Washington — The presidentially appointed Tower Commission looking into the Iran-contra scandal has rendered its harsh judgment: President Reagan was in effect conducting an arms-for-American-hostages policy in his covert arms dealings with Iran, despite his public assertions to the contrary. This was directly at odds with official US policy of not negotiating with terrorists or supplying Iran with weapons.
Following an intensive investigation of the scandal, the three-man commission issued a report yesterday that detailed sweeping evidence of mismanagement within the White House, ranging from presidential detachment and ignorance of facts to massive disregard of the National Security Council (NSC) process by aides and subordinates.
It was not the commission's charge to assess the criminal liability of aides engaged in the Iran-contra affair. But it strongly criticized virtually every high official of the administration who was involved in Iran policy - from the White House chief of staff and NSC aides to the secretaries of state and defense and the director of central intelligence.
With his authority already weakened by the months-old crisis, the President faces a growing challenge of rejuvenating his leadership in the remaining months in office. Bipartisan concern grows in Washington that, unless something is done to revive presidential authority - and reengage the President in the affairs of state - the United States will tread water at home and abroad in the two years ahead.
Among the commission's findings:
The President ``did not seem to be aware'' of how his Iran policy was being carried out or of the consequences of that policy. He did not force his policy to undergo critical assessment or insist upon accountability and performance review. ``With such a complex, high-risk operation and so much at stake, the President should have ensured that the NSC system did not fail him,'' the report states.
NSC aides, knowing of Mr. Reagan's style of delegating tasks, failed to engage the President in critical decisions that were basically his responsibility. Among others, former national-security adviser John Poindexter failed to ensure that an orderly NSC process was observed.
Donald Regan, who ``more than any chief of staff of recent memory'' has ``asserted personal control over the White House staff and sought to extend the control to the national-security adviser,'' failed to insist that an orderly process was observed or ensure that plans were made for handling public disclosure of the operation. ``He must bear primary responsibility for the chaos that descended upon the White House when such disclosure did occur,'' the report says.
Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger ``distanced themselves from the march of events'' and failed to give the President their continued advice about the program. ``They protected the record as to their own positions on this issue,'' the commission says, and were not ``energetic'' in trying to protect Reagan from the effects of his policy.
Former CIA Director William Casey, who received information about the possible diversion of funds to the contras, did not act promptly to raise the issue with the President.
The NSC officials carrying out the Iran-contra operations made no serious effort to come to grips with the legal restrictions on their program or the risks to the President of providing support for the contras in spite of these restrictions.
On the substance of foreign policy, the Tower Commission report acknowledges the validity of trying to establish links with Iran for long-term geopolitical reasons. But it strongly criticizes the policy of sending arms to Iran to achieve this end and attributes the arms-contra policy to the President's emotional obsession with trying to secure release of the American hostages.
As for Israel's role, the report says that it ``had its own interests, some in direct conflict with those of the United States,'' in having the administration pursue the Iran initiative. But, the panel says, the US government bears responsibility for its decisions.
Regarding the central question of whether Reagan approved the 1985 shipments of arms to Iran in advance (as required by law), the Tower panel says it could not reach a conclusive judgment. But, it adds, it believes ``that it is plausible to conclude that he did approve them in advance,'' and not after the fact, as some aides claimed. Even if he did, the report says, it is not clear that the form of the approval met the law's requirements.
For the President, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the commission report politically is not its criticism of the Iran-contra policy itself. Many presidents have been faulted for poor judgment and misguided policies under trying circumstances. More troubling may be the perception that Reagan is weak managerially, does not know what is going on in his own shop, and cannot take charge when things go awry.
There is also the matter of candidness and the inability to respond forthrightly when the Iran-contra scandal became public. Reagan has had a reputation as a straight talker, a reputation now sullied.
In fact what emerges from the Tower report is a portrait of a President and his aides which is at variance with the image of strong presidential leadership conveyed to the American people in the past six years. The question ahead is how Reagan will react to the report and what measures and initiatives he will take to help regenerate his presidency, now in a state of drift and confusion.
Further White House personnel changes, above all that of chief of staff Regan, are expected in the aftermath of the report. The President is staying in Washington this weekend, rather than flying to his Camp David retreat, to meet with close political advisers and plan strategy for the critical days ahead.
The Tower ``special review board'' was appointed by the President himself. It had a broad mandate to look into the operations of the NSC with a view to restoring order to the foreign policy-making process.
But the commission's probe became a full scale, vigorous investigation of the Iran-contra affair, based in part on examination of NSC computer memorandums that unexpectedly came to light.
The panel, comprising former Sen. John Tower of Texas, former Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, and former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, interviewed more than 56 witnesses, including Reagan twice. It was unable to persuade the President to order Oliver North or John Poindexter to be interviewed.