Memo again raises question of how much Bush knew of Iran-contra deal

October 21, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A White House document, little-noticed before, shows that in November 1986 George Bush endorsed a Reagan administration plan to conceal the specifics of the Iran initiative as details of the secret arms-for-hostage arrangement began spilling into public view.

The document, a cable from John M. Poindexter, the national security adviser, to Secretary of State George P. Shultz, came shortly before Mr. Bush asserted that he had urged administration officials to tell the truth about the affair.

The message lists Mr. Bush as one of several senior officials who favored a "close-mouthed" policy even as Mr. Shultz sought to persuade top officials to disclose what they knew.

Mr. Poindexter's cable was one of tens of thousands of formerly classified government papers released by the Iran-contra congressional investigating committees in 1986 and 1987. At that time, Mr. Bush's role was not a central focus of the investigations, and so the document received little attention.

But in recent months the president's role in the Iran-contra scandal, and whether he has explained his role in full, have become campaign issues. Democrats have pressed Mr. Bush for a fuller account of his actions during the affair, in part as a counterweight to the Republican accusations that Gov. Bill Clinton has shaded his accounts of how he avoided the draft during the Vietnam War.

The Poindexter memorandum suggests that then-vice president Bush's position within the ranks of top officials was somewhat different from the way he presented it in a speech a month later. In that speech, intended to clear the air about the affair and his role in it, he said:

"Let the chips fall where they may. We want the truth. The president wants it. I want it. And the American people have a right to it. If the truth hurts, so be it. We got to take our lumps and move ahead."

In the following months and years, Mr. Bush wrote a book and along with his staff has answered what he has estimated were 3,500 questions about the affair. But he has never provided a detailed account of how much he knew and what he did in an arrangement to sell arms to Iran in an effort to free American hostages there.

There has never been any evidence that Mr. Bush was aware of another central element of the affair, the diversion of some of the profits from those arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels.

C. Boyden Gray, Mr. Bush's legal counsel, said yesterday there was nothing new in the Poindexter document. "This is fully described in Chapter 19 of the congressional report," he said. "I cannot see any reason why there is any news."

That chapter of the report, prepared by the House and Senate committees that investigated the affair, refers to the Poindexter cable but focuses primarily on other administration officials, like Mr. Poindexter himself, who provided several incomplete and misleading accounts that culminated with the news conference Nov. 25 when Attorney General Edwin Meese III disclosed the diversion of proceeds from the arms sales to help buy arms for the Nicaraguan rebels.

The cable -- sent from the White House situation room and marked top secret -- does not resolve a broader question: how much Mr. Bush knew of the arms-for-hostages affair as vice president.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly said he knew arms were being sold to Iran and that hostages were being released but did not view the operation as an arms-for-hostages arrangement until December 1986, when the details were made public.

The Poindexter document implies that Mr. Bush knew enough of the Iran initiative to be sought out by Mr. Poindexter in the internal struggle over how much should be revealed. But it also is possible that Mr. Bush knew fewer of the details about the affair than Mr. Poindexter, the official directly in charge, and consequently might not have fully grasped how much would be concealed by a posture of non-disclosure.

The Poindexter memo was written on Nov. 5, 1986, two days after a Beirut weekly magazine disclosed that Robert C. McFarlane, a former national security adviser to President Reagan, had secretly traveled to Tehran the previous May in a failed effort to gain the release of the hostages in exchange for weapons.

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