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Clear and Confounding

December 14, 1986

Emerging from a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee the other day, panel member William S. Cohen (R-Me.) noted that with each new witness who is heard in the investigation of the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran "the picture becomes clearer, the story more confounding." Both knowledge of what the Reagan Administration was up to and bewilderment over its follies seem certain to grow in the weeks and months ahead. What began as a fairly simple effort to fix responsibility for a scandalous foreign-policy blunder is now leading to the exposure of many covert and dubious connections that high Reagan Administration officials thought they could keep hidden. Alice had no inkling of what adventures lay before her when she followed the White Rabbit into his hole. High officials little knew what would be revealed by their misbegotten efforts to deceive.

The limited dimensions of the enterprise that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III sought to depict a few weeks ago--that of a U.S.-Israel plan to court putative moderates in Iran's leadership, get back American hostages from Lebanon and throw some dough to the Nicaraguan contras --have considerably expanded. The cast of characters involved in the deal has grown and become more gamy. It now includes, among others, a Saudi Arabian billionaire with close ties to the royal family; an expatriate Iranian hustler who may double as the ayatollahs' chief intelligence agent in Europe, and some Canadian investors who are sore because they say they ended up shortchanged on the arms deal. This represents a new and bizarre twist in the story, a kind of limited partnership to profit from ransom-paying. In Sen. Cohen's apt phrase, it signifies the privatization of American foreign policy.

William J. Casey, the director of Central Intelligence, confesses to only a vague and untimely awareness that Iranian arms money was earmarked for the contras. Casey is supposed to be the man who knows all the secrets. His problem is that he has a terrible time remembering them when he goes before a congressional committee. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who is in charge of carrying out foreign policy, either by the design of others or by personal choice was largely cut out of the information loop on the Iran-contras connection. This put him in the odd and ultimately humiliating posture of vigorously propounding a policy of no deals with terrorists while behind his back the Administration he works for was dealing for all it was worth.

The revelations up to now seem not to have shaken President Reagan's conviction that if his means were flawed his aims were still noble. The self-evident fact that the aims themselves were both a betrayal of principles and just plain dumb remains unacknowledged. Nor has the President apparently weakened in his determination to keep around him advisers whose counsels have repeatedly proved to be monumentally inept. Reagan has 25 months remaining in his presidency. He faces a difficult time at best. He faces infinitely worse if he does not act quickly to rid his Administration of maladroit officials while putting the full weight of his authority behind the effort to have the full story of this mess disclosed.

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