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Lawmakers Angry After Iran Briefing : Casey Insists Reagan Was Not Obliged to Inform Congress About Arms Deal

November 22, 1986|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — CIA Director William J. Casey, in closed-door briefings for the House and Senate intelligence committees Friday, disclosed details of U.S. arms shipments to Iran and angered the lawmakers by insisting that President Reagan had no obligation to inform Congress of them.

While most committee members kept their pledge not to divulge the highly classified information imparted by Casey, House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said he had learned in the briefing that other countries in addition to Israel had shipped arms to Iran with the blessing of the United States. Wright also said that U.S. shipments were valued at more than $12 million.

Casey's briefing did nothing to quell congressional criticism of the Iranian deal or of those White House officials who planned it. As they emerged, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called the arms sales "ill-conceived and ineptly implemented" and Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said the operation was "incredibly clumsy and amateurish."

Pressure for Shake-up

At the same time, congressional pressure began building for a shake-up at the White House.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) urged Reagan to hire "some additional people who are perceived as big leaguers" for his White House foreign policy team. But he declined to call for any resignations.

"Maybe what they need is a more generous supply of good ideas and a lively clash of intellect," Lugar said. "It appears to me that things are thin there (on the White House staff) and there needs to be a lot more talent."

Byrd said Reagan's national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, "may have to go." And Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added, "I'm not really an advocate of the fall-on-the-sword approach to government, but there's clearly been bad advice here, and maybe that would clear the air."

What angered intelligence committee members most was Casey's assertion that the President did not violate the law by failing to notify congressional leaders in advance of the shipments. Congress did not learn about them until two weeks ago, when reports began appearing in the press.

'No Intention of Informing Us'

"It is my opinion that they had no intention of informing us until--for some reason--it went public," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.)."Whether they broke the law or not, they intended not to inform the American people, they intended not to inform Congress. . . . "

Congressional sources said they believe the President's decision to keep Congress uninformed was an outgrowth of the long-held suspicion among Administration officials that Durenberger and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, could not be trusted to keep secrets from the press.

In a letter sent to the President after Casey's briefing, Durenberger and Leahy questioned why the White House was willing to take the enormous risk involved in sending former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane to Tehran to conduct negotiations "while the comparatively minor risks inherent in informing (congressional leaders) are used as a justification for keeping Congress unaware of such significant intelligence activities."

Under President's Orders

According to the committee members, Casey said that he was instructed by the President's directive of last Jan. 17--which waived the U.S. embargo on the sale of weapons to Iran--not to inform Congress of the Iranian operation "until further notice."

"The (directive) probably was created in order to protect Casey . . . more than anything else," said a source who attended the briefing and refused to be identified. "I think Casey probably said I'll not go ahead with that unless I'm directed in writing."

The law requires the CIA director to notify congressional leaders and the ranking members of the intelligence committees in advance of all secret operations around the globe. But in especially sensitive cases, such notification need not be made in advance--as long as it is "timely."

Many Republicans and Democrats insisted that Reagan failed to fulfill the legal requirement for "timely" notice. Asked to define the President's obligation, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he must tell Congress "what is happening when it's happening."

Denies Other Operations

Wright said that he had asked Casey whether the Administration was involved in any other covert operation without the knowledge of Congress, and the CIA director replied, "We are not." He added that Casey indicated that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III had approved the legality of the President's Jan. 17 directive.

The House leader also disclosed that the committees were told by Casey that other countries in addition to Israel had shipped arms to Iran with U.S. approval, but he declined to name them. The Times has reported that France and Portugal supplied Iran with weapons with U.S. knowledge and--in some cases--with U.S. acquiescence. France, however, has denied that it was involved.

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