Former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III testified Tuesday that, during his investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal, he was concerned chiefly that it might severely damage President Reagan politically and even expose him to the risk of impeachment.
Meese, a prosecution witness at the trial of Oliver L. North, portrayed his November, 1986, inquiry into the arms-for-hostage deal as “essentially an administrative matter.” He made plain that his investigation did not delve deeply into the workings of the arms sale to Iran, from which $12 million in profits was diverted to Nicaragua’s rebels when such aid was barred by Congress.
A large part of his mission, Meese testified, was to prevent Reagan’s being savaged by his political enemies.
Wasn’t Obliged to Answer
Under those unofficial guidelines, Meese testified, North did not have to cooperate. He testified that the former Marine officer “had no legal obligation” to answer questions, “other than (as) a loyal member of the Administration.”
Meese took the stand as a witness for the prosecution, but his strongest comments on his concern about political damage were made during cross-examination by defense attorney Brendan V. Sullivan Jr.
The testimony centered on the 72 hours after Meese aides, on Nov. 22, 1986, found a computer memorandum that detailed the planned diversion to the Contras of money from arms sales to Iran. Meese’s testimony provided an unusually vivid account of the frantic political climate in the White House as the scandal unfolded in public.
The defense questioning of Meese seemed calculated to show that Reagan was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra affair--a perception that would bolster the defense claim that North’s effort to arm the Contras had been approved by his superiors.
Sullivan asked Meese if he believed that the scandal “could lead to impeachment.”
“Yes,” Meese answered.
Meese, calm throughout his testimony, said that he had discussed the concerns with Reagan. “I don’t know whether the actual word impeachment was used,” he said. “I certainly discussed the tremendous consequences to the President.”
Meese said that he had confronted North with the memorandum on Nov. 23, asking him who prepared it. Meese testified that North acknowledged preparing the memorandum and confirmed that the diversion plan had been carried out.
“Your worst nightmare had come true?” Sullivan asked.
“Yes . . . " Meese replied.
“You knew that spelled trouble?”
“Yes, I did.”
Meese met with Reagan the next day and told him what he had learned from North. At that point, Meese said, he realized that the damage from the Administration’s secret arms sales to Iran, along with secret--and banned--aid to the Contras, could be devastating to Reagan.
To avoid further political damage, Meese and Reagan agreed to call a news conference, detailing the scheme. “One of the concerns was to prevent this situation from being used by (political) opponents of the President,” Meese said.
By calling Meese, the prosecution apparently sought to bolster its case that North had lied to his superiors about the Iran-Contra affair.
Under questioning by prosecutor John W. Keker, Meese said that North had seemed surprised that the critical memo had turned up despite a massive document-shredding effort by North, his secretary and an aide. Also, Meese testified that North had said that the plan was Israel’s and that U.S. involvement was “none.”
Meese recalled: “I told him I wanted all of the facts. I said the worst thing that could happen would be if someone tried to conceal anything to protect themselves or the President, or try to put a good spin on it.”
North, a former National Security Council official, is being tried on 12 felony charges, including lying to Congress to hide his efforts to arm the Contras. The other major charges are that he shredded documents detailing the operation and obstructed congressional and presidential inquiries.
Before Meese took the stand, a former deputy to North testified that the NSC official was shredding documents in a hallway while Meese’s investigators were taking a lunch break.
Marine Lt. Col. Robert Earl said that North had returned from a White House meeting on Nov. 21, and requested Earl’s Iran files.
“I asked him what was going on,” Earl testified. “He said it was time for Ollie to be a scapegoat.”
Earl said that North wanted “sensitive intelligence documents,” which he placed atop a stack of papers. Earl understood that North was going to “sanitize” the files, he testified, adding that that meant destroying them.
They both shredded documents, Earl testified. The next day, Meese’s investigators passed North in the hall as they headed for lunch, and North rounded up more documents to destroy, Earl testified.