The Justice Department will reassess pending prosecutions of arms dealers accused of violating a federal ban on weapons sales to Iran in light of reports that top White House aides engaged in covert arms shipments to Tehran, a department spokesman said Thursday.
The official also conceded that the reported secret White House operation "raises legal questions" about whether previously convicted arms dealers should remain in prison.
"There will be a general, case-by-case review of all our cases relating to arms deals with Iran," John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a terse statement.
The Times, quoting government sources, reported Thursday that the Reagan Administration, using an Israeli-operated supply line, has shipped U.S.-made missiles and weapons parts to Iran since last year in an operation that led to the release of three American hostages in Lebanon.
The secret missions were reportedly directed by former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and apparently were conducted initially without the knowledge of Secretary of State George P. Shultz or Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Despite the Justice Department's planned review, U.S. Customs Service spokesman Dennis Murphy insisted Thursday that the agency "will continue to enforce (the laws against) arms export violations" in shipments involving Iran and other embargoed nations.
It is unclear how many criminal cases might be affected nationwide by the Justice Department's case-by-case review. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Fahey estimated that in Los Angeles alone, the leading federal district in numbers of arms case prosecutions, there are "approximately five or six cases under active investigation."
The reported disclosures also cast new light on evidence emerging from the biggest of the cases, which is awaiting trial in New York. It is almost certain to be among the first reviewed by the Justice Department. Among the 17 international businessmen charged with conspiring to send restricted munitions and arms to Iran, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, was retired Israeli Gen. Avraham Bar-Am.
"A lot of other people have gone to jail for violating the foreign policy of the United States and now we find out that the U.S. officials responsible for our foreign policy were actually sending arms to Iran in support of that foreign policy," said Lawrence Bader, an attorney for one of the defendants in New York.
Bush May Be Linked
Court records in that case, and the transcripts of undercover tape recordings of conversations between the accused arms dealers, indicate that unnamed aides to Vice President George Bush and others on the National Security Council may have met secretly with some of the dealers between last December and February to negotiate terms for a proposed U.S.-sanctioned arms deal with Iran.
Federal prosecutors in New York had derided as "far-fetched" the claim of several defendants that any arms trade with Iran would have the sanction of high U.S. officials. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Schofield told the court she would have produced any documents indicating "that the foreign policy of the United States . . . was to permit the shipment of U.S. arms to Iran," but she said, "at this time we are aware of none."
One of those charged in the case, London-based American attorney Sam Evans, told The Times recently that another defendant--identified in court records as John de la Roque, an American living as a fugitive in St. Tropez, France--told him repeatedly that he was working w1769236512Council.
De la Roque, who has been indicted in the New York case, could not be reached at his home or office in St. Tropez where the telephones have been disconnected.
De la Roque, according to court records, said he had met with two American officials in West Germany early last February. And in a telephone conversation monitored by Customs Service agents, De la Roque reported after the meeting that the proposed transaction--involving F-4 fighter planes for Iran--was opposed by Shultz but was at least tentatively supported by Bush.
According to transcripts of the secretly recorded call, De la Roque assured his Iranian contact on Feb. 7, "My feeling is good right now. . . . Now it's as far up as it (the proposal) can go, and (the vice president) . . . says it's good. He used to be the head of the CIA so he knows what he's doing. . . . So I imagine that he feels that if it's good for him politically, he'll do it."
De la Roque also explained on the tape that "the way (the shipments) would go (to Iran) would be . . . via Israel."
Talked to U.S. Ambassador
A week later, another of the accused conspirators, Nico Minardos of Beverly Hills, said he met with U.S. Ambassador Maxwell M. Rabb in Rome to confirm, he told his partners in recorded conversations, whether U.S. officials were going to back the deal. Minardos said Rabb promised to get back to him after looking into it.
Federal prosecutors confirmed that the meeting took place, but would not disclose Rabb's version of what was discussed.
In any event, Rabb never got back to Minardos, and De la Roque's apparent negotiations with U.S. officials collapsed during mounting tensions between the United States and Libya. "This is sort of taking the back burner, unfortunately," De la Roque told his Iranian contact, according to the transcripts.
Nevertheless, De la Roque repeated requests for intelligence information that he said American officials wanted as a show of "good faith" from the Iranians.
According to the transcripts, De la Roque said U.S officials wanted the serial numbers of captured Soviet-built Iraqi tanks supposedly kept at the Renault automobile plant in Tehran. Also requested by U.S. sources, apparently, were the names of Soviet officials who were planning a state visit to Iran.
Meetings between De la Roque and aides to Bush or others on the National Security Council could not be confirmed, and no arms trade was consummated.
The Iran contact, Cyrus Hashemi--a cousin of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament--turned out to be operating as a Justice Department informant. Hashemi, 42, died, apparently of leukemia, shortly after the indictments were released.
Named in those indictments were De la Roque, Evans, Minardos, Bar-Am and 13 others. At a New York press conference in April, U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab called the accused arms traders "the brokers of death" who would have allowed American weapons to reach the "bloody hands of international terrorists."
It was uncertain how the reported disclosures might also affect cases like that of Hormoz Hezar of Beverly Hills, due to be sentenced Monday after pleading guilty last summer to shipping 50 radios and electronic components to Iran. Fahey, the assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the case.
Case May Be Jeopardized
Sources in the U.S. attorney's office in New York also declined to comment. However, other federal law enforcement sources said they are concerned that the New York case may be jeopardized because of the reportedWhite House operation.
"It sure gives defense lawyers a lot of ammunition for a 'gray mail' defense," said one source, explaining that such a defense involves claims that the accused conspirators were working directly or indirectly for the government.
And another source complained about the reported White House operation itself.
"I just wish they would have handed out the same sheet music to everyone," he said.