Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III played a central role last November in a high-level Reagan Administration effort to cover up U.S. involvement in an Israeli shipment of American-made arms to Iran a year earlier, former White House aide Oliver L. North said Tuesday.
At the Justice Department, Meese promptly denied North's allegations through his chief spokesman, Terry Eastland. East-land said the attorney general had been completely unaware of the 1985 Israeli arms shipments to Iran until late November, 1986, when he was conducting a preliminary inquiry into the sales.
In addition, North insisted that he always kept other Administration officials informed of his efforts to help the Nicaraguan resistance--including Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who has testified that he was unaware of North's activities.
North was the first witness before the congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra affair who specifically named Meese as a participant in the cover-up effort, which also was said to have involved North, the late CIA Director William J. Casey and former National Security Advisers John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane.
North's remarks about Meese centered on a White House meeting last Nov. 20 in which Casey, Poindexter, North, Meese and several other officials discussed the testimony that the CIA director would deliver to the House and Senate intelligence committees the next day, shortly after the Iran arms sales became public knowledge.
It was decided at the meeting that Casey would tell the committees that the United States had been unaware of the Israeli arms shipments at the time they were delivered. Although President Reagan apparently had approved the shipments and U.S. officials had provided last-minute assistance in arranging transportation for the arms, the group decided that Casey would tell Congress that the Administration thought the plane was carrying oil-drilling equipment.
Their cover story apparently was intended to keep from Congress the fact that CIA officials had aided in this shipment without first obtaining a formal "finding" from the President, an authorization required by law for such covert actions. Instead, North said, the President signed a highly unusual retroactive finding after the operation ended.
Eastland said Meese had "no basis on which to judge accuracy" of statements made by others at the Nov. 20 session because of his lack of knowledge about the 1985 shipments. "He, therefore, could not have acquiesced--and, in fact, he did not acquiesce--either verbally or otherwise in any description of the facts that he knew at that time to be inaccurate," Eastland said.
North said that, although he willingly participated in the development of a cover story that he knew to be false, he was certainly not the only official who participated in the cover-up effort.
"I realize there's a lot of folks that think (I was) a loose cannon on the gun deck of state at the NSC," said North, who was an aide to the National Security Council until last November. "That wasn't what I heard while I worked there. I've only heard it since I left.
" . . . The fact is there were many, many people, to include the former assistant to the President for national security affairs, the current (in 1986) national security adviser, the attorney general of the United States of America, the director of the Central Intelligence--all of whom knew that to be wrong."
North said all of those officials had been involved in the deliberations in 1985, when the Administration originally decided to support the Israeli shipments of U.S. weapons to Iran in an effort to gain release of U.S. hostages held in the Middle East.
"If I remember the events in 1985 correctly, there was a whole cadence of people who met in November of 1985 and December of 1985 to include the secretaries of state and defense and others who participated in those activities," he said. "I didn't consider myself to be the lone wolf out there creating paper that nobody else knew about."
Legal Basis for 'Finding'
As for Meese's role in 1985, it was the attorney general who approved the legal basis for the retroactive "finding" that was signed by the President, North said, although he acknowledged that, at the time, "I didn't talk to the attorney general directly about it, nor did I talk to the President directly about it."
Eastland said Meese could not have approved the 1985 finding because he had been unaware of the arms sales in that year until he attended the White House meeting on Nov. 20, 1986.
Meese left the meeting early to speak at West Point, Eastland said. There, he added, Meese was called by Assistant Atty. Gen. Charles J. Cooper, who told him that State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer had found evidence that Administration officials were fully aware at the time of the Israeli arms shipments--contradicting statements made at the Nov. 20 session. Meese cut the trip short and returned to Washington.
The story recounted by Eastland is consistent with Cooper's testimony before the Iran-contra investigating committees.
Eastland insisted also that the 1985 finding was drafted not by Meese but by then-CIA general counsel Stanley Sporkin at the request of then-CIA Deputy Director John N. McMahon. He said Meese knew nothing of the 1985 finding until Nov. 22, 1986, when he interviewed Sporkin as part of his preliminary investigation of the Iran arms sales.
The Tower Commission, the board appointed by Reagan to investigate the affair, reported that Meese recalled having attended a Dec. 7, 1985, meeting in Reagan's personal quarters at the White House where the Iranian arms transactions were discussed.
Report 'in Error'
But Eastland said the commission report was "in error," adding that Meese was in Switzerland on Dec. 7 and that the meeting that the attorney general remembered attending was on Jan. 7, 1986. Meese has made no effort to correct the commission report, which was released more than four months ago.
North recalled that, after the Nov. 20 meeting, he and Casey privately revised the director's prepared testimony to eliminate false statements about the 1985 shipment. Although Casey's actual testimony was misleading, omitting key facts, it was not technically inaccurate.
The former White House aide hotly denied a statement by Cooper that the testimony was corrected only because Meese and a top State Department official demanded it.
North testified also that he willingly participated last November in the development of a White House chronology that disguised U.S. involvement in the 1985 Israeli shipment. He said he did so at the urging of his former boss, McFarlane, who resigned as Reagan's national security adviser in December, 1985.
Protecting Iran Contacts
He said he prepared the false chronology not because he was trying to conceal illegality but because he feared that the truth would have jeopardized the Administration's efforts to maintain contact with moderate elements in Iran believed to be influential in efforts to free Americans being held hostage in Lebanon.
A month ago, Abrams told the committee that, although he had frequent meetings with North, he never suspected that anyone in the Administration was actually running a contra supply network. He said he assumed that North was doing nothing more than "monitoring" efforts by private American citizens to provide assistance to the contras.
But North contradicted Abrams' testimony. He said his activities were well known to all members of the interagency group headed by Abrams.
"What they knew is that I was the person who was causing these things to happen," North said. "There was no doubt in their mind . . . . These people knew what I was doing. They knew that it was a covert operation being conducted by this government to support the Nicaraguan resistance."
North's testimony is expected to increase congressional pressure for Abrams' resignation.