WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Independent counsel Lawrence E. Wals charged yesterday that "a pattern of deception and obstruction" at the top of the Bush and Reagan administrations concealed the nature of potential crimes committed by two presidents and a Cabinet secretary.
On what evidence does Mr. Walsh base this extraordinary charge? How strong is the case he could bring against President Bush, former President Reagan and former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger?
In June, the independent prosecutor said he had discovered new documents -- including the personal notes of top officials, CIA cables, tapes and other records -- that led him to believe Mr. Reagan, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Mr. Bush had participated in a key White House meeting during which a cover-up of the arms-for-hostages scheme was begun.
Mr. Walsh said then that the new information "provided a significant shift in our understanding of which administration officials had knowledge of Iran-contra, who participated in its cover-up and which areas required far more scrutiny than we previously believed."
It was not clear at the time what Mr. Walsh meant by "a significant shift in our understanding." Now, it seems he thought he had come upon evidence that could prove Mr. Reagan guilty of impeachable offenses -- and possibly Mr. Bush.
Mr. Walsh said in June that the Reagan and Bush administrations did not commit a crime by deceiving the American people about the arms that were secretly sold to Iran and the illegal profits funneled to the U.S.-sponsored guerrilla army in Nicaragua.
But, Mr. Walsh said, "It is a crime to mislead, deceive and lie to Congress when, in fulfilling its legitimate oversight role, the Congress seeks to learn whether administration officials are conducting the nation's business in accordance with the law."
This deception is the crime Mr. Walsh apparently believes Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Weinberger were guilty of.
Here are the key links in the chain of evidence Mr. Walsh believes he has forged:
On Nov. 24, 1986, President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State Shultz, Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III, CIA Director William J. Casey and national security adviser John M. Poindexter met at the White House.
Mr. Walsh obtained the list of those attending from government records and notes made by Mr. Weinberger. No one has disputed it.
Mr. Meese told the assembled officials that a November 1985 shipment of Hawk missiles by Israel to Iran -- a key element in the secret arms-for-hostages deal -- may have been illegal. He asserted that Mr. Reagan had not previously known about the shipment.
In fact, Mr. Reagan and several of the other participants were fully aware of the shipment before the meeting, and had to have realized that it contradicted Mr. Reagan's public declarations that he would not pay ransom to terrorist kidnappers in return for hostages.
What was the evidence for believing Mr. Meese's statement was untrue and that Mr. Reagan already knew about the missile shipment?
Among other things, Mr. Shultz has disclosed that -- after the Nov. 24 meeting -- he went to the personal quarters in the White House and reminded the president that Mr. Reagan had known about the shipment because the secretary of state, among others, had personally discussed it with him.
Mr. Shultz indicated Mr. Reagan did not dispute this.
The Nov. 24 meeting was only part of Mr. Walsh's budding case against Mr. Bush. Mr. Walsh's office in August released a document indicating that Mr. Bush had known far more about the secret arms sales than he had acknowledged. The document, a handwritten note made by an aide to then-Secretary of State Shultz, suggested that Mr. Bush supported the arms sales.
While the case against Mr. Reagan remains fuzzy and the details of Mr. Bush's alleged involvement are emerging only slowly, Mr. Weinberger's role as spelled out in Mr. Walsh's two indictments of the former Pentagon chief is relatively straightforward.
In June, Mr. Walsh charged Mr. Weinberger with perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements during criminal and congressional investigations of the scandal.
Key to the charge was Mr. Weinberger's alleged withholding and concealing the existence of contemporaneous notes he took regarding the arms sales.
Mr. Walsh found the notes, contained on thousands of pages of small note pads, to be a mother lode of potentially incriminating evidence against Mr. Weinberger, Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan.
One of those notes, released Oct. 30 by a federal grand jury, flatly contradicted Mr. Bush's long-standing claim that he had not known that arms sold to Iran were part of a possibly illicit arms-for-hostages deal.
Mr. Walsh said yesterday that Mr. Weinberger's concealment of his notes for several years may have prevented the possible impeachment of Mr. Reagan and "other officials."
There can be little doubt that by "other officials" Mr. Walsh meant Mr. Bush.