WASHINGTON — A key White House memorandum on secret arms sales to Iran, released publicly by the White House last month in an attempt to explain the policy, may have been a fake, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
Congress' two special committees on the arms sales are investigating whether the memorandum was deliberately altered last November by then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter to make it appear that President Reagan was not aware of two Israeli weapons shipments to Iran in 1985, they said.
"The questions of alteration of documents (and) slanting documents to protect the President are clearly matters that we are interested in," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House special panel. He confirmed that the memorandum is one of the documents being studied by his committee but said it is too early to conclude whether the paper was part of a deliberate attempt to cover up the President's involvement.
The memorandum, written by White House aide Oliver L. North and initialed by Poindexter, suggests that the White House did not know that Israel had sent two shipments of U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in 1985. Several officials have since testified, however, that Reagan and his aides were informed of both shipments in September and November, 1985, when they occurred.
"The memo doesn't square with the facts as we know them," a knowledgeable Administration official said.
The investigators' interest in the Poindexter memorandum was disclosed as the White House braced for the release today of the report on the Iran- contra scandal of the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.). The panel's report is expected to focus partly on evidence that the White House attempted to cover up Reagan's involvement in the arms sales after they were disclosed by the press last November.
A White House official said that Reagan, after two appearances before the commission, wrote a letter to the panel saying he could not recall whether he had approved the Israelis' first shipment in 1985 before it occurred.
"The President can't seem to keep his tale straight. He can't remember what he said and when he said it," Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said as he left a White House meeting Wednesday.
But presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that Reagan "simply felt that there were other recollections and clarifications that he wanted to provide the board, and he just sat down and wrote them out."
The 1985 shipments have become a focus of controversy because they may have violated several laws that bar such arms sales without approval from Congress.
Former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane has testified that Reagan secretly approved the shipments; White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan has testified that no such authorization was given. Reagan himself has offered both versions in separate interviews with the commission and finally said in the letter that he could not remember whether he had approved the sales beforehand or not.
The one thing all sides have managed to agree on is that Reagan and his aides knew about the Israeli shipments during the fall of 1985.
However, the Poindexter memo suggests that they did not know of the shipments. Instead, like the false chronology of the arms deals prepared by North and McFarlane last November, the memo implies that the President was unaware of any arms deals until he signed a formal order, or "finding," on Jan. 17, 1986, authorizing arm sales to Iran.
Congressional investigators believe that the Poindexter memorandum may have been substituted for an authentic memorandum that was prepared to brief the President on the sales.
"It certainly makes sense as part of a cover-up," a congressional investigator said. "You've got to do that (prepare a false memo) if you want to construct a chronology that is supported by the documents in your files. But it's tough to do in a way that will stand up over time."
The memorandum, which is also dated Jan. 17, 1986, outlines the reasons for selling weapons to Iran. The White House said it was presented to the President in the meeting at which he signed the "finding" to order the CIA to begin selling missiles to Tehran.
The memo says that the government of Israel had secretly proposed a plan "to help bring about a more moderate government in Iran." As part of the plan, it says, "the Israelis are prepared to unilaterally commence selling military materiel to Western-oriented Iranian factions . . . . The only requirement the Israelis have is an assurance that they will be allowed to purchase U.S. replenishments for the stocks that they sell to Iran."