CHICAGO -- President Bush wrestled yesterday with an old demon as a former national security aide leveled new charges that Mr. Bush played a bigger role in the Iran-contra scandal than he has ever acknowledged.
Mr. Bush insisted in an interview with a Chicago radio station conducted in Washington before his arrival here yesterday that he had already "leveled with the American people, and I have nothing to add to it."
But new information from Howard Teicher, a former National Security Council aide in the Ronald Reagan White House, contradicts Mr. Bush's repeated claims that he was "out of the loop" when the decision was made to sell arms to Iran to obtain the release of U.S. hostages.
Mr. Teicher, who is writing a book on the topic, said on the ABC program "Nightline" Thursday that he briefed the vice president on the Iran-contra operation three times in the spring and summer of 1986.
"He was so eager to get involved," Mr. Teicher said of the vice president, that he asked, " 'What can I do to help?' "
Other officials have said that Mr. Bush was present at meetings where the Iran initiative was discussed, but Mr. Teicher is the first to describe, in detail, direct briefings. He said in a telephone interview yesterday with the New York Times that Mr. Bush was fully engaged in the discussions, asked pointed questions and seemed to understand the implications of the arms trade.
"I briefed him in detail on aspects of the Iran initiative on several occasions," said Mr. Teicher, who worked at the White House from 1982 to 1987 and now operates a computer software company in Washington.
"He was extremely well-informed about foreign affairs and extremely interested, yet I found a pattern of behavior that was a desire to be very well-informed but not to be involved on any issue that was controversial," Mr. Teicher said.
Mr. Teicher's comments provide the latest provocative piece of information in an accumulating body of evidence, compiled in congressional investigations and in criminal prosecutions, suggesting that Mr. Bush had a firmer grasp of the arms sales to Iran than he has acknowledged in his public comments.
In his radio interview with WBBM, the president said yesterday he had no recollection of briefing then-President Reagan about a June 1986 meeting in which he was urged to win Mr. Reagan's support for a secret arms shipment to Iran in hopes of gaining the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
It is "most unlikely," he said, that he would have reported to Mr. Reagan about the session in Jerusalem with an Israeli intelligence official, Amiram Nir.
Mr. Nir was said to have strongly advocated to Mr. Bush, who was vice president at the time, that U.S. arms shipments to Iran be resumed as a goodwill gesture to encourage the release of additional U.S. hostages.
"Well, I'd have to go back and look, but I think that's most unlikely," Mr. Bush said when asked whether he had reported on the meeting to Mr. Reagan. "I'd have to check it and let you know."
Mr. Bush was responding to information in a new book by Richard V. Secord, the retired Air Force major general who worked closely with former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North to oversee what was supposed to a secret trade of arms for hostages.
While Mr. Secord acknowledges that he has no direct evidence that Mr. Bush facilitated any of the arms shipments, he challenges the president's long-held assertion that he wasn't "in the loop" of Reagan administration officials familiar with the top-secret discussions.
In his book, "Honored and Betrayed: Irangate, Covert Affairs and the Secret War in Laos," Mr. Secord notes the coincidence of Vice President Bush's meeting with Mr. Nir one day and President Reagan's approval of an arms shipment to Iran the next.
"It is clear this change in policy came about after the briefing and immediately after," Mr. Secord said in an interview yesterday on the ABC program "Good Morning America." "I am not saying Vice President Bush was entirely responsible for that, not at all. What I say is that he was in the loop, and he did report this back."
Democratic challenger Bill Clinton's campaign was quick to exploit this new sign of potential weakness.
Mr. Clinton's running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, said, "Now we have direct testimony of people involved who say that he was not only in the loop, he was on the illegal side of the argument."