"As for the independent counsel, his search for criminal law violations must go on. And if those are found, then vigorous prosecution must follow. . . No one, by virtue of personal attractiveness, good intentions, or high office is above the law." So we wrote earlier about the Iran-contra affair.
We still believe that. But those words were written 4 years and 11 months ago. This week's indictment of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for lying to Congress and the independent counsel comes as a surprise. After all, in the five and a half years the independent counsel has been in business, only one minor figure in the drama has been sent to jail; a few others have admitted breaking the law and been given slaps on the wrists (probation, community service); Oliver North and John Poindexter were convicted; the former fined, put on probation and given community service, the latter given six months in jail -- but both convictions were overturned on appeal.
Not a very good prosecutorial record given the presumed enormity of the crimes suspected at the time. That is why some of his critics say Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh has now indicted Mr. Weinberger in an attempt to salvage his own reputation with a trophy conviction. That is about as damning a charge as the ones leveled against Mr. Weinberger, who, ironically, opposed the whole Iran-contra operation more vociferously than anyone else in the Reagan administration. Thus, these aspersions against Mr. Walsh should not be taken any more lightly than the felony charges against Mr. Weinberger.
The decision to indict Mr. Weinberger was made after perusal of hundreds of pages of notes Mr. Weinberger took during discussions of the Iran-contra events, especially those dealing with sending arms to Iran through Israel to get hostages in Lebanon released. These discussions took place before and after the arms and money transfers and other very high level officials, including President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush, apparently were sometimes present. Does this mean Messrs. Reagan and Bush knew more than they have admitted? Is former Secretary of State George Shultz implicated? Was there any conspiracy to take and/or cover up illegal acts?
Echoes of Watergate are discernible. The Weinberger notes may even be the equivalent of the Nixon tapes. They may reveal in rich detail that some familiar "attractive, well-intentioned" individuals considered themselves above the law and contemptuous of the Constitution's division of powers.
If so, Congress, courts and the public should respond harshly. But if the Weinberger notes turn out to be flimsy or ambiguous as evidence against him, then the guilty verdict should be, as critics have suggested, against the independent counsel.