Attorneys defending 10 men accused of conspiring to illegally ship arms to Iran charge that the Justice Department may have deliberately withheld information from federal prosecutors in New York. The department's motive for the alleged deception, the lawyers suggest, was to shield the White House's own covert arms shipments to Tehran. The attorneys say the United States government has been both unresponsive and deceptive in replying to defense requests for information about secret US-Iranian arms deals. They maintain that such information may absolve their clients of the charges of illicit arms trafficking.
``Perhaps there is something lurking here that this court ought to find out about,'' defense counsel Paul Grand told US District Court Judge Leonard B. Sand in a late-night pretrial hearing Monday.
The 10 defendants are among 17 people who were charged last April with conspiring to deliver some $2.5 billion in arms to Iran, in violation of the US Arms Export Control Act. The act requires that all non-governmental arms shipments must be licensed by the State Department's Office of Munitions Control. The trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 2.
Mr. Grand questioned how federal prosecutors could state categorically in a legal brief filed in mid-October that the Justice Department was unaware of any covert shipments of US arms to Iran. Grand noted that recent press reports have said that Attorney General Edwin Meese not only knew of the covert operation being run by the National Security Council (NSC), but rendered an opinion to President Reagan of its legality.
``I think we ought to have a hearing to determine if there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court,'' Grand said. ``If the defense did this ... it would be called obstruction of justice.''
Assistant US Attorney Lorna G. Schofield, who is prosecuting the case, denied that there had been any attempt by the government to deceive the court, and she said she felt that she personally had not been misled by her superiors at the Justice Department.
Terry Eastland, Mr. Meese's spokesman, said the Justice Department had no comment on possible discrepancies between court filings and the Attorney General's reported knowledge of covert US efforts.
Judge Sand appeared reluctant to permit the trial to grow into a vehicle to probe details of covert US operations. He deferred a decision on whether to allow defense attorneys to conduct a potentially wide-ranging inquiry into secret US foreign-policy efforts.
Defense attorneys have said they would like to subpoena Vice-President George Bush, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, and NSC staff member Lt. Col. Oliver North to testify at the trial.
The attorneys maintain that their clients, including a retired Israeli general, believed that the arms deals they were planning would not take place unless high-level US officials gave the approval. They say that word had spread among arms dealers that the US was interested in quietly resuming arms shipments to Iran.
Ms. Schofield said that the Justice Department had reviewed the gun-running case to determine if the recent disclosures by President Reagan of the NSC covert operation had damaged the government's position in the case. ``The department has advised the US Attorney's office that these events have no connection with the defendants in this case,'' she said.
But defense attorneys say that, despite their specific requests that the US Attorney's office contact the White House and the NSC to inquire about possible secret arms deals, Schofield only contacted the State Department, Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Justice Department in an attempt to locate documents regarding possible secret arms shipments to Iran.
As a result of her contacts with the four executive agencies, Schofield wrote in an October legal brief: ``We intend to produce any documents indicating that the proposed transactions were in fact sanctioned or that the foreign policy of the US ... was to permit the shipment of US arms to Iran. At this time we are aware of none.''
Last week President Reagan acknowledged that he had authorized a secret effort by the NSC involving covert shipments of arms to Iran.
Schofield said she did not approach the White House and NSC because, ``I saw no reasonable basis....''