Laws in Iran-Contra Case Are Seen as `Weak Reeds' Reagan-Era Scandal Seems to Be Winding Down as Bush Leaves Office. He Must Turn over Notes and Face Interview with Prosecutor Walsh

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AS a Senate subcommittee weighs whether to investigate President Bush's pardon of six former Reagan administration officials charged with covering up the Iran-contra scandal, legal scholars are sizing up a central paradox of the tangled affair: Laws designed to help prevent such foreign policy misadventures have proved largely unenforceable.

One such law, the Arms Export Control Act, was violated when the administration authorized the sale of arms to a terrorist state, Iran, without notifying Congress.

Another, the "Boland Amendment," was broken when Reagan National Security Council (NSC) officials diverted $14 million from the arms sales to support the Nicaraguan rebels, or contras. Laws were too general

"The problem with general laws like these is that the executive branch is supposed to be bound by them, but that doesn't make individuals who violate them liable, criminally or civilly," notes Morton Halperin, a former NSC staff member who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The truth is that Congress was not as explicit as it should have been about making violations {of these laws} a criminal offense," he adds.

Critics say the pardons by Mr. Bush, which were announced Christmas eve, excuse lawlessness in cases where the putative motive is to serve the national interest. But even many of these critics acknowledge that the laws themselves have been weak reeds for prosecutors in the Iran-contra affair to lean on.

"What you had here were a group of people acting in support of what they knew or assumed was the president's policy in a situation where nobody profited personally," says one Washington attorney who asked not to be named. Even if the law provided for individual liability, "it would be harder to prove criminal intent and harder to convince a jury to convict."

Unable to invoke the Boland amendment directly, Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh relied instead on a conspiracy statute, charging NSC aides John Poindexter and Oliver North with conspiring secretly to evade the Boland amendment, which is a crime.

And unable to rely on the Arms Export Control Act, Mr. Walsh pressed a different charge: that the diversion of proceeds to the contras from the sale of arms to Iran amounted to theft of government property in violation of federal criminal law.

But even these indirect approaches were blocked when the Reagan administration refused to declassify documents a federal district court judge deemed necessary to the defense's case.

As a last resort, Walsh was forced to prosecute US officials for the peripheral offenses of obstructing justice and lying to Congress about their roles in the Iran-contra affair.

As Walsh's record of 11 convictions suggests, perjury and obstruction statutes have provided juries with a clear standard by which to judge criminal conduct. But in the controversy over such secondary issues, the significance of the Iran-contra affair - involving issues of accountability and separation of powers and the sale of arms to a terrorist state - has been lost sight of. `Constitutional tragedy'

"If the North case had been brought the way Walsh originally planned, he could have told a fuller story. From a public relations point of view it would have been a more comprehensible investigation," says a legal scholar familiar with the Iran-contra investigation. …