President Reagan believes the criminal justice system should resolve whether former aide Oliver North violated the law in the Iran-Contra affair, and he has no intention of trying to stop North's trial, Reagan's spokesman says.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, in statements that seemed to rule out a presidential pardon in advance of North's trial, said Tuesday the White House role currently is merely "to review classified information that has been designated by the prosecution and by the defense" for possible use in the trial.Asked to comment on suggestions by U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell that Reagan should consider exercising his constitutional authority to thwart North's trial scheduled to begin in late January, if Reagan feels national security would be compromised, Fitzwater replied, "We don't have any direct role."
Reagan for months has said he would not discuss with reporters the option of granting a pardon to North and has said it would be inappropriate to comment while the legal process was under way.
On Monday, when asked whether he was drawing near a decision on a possible pardon, the president said much the same thing. "No, no," he replied. "And I don't think it would be any time to make such a decision while it's still before the courts."
But when pressed during a White House news briefing to say whether a pardon was being considered, Fitzwater said repeatedly, "We aren't discussing pardons."
Fitzwater reiterated that "on previous occasions" the White House has said that Reagan's position was that "he believes the legal process should be allowed to take its course."
Reagan often has sought to minimize the impact of the worst foreign policy scandal to beset his administration - the brouhaha resulting from the clandestine sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the subsequent diversion of proceeds to Nicaraguan rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Managua.
North is charged with conspiring to defraud the government in connection with these transactions, which resulted at least in part from attempts by the administration in 1985 and 1986 to win the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon by pro-Iranian groups.
Gesell had said Monday that if North's trial proceeded as scheduled, a large amount of sensitive information probably would be revealed in this public setting. He said the court would likely consider any request by the president on the withholding of certain documents and evidence.
Fitzwater said the administration, so far, has not sought to invoke executive privilege to protect such information. He also said that "we have declassified or reviewed - and declined to declassify" some 40,000 pages of documents that have been provided by both sides in the case.
Reagan has shown little inclination to grant a pardon, and he has less than 60 days in office. The president last March said he still thought that North, his former National Security Council staff deputy, "is a hero."
He said he did not think that either North or former national security council adviser John Poindexter would be convicted, saying, "I just have to believe that they're going to be found innocent because I don't think they were guilty of any lawbreaking or any crime."