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The Iran-contra legal labyrinth. Conspiracy and cover-up just as important as whether laws broken

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1987


The Iran-contra misadventure raises fundamental questions of diplomatic and moral judgment in the conduct of United States foreign policy. It also raises a welter of legal questions, i.e., questions of what American laws were broken as the Reagan administration pursued an elaborate covert plan to sell US arms to Iran and, later, funnel some funds from the sale of the arms to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. As the Iran-contra hearings resume tomorrow, the following questions and answers may help readers follow the bewildering array of legal issues:

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Was it legal to sell arms to Iran in the first place?

The Arms Export Control Act bans the shipment of weapons to countries that sponsor terrorist activities. Iran is viewed by the State Department as one of the world's top sponsors of terrorism.

The act also requires that, if a recipient of US arms wants to transfer those arms to a third country, it must have the permission of the US government. If the transfers are valued at $14 million or more, a president must tell Congress before the transfer takes place. No such report to Congress was made in the case of the Israeli shipments of American arms to Iran, which included Hawk antiaircraft missiles worth well over that amount.

Once the Reagan administration decided to go ahead with its Iranian policy, what laws came into play?

One is the 1974 Hughes-Ryan amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, under which a president is supposed to give personal approval to each covert operation by signing a ``finding'' that the operation is ``important to the national security.'' Also, the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 requires a president to notify the congressional intelligence committees ``in a timely fashion'' about covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies.

In January 1986 President Reagan signed a finding authorizing the transfer of arms to Iran but ordered the CIA not to tell Congress. The intelligence panels did not learn of the finding or the covert operations, which took place in 1985, until last November, after accounts of the operation appeared in the press.

The President also did not issue a finding or inform Congress of a 1985 covert effort by the Drug Enforcement Administration to ransom the American hostages in Lebanon. Former national-security adviser Robert McFarlane has said the operation did not require a presidential authorization because it was not run by the CIA. Lawyers dispute this. It has been disclosed that the CIA contributed funds to the ransom attempt.

Was it lawful to provide arms and other support to the Nicaraguan rebels fighting the Sandinista government?

The law prevailing during the period in question, the so-called ``Boland amendment,'' named after Rep. Edward Boland (D) of Massachusetts, barred or restricted US intelligence agencies from providing covert military support to the contras from 1984 until the fall of 1986.

A key question raised in the hearings, and under investigation by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, is whether former National Security Council (NSC) aide Oliver North and others violated that law by organizing and assisting the vast private contra resupply network and diverting Iran arms-sale money to the contras.

Does everyone interpret the Boland amendment the same way?