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The indictment of Caspar W. Weinberger on charges that he concealed his and President Reagan's knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair has fueled conservative attacks on the independent counsel law in general and Lawrence E. Walsh in particular.

Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, called Walsh and his aides "assassins."A Wall Street Journal editorial accused the Iran-Contra prosecutors of seeking "to criminalize policy differences" - as if lying to evade congressional oversight and public accountability were a mere "policy difference."

The critics' larger goal, apparently shared by the administration, is to kill the statute, created in the wake of Watergate, that provides for independent prosecutors in cases of wrongdoing in the executive branch.

The law will lapse in December unless Congress re-enacts it.

If Congress fails to do so we will lose an essential constitutional safeguard: Recent history is full of examples of executive-branch officials lying to Congress to conceal illegal and politically embarrassing activities.

It's true, and troubling, that Walsh's investigation has dragged on for more than five years and consumed more than $30 million.

But he deserves praise for refusing in the face of daunting obstacles to overlook evidence of executive-branch lying to Congress - a crime against our constitutional system no matter what the motive.

The former secretary of defense has a reputation for rectitude and is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

But the indictment recites detailed evidence to support the charges that Weinberger lied repeatedly to members and staff of the congressional Iran-Contra committees in 1987 and to Walsh's staff in 1990.

According to the prosecutors, the key allegations are these:

Beginning in August 1985, Weinberger, Reagan and others were told of plans to let Israel send U.S. arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages, despite the administration's stated policy against ransoming hostages and the laws requiring that Congress be notified of such arms shipments.

Weinberger opposed the plan as illegal but was overruled by Reagan.

Both knew in advance of a November 1985 shipment of Hawk missiles by Israel to Iran, the legality of which was especially doubtful because Reagan did not sign a "finding" authorizing the shipment as required by law until the next month.

In November 1986, when news of the arms-for-hostages dealings began to leak out, Weinberger attended high-level White House meetings to discuss the unfolding scandal.

At a meeting on Nov. 24, Attorney General Edwin Meese III told Reagan, Vice President George Bush, Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz and others that the shipment may have been illegal but that it had been made without the president's knowledge.

The indictment alleges that Weinberger, Reagan and others knew this was false.

How likely is it that the evidence Walsh has amassed would have been brought to light by Justice Department prosecutors serving at the pleasure of Meese and Reagan?

And without the independent counsel law, can we really expect the executive branch to police itself?