Looking at Iran-contra, and finding Bush fingerprints

Jay LaMonica & Tara Sonenshine

October 22, 1992|By Jay LaMonica & Tara Sonenshine

GEORGE Bush's assertions about the Iran-contra scandal have seemed less and less plausible.

The voluminous record of several investigative panels and the testimony of Reagan administration officials simply contradict his denials that he knew nothing about the arms-for-hostages trade with Iran.

Now, new documents nail down the facts, perhaps beyond the president's ability to deny them.

His role in this major foreign-policy blunder goes to the heart of the question of trust, something his campaign has worked so hard to make a central issue in this election.

The new evidence that then-Vice President Bush knew the details of the Iran arms deal can be found in the account of a crucial meeting with the Israeli counterterrorism expert Amiram Nir, who met with Mr. Bush in Jerusalem in midsummer 1986 at a key juncture in the ill-fated episode.

Until recently the sole record of that meeting came from Mr. Bush's chief of staff, Craig Fuller, whose memo of the conversation was eventually submitted to the Tower Commission investigation of the Iran-contra scandal, and from Mr. Bush's own somewhat vague statements on the matter. Mr. Nir died in a plane crash in late 1988 and his version of events was never revealed.

But "Nightline" obtained a secret memo from Mr. Nir to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel written in February 1987 after the Washington Post published Mr. Fuller's notes of the Bush-Nir meeting.

There are only four copies of Mr. Nir's memo, titled "The Publication of the Meeting with Vice President of the United States."

"Nightline" recently broadcast a few excerpts from the memo in an effort to compare Mr. Nir's memo with the Fuller account, but only a few substantive points were broadcast.

One such point included a discussion of which Iranian faction the Reagan administration initiative was aimed at reaching.

"In actuality," Mr. Nir wrote, "what was said with regard to the hostages, there is no choice but to deal with the most extreme [faction] because they are controlling the fate; they are capable of delivering where the moderates are not. Now that [Father Lawrence] Jenco has been released, it is absolutely clear."

Mr. Nir's memo recounted in detail how he briefed Mr. Bush about the U.S. bartering of weapons for hostages, which began in late 1985.

But when Mr. Bush was first questioned about the Nir meeting by investigators for the Tower Commission in 1986, he left them with this impression, according to the commission's report: "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 Mr. Nir's 11-page memo covered several points at odds with Mr. Bush's version of the meeting.

* Point 1. Mr. Nir's memo of his conversation with Mr. Bush makes no mention of counterterrorism but is explicit about the arms-for-hostages operation. Mr. Nir states that he reviewed the history of the operation for the vice president including the ill-fated November 1985 shipment of surface-to-air missiles.

Mr. Nir writes: "I said the delivery of Hawk missiles in November didn't come out well." Mr. Bush has always asserted that he was "not in the loop" in discussions of such shipments.

* Point 2. Mr. Bush has repeatedly said that even though he supported the Iran initiative, he never understood it to be arms for hostages. Yet Mr. Nir said he detailed the arms-for-hostages formula.

"I described the format that was suggested at the beginning of January, namely fixed price, using the hostages as a test for the seriousness and the intention of the Iranian top echelon, using the supply of combat material, the first delivery of material, as a leverage for the first-of-its-kind direct meeting between Iranian and American officials."

* Point 3. Mr. Nir outlined the state of play and how the Iranians wanted more straightforward exchanges of arms for hostages. The Nir-Bush meeting took place a few days after the release of Father Jenco.

Mr. Nir explained to the vice president that a critical decision needed to be made: Whether to accept Iran's latest scheme for a series of trades of weapons for hostages or continue with U.S. assistance on an all-or-nothing package deal.

Mr. Nir wrote, "I explained to the vice president that, according to the Iranian proposal, the equipment that will be delivered in all four phases that they had proposed will not exceed, and may be even less, than the quantity promised to them after they released all of the hostages. However, I emphasize this was not the original plan and we must be made aware of it."

Mr. Bush claimed he did not know the details of the arms-for-hostages deal until he was briefed in December 1986, months after this meeting.

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