Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor, reacted to the pardons by saying that Mr Bush himself was guilty of misconduct and was now the subject of his inquiry. He said there were important gaps in a diary the President had handed over to him as evidence.
Mr Bush has always claimed to have been 'out of the loop' when the key decisions were made to send arms to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Lebanon. At the time he was vice-president.
But his issuing of pardons to senior officials, including Caspar Weinberger, the former defence secretary who was due to be tried next month for perjury and obstruction, has stoked suspicions that he is trying to prevent fresh revelations about his own role.
Mr Walsh said: 'I think the pardon has a devastating effect on the development of further facets of the inquiry, such as we would have expected in the Weinberger trial.' He said there were crucial gaps in parts of the diary that had been handed over to him, including entries for one critical month. In the months before Mr Bush lost the presidential election, evidence emerged in Mr Weinberger's voluminous handwritten notes that Mr Bush had attended a meeting in 1986 at which the despatch of anti-tank missiles to Iran in exchange for five hostages was discussed.
The revelation of this note by Mr Walsh four days before the election was widely blamed by Republicans for the collapse of a late surge of support for Mr Bush and his defeat by Bill Clinton. They accused Mr Walsh of vindictiveness and lobbied for a presidential pardon for the officials under investigation.
The White House denies concealing Mr Bush's diary, saying it was only requested as evidence relatively recently, for the Weinberger case. Mr Bush apparently began to keep his diary after the November, 1986 congressional elections, when the Iran-Contra scandal was already public. It is said to contain his thoughts about the investigation.
Officials sympathetic to Mr Bush who have seen the diary say the entries support his contention that he did not know that the arms sales to Iran were in exchange for hostages. Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, denied a cover-up, saying Mr Bush would make everything in his files public to counter Mr Walsh's charges.
Along with Mr Weinberger, 74, Mr Bush also pardoned Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state, Robert McFarlane, a former national security adviser, and three others. It was being compared in the US to the 'Saturday Night Massacre' of 1973, when President Nixon dismissed the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after he asked for the White House tapes.
The New York Times, in an editorial headlined 'Mr Bush's unpardonable act', said the President remained implicated in Iran-Contra 'and in that sense he has shamelessly pardoned himself'. The Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, said the President's actions were 'an improper use of the pardon power (which) contradicts the principle that no one is above the law'. A US president's power to grant pardons is absolute.
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