WASHINGTON — John M. Poindexter, then White House national security adviser, persuaded Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III in late October to delay an FBI investigation of an airline that was ferrying arms to Iran and the Nicaraguan contras, Justice Department officials said Thursday.
Meese agreed to ask the FBI to hold up its probe because Poindexter told him the investigation might jeopardize efforts to obtain release of American hostages in Lebanon, Justice Department spokesman Terry H. Eastland said.
Eastland said he was recounting Meese's secret Wednesday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Meese believed that "the safe return of the hostages was at stake," Eastland said. "We would attempt to accommodate the national security interests without jeopardizing any subsequent criminal prosecutions."
Poindexter requested the FBI delay as the airline, Southern Air Transport, was scheduled to fly a new shipment of arms to Iran. The shipment took place, via Israel, on Oct. 26-27.
FBI Director William H. Webster agreed to a 10-day delay in the probe on Oct. 30. American hostage David P. Jacobsen was released in Lebanon on Nov. 2.
Eastland said he could not say whether Poindexter had explicitly referred to a planned arms shipment to Iran. He said Meese testified that Poindexter referred to "a sensitive mission" by Southern Air as the justification for the delay.
Disclosure of the Poindexter call fills in a major gap in news reports last week, when Justice Department officials confirmed delaying the FBI probe for national security reasons but would not say who had requested the delay or why.
Meese disclosed last month that Poindexter knew that funds from the secret arms sales to Iran were being diverted to the Nicaraguan rebels. But Eastland said Thursday that Poindexter did not tell Meese of the diversion of funds during the October conversation and that Meese did not learn of this until late November, prompting a Justice Department investigation.