The Reagan administration's hopes of containing the political damage from the Iran-contra affair appear to have been further eroded by a wave of damaging new disclosures. Evidence is mounting that Reagan administration officials may have known more and been more deeply involved than previously suspected in the plan to sell United States arms to Iran and to divert profits to antigovernment rebels, called contras, in Nicaragua.
The most recent disclosures have been drawn primarily from leaked portions of a preliminary report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which last month conducted a three-week investigation into the affair.
The committee's new chairman, David Boren (D) of Oklahoma plays down the report, calling it an ``unauthorized staff draft'' that was made public even before full transcripts of the witnesses' testimony could be completed.
Nevertheless, the report, which has been leaked selectively by both supporters and opponents of President Reagan, supports these conclusions:
Despite the administration's original hopes of using arms sales to build bridges to moderate factions in Iran, the policy quickly devolved into a straight arms-for-hostages swap. New evidence indicates that President Reagan may have been directly involved in the decision to send American arms to Iran, including authorizing shipments sent by Israel in 1985.
Israeli officials played a central role in instigating the Iran arms policy and helping sustain it even when US officials began to have doubts about the policy. Senate Intelligence Committee documents indicate that Israeli officials were the first to suggest using arms to gain the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon and using profits from the arms sales to provide weapons to help Nicaraguan rebels in their six-year war against the Sandinista government.
Meanwhile, recent news reports indicate that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided military advice and logistical support to the Nicaraguan contras, in possible violation of US law.
The reports, based on information obtained from contra sources and Costa Rican officials, indicate that CIA officers in Costa Rica may have provided advice on military tactics and political organization to the contras. Other CIA operatives reportedly abetted the work of a secret, privately run contra resupply operation by instructing air crews where to drop weapons and advising them on how to avoid Nicaraguan defenses.
The disclosures contradict repeated assurances by the administration that US officials have not been involved in helping prosecute the contra war since 1984.
The reports have raised questions in Congress about possible violations of a congressional restriction, imposed in 1984 and not lifted until late last year, that prohibited all forms of direct and indirect US military support to the contras except for intelligence sharing.
According to yesterday's Washington Post, Senate Intelligence Committee staff members concluded that other US laws may have been broken in the course of secret arms dealings with Iran, including a 1980 statute requiring the President to give Congress ``timely'' notification of intelligence operations. The staff findings, which were omitted from the report by the full committee, also criticized the administration for faulty monitoring and execution of the Iran policy.
Special House and Senate committees will launch probes into the Iran-contra affair this week. In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will begin hearings tomorrow on the foreign-policy implications of the affair, including its effects on US antiterrorism policy, the Iran-Iraq war, and US relations with Iran.
The panel will hear from Reagan officials including Secretary of State George Shultz and Attorney General Edwin Meese III, plus outside experts including former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.