WASHINGTON -- Democratic congressional leaders ordered a formal inquiry yesterday into allegations that the Reagan-Bush campaign made a deal with Iranian officials in 1980 to delay the release of U.S. hostages until after then-President Jimmy Carter was defeated by the GOP team.
"We have no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, but the seriousness of the allegations, and the weight of circumstantial information, compel an effort to establish the facts," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Minority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said in a joint statement.
After considering the move for more than three months, the leaders directed House and Senate committees to begin a process of gathering testimony under oath and collecting documents by subpoena that will determine whether public hearings into the allegations should be held.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., expressing publicly the private White House view, immediately denounced the inquiry as politically motivated and said he is convinced the committees "will spend thousands of dollars in taxpayer money chasing down 10-year-old rumors."
Both leaders made a point of saying in separate letters ordering the investigation that they accept President Bush's statement that he "neither participated in nor had any knowledge of" any of the alleged contacts with Iranian representatives that purportedly led to a deal for U.S. arms.
Moreover, the congressional leaders include Mr. Bush with former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Carter as among those expressing the view that the allegations, which they called "persistent and disturbing," should be "laid to rest for once andfor all."
In fact, Mr. Bush has been less enthusiastic than either of his predecessors in supporting a formal probe of charges that have been circulating in various forms for nearly a decade.
"If there is legitimate evidence and a real reason for an investigation, then they ought to get to the bottom of it," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday. "But if it's just a political witch hunt of some kind, then it's foolish."
Making that distinction is the dilemma Mr. Foley has been wrestling with for weeks.
The speaker, who is the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the country, has been under great pressure from a small but influential group of his colleagues who argue that enough new questions have been raised recently about potential links between the Reagan-Bush campaign and officials of Iran, where 52 Americans were being held hostage, to demand a closer look.
Many of those new questions were sparked by Gary Sick, a Middle East specialist and member of the National Security Council staff during the Carter years, who revealed this spring that two years of research had given him cause to suspect that Mr. Carter's efforts to win the hostages' release had been undermined by agents of his political opponent.
Mr. Sick alleged that the late William J. Casey, then the manager of the Reagan-Bush campaign, held secret meetings with an Iranian middleman in Madrid in July 1980.
He also repeated an allegation that Mr. Bush joined in similar meetings in Paris in October 1980, which the president has heatedly denied, offering campaign schedules for the period to disprove them.
With the 1992 political season just starting to simmer, Mr. Foley has been fearful that the investigation could backfire and appear to be a cheap partisan trick to damage a popular Republican president as he seeks re-election.
Thus, there has been an effort, aides say, to keep it low-profile and as bipartisan as possible.
Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., among the most respected members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will lead a special task force whose members have not yet been appointed.
A companion inquiry in the Senate will be conducted by the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near Eastern and Southern Asian Affairs, headed by Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C.
A spokesman for Mr. Foley compared the process to that of a prosecuting attorney. "We don't want to ask the questions in public until we know what the answer is going tobe," said Jeff Biggs, press secretary to the House speaker.