Lawrence Walsh, Who Investigated Iran-Contra Scandal, Dies At 102

Mar 20, 2014
Originally published on March 21, 2014 3:20 pm

Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated charges of wrongdoing and criminality by top Reagan administration officials in the Iran-Contra scandal, has died.

He was 102.

The Iran-Contra affair merged two secret operations. On President Reagan's orders, his administration provided weapons to rebels opposed to the leftist government in Nicaragua. At the time, Congress had barred the Pentagon and CIA from giving the aid to the so-called Contras. The funding for the operation came instead from the secret sale of arms to Iran at a time when the president hoped that Iran might help free four American hostages being held in Lebanon. It was called an arms-for-hostages deal.

Neither the public nor Congress knew about either of these operations, and when they were exposed, President Reagan had little choice but to ask for the appointment of an independent counsel.

Walsh was almost 75 years old when he was appointed and a well-known Republican commodity. His career had already included a huge number of public service positions: from a racketbusting young prosecutor in New York to general counsel of a commission to clean up the New York and New Jersey docks; from federal judge to deputy attorney general at the time of the Little Rock school desegregation; from deputy U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam to Wall Street litigator and president of the American Bar Association.

His age and establishment credentials might have led some to believe his investigation would be relatively pro forma. It was anything but, taking six years and costing $47 million.

Walsh said the investigation was prolonged by years because the very agencies he was investigating — the White House, CIA, State Department and Defense Department — were thwarting him at every turn in an attempt to further cover up misconduct.

Walsh's critics said he was a zealot, guilty of prosecutorial abuse.

Eleven people pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries, but because Congress had granted limited immunity to the president's national security adviser, John Poindexter, and his aide, Oliver North, in exchange for their testimony, those two convictions were reversed on appeal.

The biggest prosecution of all — against Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — never came to trial. On Christmas Eve, two weeks before jury selection was to begin in 1992, and shortly before President George H.W. Bush was to leave office, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures.

Walsh was furious.

"President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-Contra defendants undermines the principles that no man is above the law," he said. "It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences."

Two years later he issued his final report, and he was still angry.

"President Bush can never justify the pardon as an act of public service," he said. "President Reagan, on the other hand, was carrying out policies that he strongly believed. He may have been willful, but he thought he was serving the country in what he did."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated charges of wrongdoing and criminality by top Reagan administration officials in the Iran-Contra scandal, has died. He was 102.

And joining us in the studio is NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, who covered Walsh before and during the Iran-Contra scandal. Nina, first, let's remind folks what the Iran-Contra affair was all about.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The scandal merged two secret operations. On President Reagan's orders, his administration provided weapons to rebels opposed to the leftist government in Nicaragua. And at the time, Congress had barred the Pentagon and the CIA from giving aid to the so-called Contras.

The funding for the operation came instead from the secret sale of arms to Iran at a time when President Reagan hoped that Iran might help free four American hostages being held in Lebanon. It was called the arms-for-hostages deal. Neither the public nor Congress knew about either of these operations. And when they were exposed, President Reagan had little choice but to ask for the appointment of an independent counsel.

SIEGEL: Two remarkable things about him at that time: Walsh was almost 75 years old when he was appointed, and he was a very well-known Republican commodity.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. His career had already included a huge number of public service positions: from a racket-busting, young prosecutor in New York to general counsel of a commission to clean up the New York and New Jersey docks; from federal judge to deputy attorney general at the time of the Little Rock school desegregation; from deputy U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam to Wall Street litigator and president of the American Bar Association.

Now, his age and establishment credentials might have led some to believe his investigation would be relatively pro forma. It was anything but, taking six years and costing $47 million.

SIEGEL: Why did it take so long?

TOTENBERG: Well, Walsh said it was because the very agencies he was investigating - the White House, CIA, State Department and Defense Department - were thwarting him at every turn in a further attempt to cover up misconduct. Walsh's critics said he was a zealot, guilty of prosecutorial abuse.

SIEGEL: And the results of his investigation?

TOTENBERG: Well, 11 people pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries. But because Congress had granted limited immunity to the president's national security advisor, John Poindexter, and his aide, Oliver North, in exchange for their testimony, the convictions were reversed on appeal. The biggest prosecution of all, against Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, never came to fruition.

On Christmas Eve, two weeks before jury selection was to begin in 1992 and shortly before President George H.W. Bush was to leave office, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures. An infuriated Walsh reacted this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

LAWRENCE WALSH: President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-Contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.

TOTENBERG: Two years later, he issued his final report. And he was still mad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

WALSH: President Bush can never justify the pardons as an act of public service. President Reagan, on the other hand, was carrying out policies that he strongly believed in. He may have been willful, but he thought he was serving the country in what he did.

SIEGEL: Nina, you covered Lawrence Walsh, not just during Iran-Contra, but for many years before that when he was head of the ABA committee that screened judges.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. And I always admired his shrewdness. You know, at the time, the special three-judge court was considering who to name as the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, I was scurrying around trying to find out who the choice would be. And I had a couple of good sources who said it was going to be Walsh. Well, I called him up and he just laughed at me and said he couldn't comment.

It took a few days before it actually happened. So sometime later, I asked him what took so long. Oh, well, he said, I knew you would run the story and I thought that was a good thing because if anybody did have objections to me, that would smoke them out.

SIEGEL: You stayed in touch with him?

TOTENBERG: Yep. I talked to him maybe six months ago. He sounded the same as ever. Maybe a little slower in speech, but really pretty fabulous for anybody, especially anybody 102 years old.

SIEGEL: One other point about Lawrence Walsh, everybody called him Ed.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. I always knew when there was a phony coming up to talk to him because they'd say: Hey, Larry, how are you?

SIEGEL: Ok. That's Nina Totenberg, talking about the late Lawrence Walsh, who died at the age of 102. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.