When asked how long he will pursue his quest, Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh answers without apology or a trace of irony. `It's perfectly clear we're talking a long time,' he says. `Months, not weeks.'
Surrounded by canyons of legal documents in the small library of his offices on 13th Street NW., Mr. Walsh looks to be in fighting trim, perhaps 15 years younger than the 80 he turned last month. He appears capable of hanging in there for the long haul in his reduced role of overseer of the legal fallout from the Iran-Contra affair.
And that's what worries his critics, who view Mr. Walsh at best as a Don Quixote on a mission long since rendered irrelevant. The windmills are ever-receding; the cost of the joust continues to mount.
`The whole world has changed but not this guy,' one highly regarded Washington lawyer says. `It seems to me this has become an obsessive mission for him.'
For Mr. Walsh, the mission began in December 1986, when he was appointed by three federal judges with a broad mandate to investigate arms sales to Iran and allegations of money funneled illegally to the Nicaraguan resistance.
Congressional opponents of the Reagan administration pushed for the probe, but then almost immediately undercut it by giving immunity at their own hearings to Lt. Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter. Both men were later convicted but had the charges overturned by federal appellate courts because of the immunity grants.
Even some of Mr. Walsh's supporters contend he should have called in the dogs at that point and left as his primary accomplishment a clear articulation of the problems involved in trying to have simultaneous congressional hearings and a federal criminal probe.
But the prosecutor is still fighting what he perceives as the good fight.
Mr. Walsh's latest target, former CIA official Claire George, says of his indictment, `[It] merely makes me a pawn in the continuous drama of political exploitation.'
In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal called the George indictment `another `Walshing' whereby a legally bizarre prosecution forces its middle-class victim to spend millions of dollars to hire lawyers to shut Mr. Walsh down.'
But Lawrence Walsh believes his work has had an important legacy, despite the setbacks and criticism.
`We have shown that there can be effective criminal law enforcement in the national security area, albeit with enormous difficulty,' he says. Such expensive efforts should be made, he contends, `if the offense is serious enough.'
In an interview, Mr. Walsh makes it clear his purpose is to establish, for history, the principle that criminal prosecution is the ultimate check in the system of checks and balances.
`If we tolerate deliberate deception by a popular and strong chief executive and false statements to the Congress, which is supposed to be one of the checks upon an autocratic executive, we have to see that the checks and balances are effective--and that, in the last analysis, takes law enforcement,' he says.
But Mr. Walsh shows far less passion or compassion in defending individuals' rights not to be pursued by government enforcers, his critics maintain.
Asked about Joe Fernandez, a midlevel CIA officer who spent nearly $2 million to defend himself against charges that eventually were dropped, Mr. Walsh says: `I have no regrets because he always had the opportunity to cooperate with us. . . . He made the choice to be an antagonist.'
That's the attitude that infuriates Lawrence Walsh's opponents. It is what the Wall Street Journal called the `Catch $2.2 million': Cooperate or be ruined financially in a case that may be dropped or may result in a $50 fine.
Former Maj. Gen. Richard Secord was another of Mr. Walsh's targets. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to Congress, was given probation and paid a $50 fine.
Mr. Secord says he was innocent of the charge, indeed claims Mr. Walsh knew he was innocent.
`I've spent $1.2 million on legal fees so far and it is not over yet,' Mr. Secord says. `The reason I didn't go to trial was I was flat out of money and my lawyers wouldn't go any further. I pleaded guilty to a non-crime which Walsh knew didn't exist.'
The former Air Force general also accuses Mr. Walsh of hounding business clients until several ended their relationships with Mr. Secord's security consulting companies. `Everyone in touch with me, no matter how remote, got called by the legions of lawyers this guy has at his disposal.'
And Mr. Secord says $8 million belonging to his companies has been frozen in Swiss banks since 1986, an embargo Mr. Walsh enforces with occasional memos to the banks saying the freeze is still justified.
`I was financially destroyed by this, and I doubt I will ever recover,' Mr. Secord says. `And in the end, the judge gave me a $50 fine. . . . That was like winning a battle after all your troops are dead.'
After spending--by his own estimate--about $30 million over more than five years, Mr. Walsh's Iran-Contra cases have for the most part gone one of three ways.
The main targets, former National Security Council aide Oliver North and former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, were convicted. But those convictions later were overturned because they were based in part on the pair's immunized testimony to Congress in 1986.
Others, like former CIA station chief Joe Fernandez, were able to get their cases dropped, but only after spending huge sums in legal fees--in Mr. Fernandez' case, $1.8 million.
The third class of defendant is illustrated by Elliott Abrams. The former State Department official says he pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mr. Walsh to avoid spending money on defense lawyers. Mr. Abrams was sentenced to community service and the requisite $50 fine--half the amount of some D.C. parking tickets.
Critics such as Mr. Secord say Mr. Walsh's $30 million price tag is an intentional misrepresentation of the true costs of the probe.
`He lies about that all the time,' Mr. Secord says. `The costs of pursuing this investigation have been over $100 million.'
The former general says the higher figure includes costs to the Justice Department, the federal courts, the CIA and other agencies of cooperating with the probe.
Mr. Walsh--whose hourly rate of pay was capped at about $140,000 a year when he worked on the case full time--won't comment on the future of his investigation. Official sources say it is following a path leading from a guilty plea by former CIA official Alan Fiers. Other indictments are anticipated, officials say, but not of `names' from the Reagan-Bush administration.
