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Crisis of Confidants

November 26, 1986

Talking to the press on Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III tried to depict an Administration vigorously investigating itself to find out just what went on with its arms sales to Iran, including possible criminality. What was conveyed instead was the spectacle of an Administration that permitted its obsession with secrecy to become self-deception, and that allowed its fixation with public relations to become public deception. What emerged was the portrait of an Administration with no one effectively in charge, an Administration that demands too much when it now asks to be trusted to expose the tangled truth about its actions. That formidable job can be done only by Congress, and no investigatory resources should be held back.

A foreign-policy mess has given birth to a scandal. Money paid by Iran for U.S. weapons and spare parts is now revealed as having been skimmed off to finance the contra forces that are fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. How much money passed through Swiss bank accounts to the contras still isn't known; Meese puts the amount at somewhere between $10 million and $30 million. That is hardly small change, least of all on arms transactions that, so the Administration claims, were valued at only about $12 million. Meese places Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council staff at the center of this scam. North has been fired. His boss, Adm. John M. Poindexter, President Reagan's national-security adviser, has asked to be relieved. The President, announcing this shake-up while angrily clinging to his insistence that the Iran deal was not a mistake, pleads ignorance as to what had been going on in his own White House. That much at least can be believed.

Except in the vaguest way, the President almost certainly didn't know what was going on, nor does he seem to have tried to find out. His public statements, including his embarrassing confusion at last Thursday's press conference, reflect this uncertainty and ignorance. The point, of course, is that it was his primary responsibility to have known precisely what was going on. The sweeping importance of the Iran arms deal to American credibility, to U.S. relations with allies and friends, and to respect for the laws of the land made that responsibility unmistakable.

Had Reagan chosen and been better served by more competent aides--beginning with Donald T. Regan, his chief of staff--he would not simply have been informed about the implications of what he endorsed but would have been dissuaded at the very outset from pursuing such a perilous and ill-conceived venture. It's unrealistic to ask a President to master the minute details of every policy. It's obligatory that a President fully understand the meaning and consequences of what he approves. Reagan didn't understand because no one, at least no one he was prepared to listen to, had the good sense and the courage to lay out the facts and warn him of the risks.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz did have the sense to oppose trying to cut a deal with Iran's terrorist regime, but he was overruled. Now "friends" of the President are putting out word that Shultz must go. He is accused of the sin of disloyalty for having dared to make public his disagreement with the arms deal and his doubts about subsequent Administration efforts to rationalize it. Without naming Shultz, Meese echoed this theme on Tuesday, suggesting that it was the duty of all in the Administration either to stand shoulder to shoulder with their leader or to get out.

Loyalty is undeniably a fine virtue. Honesty is a greater one. Shultz has refused to lie when asked about the wisdom of the Iran initiative. His deputy, John C. Whitehead, has shown equal candor and integrity in telling Congress that, contrary to Reagan's assertions, Iran remains a sponsor of terrorism and, contrary to his apparently unshakable belief, arms for Iran were a major blunder.

That blunder was devised and carried out by the National Security Council, which statutorily has no operational role, while those who do have such a role and who have expertise about the Iranian regime were kept largely in the dark. The White House amateurs convinced themselves that they knew more about Iran than did the specialists at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. The White House amateurs thus produced one of the sorriest foreign-policy gaffes in recent history.

Two imperatives confront Reagan as his Administration seeks to clean up its self-created mess. One is to bring the National Security Council back under control, restricting it to the advisory role for which it was established. The other is for the President to start paying attention to people who know what they're talking about. Some of those people are already in government. Others should be brought in. After the abysmal failures exposed by the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, it would be inexcusable if the same old team and the same old ways of thinking were allowed to prevail.

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