On Dec. 24, 1992, President George H.W. Bush granted contentious pardons for six former members of his administration facing prosecution in the Iran-Contra investigation.
Iran-Contra Affair Dominates Pardon Debate
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan admitted that his government had secretly broken a U.S. embargo by selling arms to Iran and using the money to fund the Contras, militants working to overthrow Nicaragua’s socialist government. That action contravened the 1984 Boland Amendment, and provoked a government investigation.
By 1992, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s investigation into the affair had begun to focus on the culpability of President George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president.
But in December, the outgoing President Bush issued pardons for six men facing prosecution for their roles in the affair: Caspar Weinberger, the former secretary of defense, Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state, Robert McFarlane, a former national security adviser, and CIA members Clair George, Alan Fiers Jr. and Duane “Dewey” Clarridge.
George had been convicted of two counts of lying to Congress. Clarridge was facing trial, charged with making false statements to Congress and perjury. Fiers, Abrams and McFarlane had all pleaded guilty, and Weinberger was waiting to stand trial.
Walsh accused Bush of illegally withholding documents related to the investigation and accused the president of using his presidential privilege to avoid personal embarrassment. “The Iran-contra coverup, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed,” declared Walsh.
Two years later, Walsh issued a report that was highly critical of Bush’s decision to pardon these men, describing it as “the most unjustified act.” However, Walsh made it clear that there was not enough evidence to convict the former president of any wrongdoing.
The Subsequent Careers of the Pardoned
ABC News has compiled a slideshow of those involved in the Iran-Contra affair that includes three of the people pardoned: Abrams, Weinberger and McFarlane. Weinberger died in 2006. McFarlane started a company called Global Energy Investors and is on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s board. Abrams joined the White House as the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.
Historical Context: Presidential Pardons
Sources in this Story
- The Washington Post: Bush Pardons Weinberger in Iran-Contra Affair
- The New York Times (International Herald Tribune): Final Report Assails Bush on Pardons: Prosecutor Finds Reagan Acquiesced in Iran-Contra
- HowStuffWorks: How Presidential Pardons Work
- Time: The 10 Most Notorious Presidential Pardons
- ABC News: Iran-Contra Affair—Where Are They Now?
The president, explains HowStuffWorks, “has the unique ability to override the justice system, release anyone he chooses from paying a fine, and return a person to the state of innocence he had before he ever committed a crime. … The power to pardon is left solely to the discretion of the president, and cannot be reviewed or overturned by any of the other branches of government.”
The have been many controversial and contentious pardons in presidential history. Famous pardons include Andrew Johnson’s pardon of Confederate soldiers, Jimmy Carter’s pardons of Vietnam draft dodgers, Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Law's JURIST Web site features articles, editorials and research addressing the legal and constitutional issues of pardons. It explains the history and regulations of pardons, and includes a list of famous pardons.
The George Washington University’s National Security Archive has a site commemorating the 20th anniversary of Reagan’s public acknowledgment of the Iran-Contra affair. This site contains more than two-dozen declassified documents, including a memo from 1983 showing Reagan authorizing the CIA to operate in Nicaragua and excerpts from Bush’s diary.
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