Reagan OKd Contra Arms During Ban, Documents Say

Times Staff Writer

According to an aide’s notation, former President Ronald Reagan approved a shipment of U.S. arms to Nicaragua’s Contras in late 1985--despite a congressional ban on such U.S. military assistance--documents introduced at the trial of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North showed Thursday.

A memo written on Oct. 3, 1985, by North and approved by his immediate superior, John M. Poindexter, with Poindexter’s notation “President approved,” reported on Contra activities and said in part:

“You should also tell the President that we intend to air drop intelligence along with two recoilless rifles that should be able to sink one or both the arms carriers.”

Robert C. McFarlane, White House national security adviser at the time who has spent the last five days on the witness stand, testified that the rifles amounted to small artillery that could help Contra forces destroy or intercept ships that were carrying arms on a regular basis to troops of the leftist Sandinista government. But it was not disclosed whether the air-drop of arms and intelligence reports ever was completed.


McFarlane testified that the White House believed that Reagan was not bound by the congressional ban, authored by former Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), in conducting foreign affairs. But North’s memo suggested involvement in the air-drop by others who clearly would have been bound, including the CIA and U.S. military authorities.

Poindexter, who handled the memo, was McFarlane’s chief deputy at the time. He later succeeded McFarlane in December, 1985, and was indicted last March, along with North and two others in the Iran-Contra scandal.

At a hearing in another courtroom Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. said that Poindexter’s separate trial will begin this fall after the conclusion of proceedings against North.

Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North’s attorney, brought out the involvement by the former President to support his contention that the Reagan White House had pursued a policy of secret assistance to the Contras, with covert support from U.S. allies, to compensate for a cutoff in aid by Congress in 1985 and 1986.

Sullivan has contended that North, in line with this policy, acted on orders of his superiors to conceal his pro-Contra activities from Congress. The retired Marine officer is principally being tried on charges that he made false statements to Congress in 1985 and 1986 and obstructed congressional inquiries concerning his work for the National Security Council.

Sullivan elicited testimony a day earlier from McFarlane that Reagan also had assisted the Nicaraguan guerrilla forces in 1985 by telephoning the president of Honduras to facilitate a shipment of ammunition to the Contras.

Sullivan also asked McFarlane about a 1985 memo in which North reported that he planned to meet with retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub to discuss Singlaub’s plan to obtain funds from Taiwan and South Korea to help equip the Contras.

McFarlane said that he instructed North to have Singlaub operate “on his own” without the endorsement of the White House or the National Security Council.


“Isn’t it clear,” interjected U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, “that you didn’t want any disclosure that you had authorized North to assist in getting arms and ammunition to the Contras?”

“It is perfectly clear I did not want him raising money,” McFarlane said.

McFarlane--during another round of questioning by John W. Keker, the chief prosecutor--acknowledged that members of Reagan’s National Security Council sought to keep secret the solicitation of Contra aid from other nations so that high government officials could deny the effort if they were ever questioned by Congress about it.