Bush's cover-up crumbles

Anthony Lewis

October 06, 1992|By Anthony Lewis

Atlanta - WHEN A politician tries to cover up his role in a scandal, he may do himself more harm than he would have by telling the truth at the start. That was so for Richard Nixon in Watergate. It is turning out the same way for George Bush in the Iran-contra affair.

From the moment the public learned of the affair, in November 1986, Mr. Bush has maintained that he was not involved -- that as vice president he was "out of the loop." In particular, he has said many times that he was not aware arms were being sent to Iran in return for release of American hostages in Lebanon.

In recent weeks those claims have been challenged by newly disclosed documents and comments from participants. Now, thanks to Ted Koppel and his ABC News program "Nightline," the Bush cover-up is in shreds.

"Nightline" last Friday focused on a crucial episode: Vice President Bush's meeting in Jerusalem on July 29, 1986, with Amiram Nir, an Israeli official who worked with Oliver North and Gen. Richard Secord in the Iranian dealings.

A staff member of the Tower Commission, which was set up by President Reagan to investigate Iran-contra, interviewed Mr. Bush and asked him about that meeting. The staff member summarized Mr. Bush's reply as follows:

"Vice President Bush related that his discussion with Mr. Nir was generally about counterterrorism. There was no discussion of specifics relating to arms going to the Iranians."

But the vice president's chief of staff, Craig Fuller, had been with him at the Jerusalem meeting and wrote a memo of the conversation with Nir. In due course it had to be produced for the Tower Commission, and it showed that there had been an intensive discussion of arms to Iran.

Mr. Nir died in a plane crash in 1988. But he left behind a classified memo about the meeting with Mr. Bush. He wrote it in February 1987 to the then prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir. "Nightline" obtained a copy and read portions on the air.

Mr. Nir's memo was in essence an expansion and correction of Mr. Fuller's, which had been published. "Fuller skipped the detailed description," Mr. Nir wrote. He said Mr. Fuller had missed a lot because he had not been involved in the Iran operation.

(Mr. Fuller actually made the same point in a deposition to Congress's Iran-contra committee. He said Oliver North had asked him to set up the Bush-Nir meeting, saying "I may not know a lot about the program but the vice president was fully aware of it.")

Mr. Nir said he told the vice president that the Iranians wanted to change plans. Instead of the release of all hostages, to be followed by a massive U.S. arms shipment, the deal should work in four sequential stages.

"I explained to the vice president," he wrote, "that according to the Iranian proposal the equipment that will be delivered in all four phases . . . will not exceed and may even be less than the quantity promised to them after they released all of the hostages."

One American hostage, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, had been released three days earlier. Mr. Nir told Mr. Bush that was a signal that a sequential deal would work.

Mr. Bush has often said that the U.S. was dealing with "moderate" Iranians. But Mr. Nir's memorandum said he told the vice president that they were dealing with "the most extreme." Why? Because, he said, as the Jenco release showed, "They are capable of delivering, where the moderates are not."

After the Nir memorandum, can anyone believe that George Bush did not know the dealings were about arms for hostages? Can anyone doubt that he lied to the Tower Commission about the nature of the Nir meeting?

Moreover, immediately after the Nir meeting the Reagan administration took up the Iranian proposal and resumed arms shipments to Iran. Mr. Nir thought his briefing of Mr. Bush had done the trick. He told Mr. Secord, according to the general: "Things couldn't have turned out better. Mr. Bush was very attentive."

Mr. Bush said last month that he had "given every bit of evidence I have to these thousands of investigators." In fact he has testified twice, briefly. He has brushed aside press questions. He has assumed, I believe, that the unraveling of the cover-up would not hurt him politically. Is he right?

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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