The Justice Department will reassess pending prosecutions of arms dealers accused of violating a federal ban on weapons sales to Iran in light of reports that top White House aides engaged in covert arms shipments to Tehran, a department spokesman said Thursday.
The official also conceded that the reported secret White House operation "raises legal questions" about whether previously convicted arms dealers should remain in prison.
"There will be a general, case-by-case review of all our cases relating to arms deals with Iran," John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a terse statement.
The Times, quoting government sources, reported Thursday that the Reagan Administration, using an Israeli-operated supply line, has shipped U.S.-made missiles and weapons parts to Iran since last year in an operation that led to the release of three American hostages in Lebanon.
The secret missions were reportedly directed by former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and apparently were conducted initially without the knowledge of Secretary of State George P. Shultz or Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Despite the Justice Department's planned review, U.S. Customs Service spokesman Dennis Murphy insisted Thursday that the agency "will continue to enforce (the laws against) arms export violations" in shipments involving Iran and other embargoed nations.
It is unclear how many criminal cases might be affected nationwide by the Justice Department's case-by-case review. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Fahey estimated that in Los Angeles alone, the leading federal district in numbers of arms case prosecutions, there are "approximately five or six cases under active investigation."
The reported disclosures also cast new light on evidence emerging from the biggest of the cases, which is awaiting trial in New York. It is almost certain to be among the first reviewed by the Justice Department. Among the 17 international businessmen charged with conspiring to send restricted munitions and arms to Iran, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, was retired Israeli Gen. Avraham Bar-Am.
"A lot of other people have gone to jail for violating the foreign policy of the United States and now we find out that the U.S. officials responsible for our foreign policy were actually sending arms to Iran in support of that foreign policy," said Lawrence Bader, an attorney for one of the defendants in New York.
Bush May Be Linked
Court records in that case, and the transcripts of undercover tape recordings of conversations between the accused arms dealers, indicate that unnamed aides to Vice President George Bush and others on the National Security Council may have met secretly with some of the dealers between last December and February to negotiate terms for a proposed U.S.-sanctioned arms deal with Iran.
Federal prosecutors in New York had derided as "far-fetched" the claim of several defendants that any arms trade with Iran would have the sanction of high U.S. officials. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Schofield told the court she would have produced any documents indicating "that the foreign policy of the United States . . . was to permit the shipment of U.S. arms to Iran," but she said, "at this time we are aware of none."
One of those charged in the case, London-based American attorney Sam Evans, told The Times recently that another defendant--identified in court records as John de la Roque, an American living as a fugitive in St. Tropez, France--told him repeatedly that he was working w1769236512Council.
De la Roque, who has been indicted in the New York case, could not be reached at his home or office in St. Tropez where the telephones have been disconnected.
De la Roque, according to court records, said he had met with two American officials in West Germany early last February. And in a telephone conversation monitored by Customs Service agents, De la Roque reported after the meeting that the proposed transaction--involving F-4 fighter planes for Iran--was opposed by Shultz but was at least tentatively supported by Bush.
According to transcripts of the secretly recorded call, De la Roque assured his Iranian contact on Feb. 7, "My feeling is good right now. . . . Now it's as far up as it (the proposal) can go, and (the vice president) . . . says it's good. He used to be the head of the CIA so he knows what he's doing. . . . So I imagine that he feels that if it's good for him politically, he'll do it."
De la Roque also explained on the tape that "the way (the shipments) would go (to Iran) would be . . . via Israel."
Talked to U.S. Ambassador
A week later, another of the accused conspirators, Nico Minardos of Beverly Hills, said he met with U.S. Ambassador Maxwell M. Rabb in Rome to confirm, he told his partners in recorded conversations, whether U.S. officials were going to back the deal. Minardos said Rabb promised to get back to him after looking into it.