WASHINGTON — Robert C. McFarlane, the former White House national security adviser and President Reagan's emissary in the Administration's clandestine negotiations with Iran, said Tuesday that he has urged the White House to lift its lid of secrecy and release "a complete, accurate" record of the controversial operation to the public.
Interviewed by The Times, McFarlane said that the strategic importance of Iran--and the need to establish ties with moderates in Tehran--was of "more enduring importance" than the freeing of Americans held hostage by pro-Iranian factions in Lebanon.
Those Americans have been a focus of more than a year of secret U.S. dealings with officials in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime in which the Reagan Administration helped channel U.S. military equipment to Iran--supplies that nation desperately needed for its lengthy war with Iraq.
Refused to Discuss Specifics
McFarlane, who sources say conceived the plans for the operation in 1985 while still serving as the national security adviser, refused to discuss the specifics of his role. He challenged the news media's "portrayal of motives" in the operation, but not the overall account of how arms were exchanged for Iran's aid in freeing Americans held hostage in Lebanon.
"I would like to give you details, but I just can't," he said.
He said that he hopes the White House will release information within a week, but he added: "I accept their reasons for not doing it now." He declined to elaborate but said that concern for the safety of the American hostages still being held in Lebanon "is not trivial, it's a real risk."
McFarlane, now a foreign-policy consultant, was interviewed in his seventh-floor office of a downtown building here. He expressed frustration over not feeling free to discuss details of the Iranian operation.
Several times he said that he did not want to make any "self-serving statements." But he said he would make a detailed accounting of his actions when the White House gave its approval.
The arms shipments, approved by Reagan, led to the release 10 days ago of David P. Jacobsen, 55, of Huntington Beach, Calif., the former director of the American University Hospital in Beirut, who had been held by Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), a group of Shia Muslim fundamentalists. The operation also has been credited with the freeing of the Rev. Benjamin Weir, 61, a Presbyterian minister, in September, 1985, and of Father Lawrence M. Jenco, 51, Beirut chief of Catholic Relief Services, this past July.
Lid on Explanations
Despite McFarlane's urgings, the White House clamped an even tighter lid Tuesday on both public and private explanations of its courtship of the Iranians.
The effort to maintain tight secrecy came amid indications that the Administration is still working through intermediaries to free at least one of two Americans still held captive by Islamic Jihad. They are Thomas Sutherland, 55, dean of the school of agriculture at American University of Beirut, and Terry A. Anderson, 39, chief Mideast correspondent for Associated Press.
In addition, another extremist group, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, claims to have recently kidnaped two other Americans in Beirut--Joseph J. Cicippio, 56, acting controller of American University of Beirut, and Edward A. Tracy, an illustrator and salesman of the Koran. Another American, Frank H. Reed, 53, director of the Lebanese International School in West Beirut, was seized by four gunmen in September and a pro-Libyan group called Arab Revolutionary Cells has claimed responsibility.
One official said that a central White House figure in the Iranian dealings, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the National Security Council, has undertaken two and perhaps three clandestine missions in the two weeks since the secrecy surrounding the arms deal began to unravel in public.
The Wall Street Journal reported on one of those trips Monday. The White House denied then that North was on a mission but did not address the question of whether he had undertaken other recent trips.
Believed Tied to Iran
Although North frequently travels in connection with other National Security Council duties, the current trips are believed to be for the purpose of meeting with intermediaries in the Iranian situation.
The State Department, which has asked the White House to provide confused allies with an explanation of the U.S.-Iran connection, instead was ordered Monday to continue calling on them not to ship any military goods to that nation, one official said.
The order, handed down in a Cabinet-level session, was accepted only "grudgingly" by ranking State Department officials, according to that source, who refused to be named.
A second official said the State Department has complained that it is being forced to defend a policy that appears contrary to U.S. government behavior. As a result, he said, both European and moderate Arab governments have been upset by the lack of U.S. candor.
'Concern About Credibility'