now. The public has gotten precious little from his $30 million, four-year effort. On the other hand, what is to be done when high officials of an administration are suspected of breaking the law? Someone with independence has to investigate.
Some fine-tuning is clearly called for in the existing independent counsel law and in the way Congress investigates potentially criminal official activities. The outcome of the North case does not, however, justify doing away with or crippling either institution's investigative ability.