WASHINGTON -- The special Iran-contra prosecutor reached closer to the top of the former Reagan administration yesterday as a federal grand jury issued serious criminal charges against a member of that Cabinet: ex-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
The charges -- that Mr. Weinberger had withheld information from Congress and made false statements -- are perhaps the boldest move of the 5 1/2 -year probe of the Iran-contra scandal by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.
Mr. Weinberger, who is now 74, promptly said he was innocent, and lambasted the five-count indictment as "a moral and legal outrage," "a grotesque distortion of the prosecutorial power" and "a terrible injustice."
The indictment is sure to stir up a new controversy over Mr. Walsh's prolonged and stubborn pursuit of his investigation, which has been running since December 1986 and has now cost well in excess of $30 million.
There was some irony in the fact that the highest former official yet to face charges for the scandal involving a secret deal to swap American arms to Iran for U.S. hostages was Mr. Weinberger: He had opposed that swap vigorously at the White House, but was overridden by President Ronald Reagan.
The charges were leveled at Mr. Weinberger amid continuing reports that Mr. Walsh and his staff might have tried to pressure the former Pentagon chief into a plea bargain that might have produced new evidence against Mr. Reagan himself.
At a news conference, Mr. Weinberger hinted at that, saying that he was offered a plea deal in which he would have admitted guilt for a minor offense, in return for giving what he insisted would have been "false testimony . . . about myself or others." He refused the deal, he said, as "a matter of conscience."
Neither he nor his defense lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, would elaborate on the statements.
Mr. Walsh's deputy prosecutor, Craig A. Gillen, told reporters outside the U.S. Courthouse: "I don't want to say that we are trying to get closer to President Reagan. That's not what this indictment is about. What this indictment is about is Caspar Weinberger."
Mr. Gillen also commented that "our investigation is significantly narrowed by the events today," but he rebuffed repeated efforts by reporters to find out what that statement meant.
There remains at least a theoretical possibility that the Walsh probe may yet reach former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Beyond Mr. Weinberger and Mr. Shultz, the investigation could go higher only by pointing at Mr. Reagan or at his vice president, President Bush.
Mr. Walsh has never ruled out finally a case against either of them, but none seems likely now.
So far, the Iran-contra probe has brought charges against 14 individuals, including Mr. Weinberger. There have been ten convictions or guilty pleas, and three cases remain to be tried, including Mr. Weinberger's.
If Mr. Weinberger were tried and convicted of all five of the crimes cited in his indictment, he could face a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and $1,250,000 in fines.
So far, however, only two of those convicted for crimes growing out of the scandal have been given prison sentences, and only one actually has gone to prison: Thomas G. Clines, a former Central Intelligence Agency official.
There were two parts of the Iran-contra affair: the swap for hostages through the sale of arms to Iran, and the shift of some of the profits from those arms sales to buy weapons and supplies for the "contras" who were trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua -- a major foreign policy goal of Mr. Reagan's.
Four of the five charges against Mr. Weinberger involved the arms-for-hostages matter, and one the supplying of the contras.
Two charges stemmed from prosecutors' discovery that the defense secretary had kept what the indictment said was more than 1,700 pages of daily notes of official meetings and hundreds of additional pages of notes from White House meetings.
One charge accused him of obstructing a congressional inquiry into the scandal by withholding those notes, and another accused him of lying to the special prosecutor by denying that he took notes of his telephone calls and meetings.
He was also accused of three other counts of false statements or perjury: lying, twice, to congressional committees about what he knew of the Iran arms dealings, and lying once to a House committee that he did not know that Saudi Arabia was giving money secretly to help aid the contras' cause.
Had the grand jury not issued its charges yesterday, two of the five accusations could not have been made against him: Both grew out of alleged statements he allegedly made to congressional committees on June 17, 1987. The five-year deadline for prosecuting those particular crimes would have run out today.
Mr. Reagan, in a statement released in California and reported by the Associated Press, praised his former defense secretary: "Caspar Weinberger has served his state and his country honorably and with great distinction for more than a quarter of a century. I know him to be a man of the highest integrity and am confident he will be fully vindicated of the charges against him."