Justice Dept. Opinion Appears to Agree With Reagan’s Critics

From a Times Staff Writer

For more than two months, members of Congress have been debating whether the congressional ban on U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan rebels applied to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and the National Security Council staff.

Democrats and some Republicans have argued that North violated the ban, an amendment by Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), by directing private aid efforts for the contras . The White House and its defenders have contended that the amendment never covered North.

But President Reagan’s own Justice Department appears to agree with the President’s critics, according to a document released Tuesday. In a legal opinion written last December, Asst. Atty. Gen. Charles J. Cooper found that the NSC staff “clearly falls within the definition of an intelligence agency.”


The Boland amendment, which was in effect from October, 1985, through October, 1986, prohibited “the CIA, the Department of Defense or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities” from spending money to aid the contras “directly or indirectly.”

White House spokesmen and other Administration officials have argued that the NSC staff did not fall under the legal definition of an intelligence agency and was not covered by the amendment.

“If we in Congress had wanted to include the National Security Council (in the amendment), we should have said so, and we would have said so,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said.

Cooper’s opinion was not about the Boland amendment but about the legality of the Administration’s secret arms sales to Iran. In examining the laws affecting that operation, however, the assistant attorney general noted: “The NSC clearly falls within the definition of an intelligence agency given in section 403(b)(1) of the Intelligence Authorization Act: ‘any department, agency or other entity of the United States involved in intelligence or intelligence-related activities.’ ”

Cautious Endorsement

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III gave a cautious and hedged endorsement of that opinion in his appearance in Congress’ Iran-contra hearings Tuesday.

“As it pertains to the Intelligence Authorization Act . . . I think it is probable that the NSC would fall within that, since it is--or at least it could be--deemed to be an entity of the United States involved in an intelligence-related activity,” he said.


But Meese said he had not studied the Boland amendment sufficiently to say whether North might have violated it and said that the Justice Department has never been asked for an opinion on whether the amendment applied to the NSC.