Iran-contra lesson: build bridges between branches of government

HOW can the United States avoid future Iran-contra type crises? As Washington braces for what appear to be imminent criminal indictments in the affair, politicians and lawyers search for solutions.

To Norman J. Ornstein, a governmental scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, the root of the problem - and the highest hurdle to a solution - is ``an underlying, deepening distrust between the president and congress that goes back to the mid-1960s.''

Or perhaps it goes 180 years further back: ``The Constitution is an invitation to struggle between the Executive and Legislative branches,'' says Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, President Ford's former national security adviser and a member of the Tower Board that investigated Iran-contra.

``Our system is not designed to work, but to protect our freedoms,'' he says. It's up to people in government to make the system work.

The recipe for the Iran-contra crisis included an administration that ``has tended to work with the Congress ... grudgingly, and only when the bulldozer has not worked,'' says General Scowcroft, and a congress that used ``a constitutional subterfuge'' - the Boland amendments - ``to deprive the President of his constitutional rights.'' The five amendments - passed between 1983 and 1985 - placed limits on the President's ability to fund the contra rebels.

Speaking for himself, not for the administration, presidential counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. agrees that mistakes were made. ``It is amazing how sensitive decisions were formulated, debated, revised, kicked back and forth ... without the participation of administration lawyers acting as such,'' he says. In accord with a Tower Board recommendation, in fact, ``The national security decisionmaking process is now `well-lawyered.''' Some would even say ``overly lawyered,'' he adds.

Even so, maintaining legal oversight is a constant struggle, given time pressures, the fear of leaks, and ``good old-fashioned `turf wars,''' says Mr. Culvahouse. ``One has to be almost as adept at enforcing the process as interpreting the law,'' he says. Messrs. Ornstein and Culvahouse, along with Scowcroft, ex-Sen. Edmund Muskie, and Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, participated in a frank discussion of the Iran-contra affair at a meeting of the American Bar Association last month.

The fact of such President-Congress conflict is not a call for major structural changes, in Ornstein's opinion. ``This was clearly ... a problem of personal failings,'' he says. The President failed to inform top congressional leadership of a covert action.

``We have a workable structure and process here,'' says Ornstein. But the administration chose not to follow that procedure because, in his opinion, ``They simply didn't want somebody saying `What? Are you crazy?' They didn't want anybody to rain on what became, I think, their `macho' parade....''

The prime beneficiary of informing Congress in such situations is the President himself, says Senator Mitchell. It provides him with the ``best possible - and at this stage, the only independent - advice available.''

Had Reagan contacted those eight top leaders, Mitchell says, ``I am convinced ... that one or more of them - and probably members of the Republican leadership - would have said to the President what the American people have overwhelmingly said after the fact: `Don't do it.'''

It's unfortunate, said two of the speakers, that the Iran-contra hearings spent so much time trying ``to push complicity, guilt - whatever you want to call it - as high up the executive branch as possible, hopefully to the President,'' in Scowcroft's words.

The larger questions - the answers to which could have been even more damaging to the President - were ignored in the hearings, says Ornstein. What was the genesis for an arms-for-hostages trade? How could the President have gone on for months saying one thing while doing another, and then suggesting that he didn't even know what was being done? What are the appropriate powers of the President and Congress? Those broader issues ``went by the boards.''

Even so, notes Scowcroft, the political cost to the President so far has been ``horrendous.'' A less-popular chief executive might have fared even worse: ``If it hadn't been President Reagan, it easily could have been fatal [to a presidency],'' says Scowcroft.

Ornstein urges a step toward healing: ``This President, in his final year, ought to think very seriously about making some larger, more dramatic gesture, bringing the leadership of Congress more directly into the deliberation of foreign policy.'' It would not only benefit Reagan, showing his statesmanship; but it would also help presidents to come, Ornstein concludes.

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