March 27, 2014–Sometimes events pile atop one another, almost too quickly to respond. That’s the case this week, where almost simultaneously we see news of two important passages, the deaths of Lawrence E. Walsh and James R. Schlesinger. Once I got a moment I’d intended to write something about Lawrence Walsh because of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, but before I could put finger to keyboard, this afternoon’s news brings word that Mr. Schlesinger, too, has passed away. The two men, both staunch Republicans, are linked in an unusual way, not due to their political affiliations but each figured in one of the central upheavals of America’s late 20th Century.
Lawrence E. Walsh was a lawyer, active from the mid-30s on. He served as an assistant district attorney and in other legal posts in New York City, as a counselor to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, at the time the latter ran for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (losing in a breathtaking upset), as a federal district judge, and as deputy attorney general during the last part of the Eisenhower administration. For a long time Walsh worked as a lawyer in private practice, emerging briefly during the Nixon administration as deputy chief negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But his most important service by far was as special prosecutor in the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair from 1986 to 1992.
Walsh had great respect for the law as well as for the political dimensions of legal matters. Whether he learned that as a DA, with Thomas Dewey, or in the Eisenhower Justice Department, which was obliged to enforce civil rights rules after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, I don’t know. But when it came to Iran-Contra, where his political inclination was to help protect President Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Walsh worked steadfastly to get to the bottom of the morass of one of the most extensive cover-ups of the age. The special prosecutor would be stymied at every turn–his evidence tainted by Congress’s insistence on immunizing witnesses at its Iran-Contra hearings, by lack of cooperation from Edwin Meese’s Justice Department, by the mass amnesia of National Security Council staff aides and CIA officers who professed not to remember activities with which they had been intimately associated over a period of years.
Despite every obstacle Walsh and his investigators succeeded in building cases against fourteen U.S. government officials and obtained convictions in eleven of those cases, including those of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and conspirator Oliver L. North. Most of the convictions were set aside by higher courts on the strength of the congressional immunities previously extended to the defendants. The remaining culprits were pardoned by the first President Bush when he was headed out the door at the end of his presidency and Walsh was on the point of prosecuting the former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger.
Walsh’s investigation concluded that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–at that time the vice-president–bore significant responsibility, that CIA director William J. Casey had been a major player, abetted by Secretary Weinberger and others, and that the highest levels of the government had conspired to evade U.S. law in selling weapons to Iran, with subordinates smuggling some of the resulting money to Nicaraguan contra rebels run by the CIA. Walsh found Reagan and Bush not in criminal jeopardy, but certainly guilty of poor management and potentially vulnerable if their foreknowledge of the affair was other than had been represented.
I have written before in this space of certain secrecy rules enacted by the second President Bush–George H. W.’s son–when he came to office, which gave former presidents a say in the declassification of records pertaining to them. In my view these rules were almost certainly instituted to protect the first Bush from the consequences of his role in Iran-Contra. These rules have made a mockery of declassification regulations as they pertain to the Reagan-Bush era.
Like the pole of a magnet Lawrence Walsh attracted the opprobrium and criticism of many from his own political party.
I never met Lawrence Walsh, but I did meet James R. Schlesinger, first in his early guise as a nuclear weapons expert and analyst at the RAND Corporation. Schlesinger was a Harvard-trained economist who came to defense analysis, which I studied at the time, as a proponent of what was called “operations research.” Richard Nixon brought Schlesinger into his administration to lead the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, in 1971 Schlesinger conducted an efficiency study of the U.S. intelligence community on Nixon’s behalf, at a time when the president sought an excuse to pare the CIA’s budget. Mr. Nixon later appointed Schlesinger the CIA director. It was Mr. Schlesinger who commissioned the notorious CIA report called The Family Jewels. It was that document that lay directly behind the CIA and NSA abuse scandals of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” about which much has appeared on this website of late. Needless to say, CIA and NSA officers were outraged that U.S. government authorities presumed to investigate their activities. Schlesinger soon left to head the Pentagon, where his fights with Henry Kissinger became the talk of Washington.
I saw Mr. Schlesinger on a number of occasions in later years, often at CIA-hosted events, where he was always honored. His role as Mr. Nixon’s gunslinger had apparently been forgotten. I’d not be surprised to see Kissinger show up as a speaker at Schlesinger’s memorial service. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger’s was an opposite magnetic pole–opposites attract while like poles repel. How else to account for the very different treatment accorded these two Republicans? We’ll see.