Meese says he knew little about Iran arms. `It certainly looks a lot different to us now than it did then,' he tells panel

Defending his actions in the Iran-contra affair, Attorney General Meese III contends that at different times as the affair unfolded, he was playing different roles. Sometimes, he says, he acted as a counselor to the President, and at other times he acted as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. Mr. Meese, in testimony before the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair, said he had limited knowledge of secret American arms sales to Iran, and virtually no reason to suspect that profits from the arms transactions had been diverted to the Nicaraguan contras.

In his testimony, Meese indicated that even as he was conducting his own investigation of the affair under instructions from President Reagan, key White House staff members were withholding the truth from him.

Meese testified that former National Security Council aide Oliver North did not tell him of the existence of a multimillion-dollar secret ``enterprise'' set up to supply arms to Iran and the contras. He indicated that former Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey also did not disclose all that he knew about the affair.

Still, Meese conceded that he did not ask certain key questions that might have accelerated the investigation, nor did he take steps to prevent the destruction of critical government documents.

Meese admitted that he might have acted differently, but that at the time there was ``no hint'' of criminal activity or the destruction of evidence.

``It certainly looks a lot different to us now than it did then,'' he said.

Meese said he was unaware until last November that the United States had assisted in the sale of missiles to Iran on Nov. 20, 1985. That arms sale, according to some analysts, may have been illegal. The presidential ``finding'' that authorized it was not signed until December 1985.

Meese also denied having suggested to former national-security adviser Robert McFarlane that a ``mental finding'' made in advance of the arms sales would clear up any possible legal difficulties involved in the transaction.

Meese's testimony places him at odds with Colonel North, who testified that Meese was almost certainly aware of the shipment.

Meese was at a meeting on Jan. 1, 1986, at which a later presidential finding was discussed.

One of the issues at that meeting was how to make the finding retroactive, and legal language was inserted to give legal cover to the previous arms sales. Still, Meese insists he was unaware of those previous shipments at the time.

According to Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper, Meese was one of a number of people present at a meeting on Nov. 20, 1986, to discuss congressional testimony that was coming up from Mr. Casey. Casey planned to testify that no US official had advance knowledge of the November 1985 Hawk missile shipment.

A number of people at the meeting, including North, knew that statement to be false, yet none objected when they reviewed a copy of Casey's prepared testimony.

Meese said he had insufficient knowledge of events to understand that some present might have been intent on covering up what they had done.

The testimony was changed only when the State Department's legal adviser, Abraham Sofaer, objected and threatened to resign.

The day after Mr. Sofaer's threat, Meese went to President Reagan and gained his authorization to take over an investigation of the Iranian arms shipments - an investigation that ultimately led to the public disclosure of the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan contras.

To Meese's defenders, that was the action of a man acting decisively and honestly.

To his critics, it is the act of a man aware that a cover-up was coming apart, a man eager to shield President Reagan from the inevitable political damage that would result.

In between valor and guile, however, is another alternative: incompetence.

It's a word used by Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire to describe Meese's actions as the Iran-contra affair was unraveling.

With hindsight, it is now clear that Meese was neither particularly suspicious, nor was he particularly inquisitive, as he went about investigating the Iranian arms sales.

Moreover, Meese used neither criminal law specialists nor agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct the probe.

Meese notified both North and former national-security adviser John Poindexter a day in advance that Justice Department lawyers would be combing through their files - giving both men ample time to shred or destroy compromising documents.

Meese defends the procedures in his initial investigation partly on the ground that, at the time, there was no reason to suspect criminal wrongdoing by White House officials, and that he undertook the probe more in his capacity as a presidential adviser than in his capacity as a law-enforcement official.

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