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

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:

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?

The White House line of defense is that the law changed every year between 1983 and 1986, creating confusion over what was and was not authorized. But congressional legal experts say there is no ambiguity about the relevant Boland amendments for fiscal years 1985 and '86, which prohibited direct and indirect US military aid for the contras.

Does the Boland legislation cover people working at the NSC?

The law does not specifically mention the NSC. According to the Tower Commission report, Colonel North and former national-security adviser John Poindexter, who is also under investigation, received legal advice from the President's Intelligence Oversight Board that the ban on contra aid did not cover the NSC. But most legal experts and lawmakers say the Boland amendment covers the NSC, since the law prohibits ``any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities'' from providing support for the contras.

Does the Boland amendment raise a constitutional question?

It raises the issue of the balance between Congress and the President in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy. Some think Congress has gone too far in putting limits on the President. The White House argues that the laws barring aid to the contras did not limit the President's constitutional power to manage foreign policy, implying that any efforts to raise money for the Nicaraguan rebels were not illegal.

However, legal scholars note that Under the Constitution foreign policy powers are shared with the Congress, which has the power of the purse as well as the right to declare war and, in the case of the Senate, to ratify treaties.

If North or others are ever prosecuted, legal experts say, it is possible they will argue that the Boland amendment is unconstitutional. As a rule, courts have preferred that the legislative and executive bodies work out their disputes themselves.

What happens if it is found that the Boland amendment or other laws were broken?

In general, such so-called foreign policy laws do not carry legal penalties. But criminal laws do. The task of special prosecutor Walsh is to determine whether statutes of the US Criminal Code were violated as various administration aides ignored the foreign policy laws.

What are these criminal statutes?

They include the general federal conspiracy law, which makes it illegal for two or more persons to conspire to defraud the US or any agency. Thus, a central question in the Iran-contra affair is whether there was an organized effort to get around the congressional bans on aid to the contras and to mislead Congress.

Another statute of the code, the so-called ``public money, property, or records'' provision covers anyone who knowingly misappropriates federal funds or assets. This law might apply, for instance, if it is determined that the profits from the Iranian arms sales were diverted to the contras in violation of US law instead of being returned to the US Treasury.

There is also a federal criminal fraud statute, which penalizes anyone who falsifies or covers up any operation or makes false oral or written statements. This statute may apply if NSC aides falsified documents to cover up the Iran-contra plan.

The criminal code also includes statutes that deal with the obstruction of justice.

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