IRAN AND THE CONTRAS. Arms affair: puzzles wrapped in enigmas
It has been five weeks since a pro-Syrian Lebanese weekly, Ash Shiraa, broke the news that the United States was secretly shipping arms to Iran. Since then, the controversy has broadened to include reports that profits from the arms sales were funneled to a secret Swiss bank account to aid rebel groups fighting against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.Skip to next paragraph
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In the coming weeks the Justice Department, several congressional committees, and the nation's news media will be seeking answers to a growing list of unanswered questions. Among them:
How much did President Reagan and his senior advisers know about the Iran-contra operation?
Questions persist about when President Reagan knew about and authorized the arms sales. (Related story, Page 10.) Reagan has denied knowing about the diversion of profits from the arms sale to aid the Nicaraguan contras until being told by Attorney General Edwin Meese on Nov. 24. So far no one has directly contradicted the President. But some in Congress say it is unlikely that Mr. Reagan would have been unaware of the funds transfers.
Attorney General Meese says information about the operation was confined to three National Security Council officials: former NSC chiefs Robert C. McFarlane and Vice-Adm. John M. Poindexter and a former staff member, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
But questions have been raised about the possible knowledge of other top White House officials. Both White House chief of staff Donald Regan and Vice-President George Bush have denied knowledge of the contra connection. But skeptics question whether Mr. Regan, who holds tight control over the operation of the White House staff, could have been ignorant of the activities of subordinates like Admiral Poindexter, Colonel North, and Mr. McFarlane.
Meanwhile, Mr Bush, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has been linked in news reports to a secret contra resupply operation through contacts with a former CIA official who now serves as Bush's principal national-security adviser.
Secretary of State George Shultz, who opposed the Iran arms shipments, says he was only ``sporadically'' informed of the shipments and knew nothing of the Swiss bank accounts until the story became public two weeks ago.
How much did US intelligence agencies know about the Iran-contra connection?
The CIA arranged air transportation for at least one Israeli arms shipment to Iran in November 1985. After the President signed a ``finding'' in January 1986 authorizing direct US arms shipments to Iran, the agency acted as middleman, arranging the transfer of US arms from American stockpiles to Israel for transshipment to Iran.
The CIA has admitted handling certain financial aspects of the Iranian arms sales, including collecting funds to reimburse the Pentagon for the initial $12 million cost of weapons sold to Iran. But questions remain about whether the CIA helped funnel some $10 million to $30 million in profits from the sales to a Swiss bank account maintained to fund the Nicaraguan contras.
A reference by Attorney General Meese in a Nov. 25 White House press briefing to ``a number of intercepts'' concerning the Iran arms deal has stirred speculation that other US intelligence agencies - particularly the National Security Agency, which intercepts and decodes electronic transmissions and signals worldwide - may have known of the Iran-contra arrangement before it became public.
CIA Director William Casey says he learned of the contra connection only after it became public, but he has admitted to hearing ``gossip'' about secret sources of funding for the contras. News reports say Mr. Casey may have learned of the contra connection from intelligence sources a month before it was publicly disclosed by Meese but apparently failed to inform any senior administration officials.
Casey is said to have learned of the contra connection as a result of analysis conducted at the CIA based on intercepted messages of unknown origin. The messages are said to quote Iranians involved in the US arms deals as saying they had been significantly overcharged for the weapons. It is unclear whether these intercepts were the same ones referred to by Meese on Nov. 25.
What quantity of arms actually reached Iran?
In a televised address to the nation two weeks ago, Reagan said that ``everything that we sold [Iran] could be put in one cargo plane and there would be plenty of room left over.''