When asked specifically about Oliver North, Mr. Walsh says he can't comment because `we may not be through with him yet'--indicating the former Marine lieutenant colonel could be called as a witness in a future case.
When Mr. Walsh began his probe in 1986, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, Washington covertly supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and then-Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega considered himself the Castro of Central America.
If the world has turned, Lawrence Walsh has not let the revolutions distract him. He says he is pursuing to the letter of the broad mandate that a three-judge panel issued 63 months ago.
One newspaper quoted a Walsh acquaintance describing his work as `prosecuting a bunch of bootleggers after Prohibition has ended'--an analogy Mr. Walsh rejects.
From the beginning, Mr. Walsh saw his appointment as the capstone to a career in which he rose from a young, racket-busting prosecutor to a federal judge and top-dollar private lawyer. He also served as deputy to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge during U.S. peace talks with North Vietnam, and headed the American Bar Association committee that assesses Supreme Court nominees.
Mr. Walsh was born in Nova Scotia, but his family moved to New York when he was 2. He graduated from Columbia College in 1932; three years later, he got his law degree there.
After his first wife died, in 1965 he married Mary Alma Porter of Oklahoma City, his adopted home. He has four daughters and a son.
If Republicans now castigate Mr. Walsh's investigation while liberal Democrats support him, he has spent most of his life serving GOP bosses. At his first news conference as special counsel in December 1986, he answered charges that his ties to the Republican Party were too strong for him to be objective.
Over the years, Mr. Walsh worked for GOP heavyweights ranging from mob-fighting prosecutor Thomas Dewey and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to New York City Mayor John Lindsay and President Nixon, who named him deputy to Mr. Lodge in the Paris peace talks.
Now, Mr. Walsh has turned over the day-to-day running of the Iran-Contra investigation to his deputy, Craig A. Gillen. He stays in Oklahoma City three weeks out of four, working on the book that will be his final word on the probe--if not his critics' or that of historians.
He calls the writing of the book `agony' and says he is saving until last a formulation of how he sees his legacy.
It was in part Mr. Walsh's pugnacious style that backers sought when he was chosen to probe the Byzantine tangle of U.S. arm sales to Iran and clandestine funding of the Contras fighting Mr. Ortega's Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
But whatever his legacy, for now Mr. Walsh's approach strikes those on the receiving end as vindictive and overzealous. And his targets--largely Reagan administration officials--have a growing body of supporters who believe that, after five years and many million dollars, enough is enough.
`It's a question of how rapidly these things can be handled, and it's not entirely in our control,' Mr. Walsh says. `What happens in an investigation is that a piece will fall into place that will pick up a lot of material that had been hanging from an earlier investigation.'
The latest development: a closed hearing on Valentine's Day to determine whether classified documents involving Clarie George, former CIA deputy director of operations, should be turned over to Mr. Walsh's staff.
Opponents have compared the George prosecution to Mr. Walsh's 1989 case against CIA agent Joe Fernandez, which was dismissed after the Justice Department declined to release classified documents. The prosecutor will not comment specifically on the George case.
Though Lawrence Walsh predicts a long life ahead for his probe, critics hope Congress pulls the plug. The law authorizing the independent counsel expires this year, and Congress will hold hearings to determine whether to extend it.
Mr. Walsh says he has not been called as a witness.
`I think there must be a continuation of the institution, but it should not be used lightly,' he says. `The expense is a reflection of the scope of the assignment. . . . It reflects the very broad assignment we were given, and that has been the biggest criticism of it.'
Mr. Secord and others say Mr. Walsh's probe is an example of why the law shouldn't be renewed.
`He ought to be Exhibit 1,' Mr. Secord says. `If Congress doesn't vote to end the law, I hope Bush has enough guts to veto it.'
After all the years, all the battles, all the controversy, does Mr. Walsh ever regret taking the assignment?
`No, it's a public responsibility if you are asked and can do it,' he says. `Secondly, it is a very challenging and interesting assignment. Professionally, it's been rewarding, although not without its disappointments.'
Lawrence Walsh has been brawling in courtrooms since the 1930s, when he battled the mob as a young prosecutor under New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey.
So Mr. Walsh is toughened against insults from adversaries such as Lt. Col. Oliver North, who called him a `vindictive wretch.'
But he still can be quick to anger.
Ask the Iran-Contra prosecutor about former staff member Jeffrey Toobin, and the invective flows: `He missed his target,' Mr. Walsh growls. `He was supposed to get Abrams. We hit the target after he left.'
Mr. Toobin had the effrontery to leave the Iran-Contra prosecution and then write a somewhat critical book about the process called `Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer's First Case.'
A self-proclaimed liberal, Mr. Toobin wrote that he came to view Mr. Walsh's probe as too broad and too vague.
`Only crimes are crimes,' Mr. Toobin wrote, implying Mr. Walsh had lost sight of that mote of wisdom from the first week of law school. The former Walsh aide also wrote of the `futility of using the criminal process to expose or correct governmental misdeeds.'
But Mr. Walsh is dismissive of those observations.
`He wanted things brought down to the primer stage where he could handle it,' the prosecutor says of his former protege. `He's a tenderfoot [who] muffed it.'
Clearly Mr. Walsh is not a man who takes a double-cross lightly--even if he cools down enough within five minutes to call Mr. Toobin a `nice kid.'