WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Saturday that Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger strongly advised him against selling arms to Iran, and he was "wrong" not to have heeded their advice.
"As we now know, it turned out that they were right, and I was wrong," Reagan said.
The President's admission, made in his weekly radio address, was his most direct acknowledgment of personal error since the Iran- contra scandal unfolded last November. It came after Shultz and Weinberger publicly rejected criticism of their roles in the affair by the presidentially appointed Tower Commission.
The three-member panel, headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), faulted Shultz and Weinberger for failing to oppose the arms deal more vigorously. The commission's report, made public Feb. 26, said that Shultz and Weinberger were "not energetic" in their opposition and seemed more concerned about protecting themselves than in adequately warning Reagan of the consequences of trading arms for hostages.
"On the case of the Iranian arms sale matter," Reagan said, "both Secretary Shultz and Secretary Weinberger advised me strongly not to pursue the initiative. I weighed their advice but decided in the end that the initiative was worth the risk and went forward."
In his March 4 televised speech about the arms sales, Reagan said: "It was a mistake." In his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, he said that the initiative "did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility."
Reagan, who gave the radio address from Camp David in western Maryland, called Shultz and Weinberger "men of strong convictions, men who have never hesitated to give me their unvarnished views." The President also appeared to dismiss demands by critics on both the right and the left that he ask for the secretaries' resignations.
He said that Shultz and Weinberger "discharged their responsibilities as my advisers and as my subordinates, and I am enormously grateful that I will continue to be receiving their views in the months ahead . . . . "
The President did not refer to the Tower report by name. Earlier this month, he said that the commission's findings were "honest, convincing and highly critical, and I accept them."
The Tower report contended that Shultz and Weinberger "simply distanced themselves from the program" and "protected the records as to their own positions on this issue."
Shultz Confirms Finding
Shultz has confirmed a Tower Commission finding that he asked the White House not to tell him or any other State Department official anything about the arms deal beyond what was required for them to do their jobs. But Shultz said that he gave the instructions because he did not want to be accused of leaking the information if it became public.
Weinberger has insisted that he did all he could to stop the arms-for-hostages deal, opposing it "repeatedly and to the point of giving offense" within the Administration. "You run out of appeals after a time," he has said, "and that's what happened."
The White House initially declined to defend Shultz and Weinberger from the Tower report's censure. On March 6, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "The President accepts the report. And Mr. Shultz and Mr. Weinberger can speak for themselves."
But Fitzwater told reporters Friday that Weinberger discussed the matter with the White House and said Weinberger had raised a "legitimate issue."
The Iranian arms sales, made public last November, are now under investigation by Congress. Investigators believe that some of the profits from the sales were diverted to Nicaraguan insurgents through an elaborate network of foreign bank accounts during a time when Congress had banned U.S. funds for the rebels.
The House voted last week to block additional aid to the contras until Reagan can account for all the previous funding, both public and private. The moratorium faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Reagan reiterated his support for the contras on Saturday, saying that Congress must decide "whether our nation will truly support democracy and help resist tyranny in a region so close to our own borders."
The President said: "My own commitment remains rock solid. I will fight any effort to cut off support for the Nicaraguan freedom fighters and consign them to death or defeat."
Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who delivered the Democratic response to Reagan's talk, called the House-approved moratorium "entirely proper" in the wake of "the tangled web of dark deals and secret operations that created the Iran-contra fiasco."
"This afternoon," Sasser said, "President Reagan has quite candidly indicated that he should have listened to some of his advisers more closely on Iran. Well, Mr. President, today we're asking you to listen more closely to the American people about Central America.
'Don't Want Chaotic Policy'
"The American people don't want bungled, secret operations in Nicaragua. They don't want their tax dollars disappearing into flawed military adventures--and worse, into Cayman Island bank accounts. They don't want a chaotic policy that could lead ultimately to American boys losing their lives for no reason in the jungles of Central America."
Sasser noted that the contras have received $60 million in U.S. aid over the last five years, in addition to private contributions and whatever may have been diverted from Iranian arms sales profits.
"Yet we've not seen a single successful major military action on the part of the contras--not one," Sasser said.