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As long as necessary

The Iran-Contra affair was, and remains, a great crime against the people of the United States. Congress, their elected representatives, had forbidden aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. Aid was given anyway, with a wink and a nod from a president who claimed later not to have understood what he was doing, and was paid for in large part with money diverted illegally from the proceeds of secret arms sales to a hostile nation. More laws were broken when the president's men lied to Congress. With respect to abuse of power, it was the equal of Watergate; in terms of contempt for the Constitution, it was even worse. But the subsequent congressional investigation was curiously passive and never got to the bottom of what President Reagan or Vice President Bush had known. Congressional outrage remained muted even when the administration invoked national security to force the dismissal of the more serious charges against the principal criminal defendant, former Lt. Col. Oliver North. Though seven defendants eventually were convicted or pleaded guilty, the highest-ranking was a former national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, whose conviction may yet be set aside for the same reason North's conviction is in jeopardy. And the public still does not know why the buck stopped with them. It's a question to obsess historians as well.

Given all that, it added insult to injury the other day to hear North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, arguing that the prosecution should just give up and let North off the hook because of an adverse procedural ruling in the Supreme Court.

The court's decision, easily misunderstood, was simply to refuse to review an appeals court order that requires the independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, to prove that North's compelled congressional testimony was not used, even indirectly, to convict him. Walsh had taken extraordinary pains to interview and record every potential witness long before North answered his congressional subpoena. He is now obliged to review the trial testimony line by line and prove to a judge's satisfaction that nothing North himself said to Congress had altered the testimony against him. Either that, or drop the case.

Sullivan, contending that "any reasonable prosecutor would determine that enough is enough," says it is "outrageous" that Walsh refuses to quit. As the New York Times has observed, "the final outrage, not to be obscured by clever lawyering, is to hear a lecture on zeal from Oliver North's lawyer."

It is perfectly appropriate for the courts to show such exacting concern for the 5th Amendment, even if they more often overlook it with respect to ordinary crimes charged against people who never had the good fortune to be photographed with chestfuls of medals. It is just as appropriate for Walsh to try to prove that North was convicted fairly. What little justice the American people have received from Iran-Contra would be even more diminished if the prosecutor were now to concede North's case on what amounts to a tortuously strained technicality. How long should Walsh keep at it? As long as necessary.

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