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Reagan and Bush Deceived Public, McFarlane Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush deceived the public about their knowledge of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal, according to memoirs being published Monday by one of the central figures in the event, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane.

McFarlane says he briefed President Reagan and then-Vice President Bush from the start of the deal in 1985, 17 months earlier than Bush admits he knew about it.

The comments are noteworthy because the question of Bush’s knowledge has focused for years on whether he was present during two White House meetings in late 1985 and early 1986 at which the Iran-Contra deal was discussed.

But in an interview based on the book, scheduled to air tonight on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes,” McFarlane is now saying he told Bush about the deal outside of those meetings, claiming he briefed Bush 12 times over the 17 months.

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Bush’s office in Texas said the former President was traveling and was unavailable for comment.

McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to four misdemeanors for withholding information from Congress about the complicated secret deal, in which arms were sold to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held in Beirut and cash from the sales was then used to resupply Nicaraguan Contra guerrillas, whose funding had been cut off by Congress.

In the book, McFarlane writes that Reagan, who always insisted that he never knew the arrangement was a direct swap for hostages, “lacked the moral conviction and intellectual courage” to admit his involvement, though the author adds that he doubts First Lady Nancy Reagan and others would have allowed him to do so even if he had so desired.

Reagan aides in California said he was not available for comment.

McFarlane’s book, “Special Trust,” offers other allegations concerning the scandal and the inner workings of the Reagan White House, particularly from 1985 to 1986.

Among them: Israeli officials proposed assassinating the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in July, 1985, by slowly poisoning his food. McFarlane said he rejected the plan outright, never mentioning it to Reagan. Soon after, McFarlane and other U.S. officials began trying to negotiate with moderates in Iran for the arms deal.

McFarlane’s account is already generating a new spat with the another notable figure in the scandal, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who is now the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. According to the most recent polls, North is leading Democratic incumbent Charles S. Robb.

In the interview, McFarlane, North’s boss at the White House, describes his former protege as a liar and a con man, and he contradicts North’s assertion that he never lied under oath about the secret plan.

“He lies to me, to the Congress, to the President,” McFarlane said. “This is not somebody you want in public life.”

North, in a response issued Friday, called McFarlane’s book a “pitiful and mean-spirited attempt to glue his broken reputation back together again.”

North also released a previously undisclosed court transcript in which the late U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell called McFarlane “an intensely unreliable witness in almost every respect of his testimony.” According to North, the comment was made during a conference with lawyers at the judge’s bench after McFarlane testified at North’s 1989 criminal trial.

North was convicted of felonies for lying to Congress about the scheme, but those convictions were overturned on a technicality.

North remains popular politically, McFarlane says in the interview, “because he’s a performer. In the last 30 years, being skilled in media has become more important than a matter of character or integrity. And North is conning people today the same as he did in government.

“For him, having dishonored his family name, betrayed his friends, he has to wash away that stain somehow. And a way to do it is to con the people of Virginia into saying: ‘You are an honest man.’. . . I’m not hopeful about Ollie North. I mean, the guy has no business in the U.S. Senate.”

After his conviction, McFarlane tried to commit suicide because, he said, he blamed himself for the scandal and the damage it did to the Reagan presidency.

“I had been the reason why we had this huge national scandal and in the process would lose the chance to do so many useful things,” he said.

The plan to assassinate Khomeini, McFarlane says, was offered by Israeli Foreign Ministry official David Kimche in a meeting at the White House.

Kimche said the Israelis had operatives close enough to the ayatollah that they had devised a scheme to gradually infuse the Iranian leader with poison, McFarlane reports.

“I said: ‘The United States cannot be involved with Israel in any kind of operation in which your intent is to assassinate or otherwise accelerate the demise of anybody,’ ” McFarlane said in the interview.

McFarlane says Kimche then gave him a firm commitment that the Israelis would not proceed. As a result of that commitment, McFarlane says he never told Reagan about the proposal.

In the book, McFarlane also says officials around Reagan considered the “Star Wars” program--the plan to build a halo of weapons in space that would supposedly protect the United States from attack--to be nothing more than a bluff to scare the Russians. Congress would never fund it, even if the plan would work, he says.

But McFarlane says Reagan didn’t know this and believed the program would be financed.


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