WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators said Wednesday that they are looking into the mysterious disappearance of two documents that apparently contradict a high-ranking CIA official's claims of ignorance about the true nature of his efforts to aid a November, 1985, air shipment of U.S. arms by Israel to Iran.
Committee investigators are said to be looking into the possibility that the missing evidence was destroyed. "It is suspicious that these cables are missing," one source said.
The alleged discrepancy centers on the testimony of Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, the CIA's European division chief, who was asked by then-White House aide Oliver L. North for assistance in obtaining landing rights for an Israeli plane carrying material to Iran to be used as part of a deal that would lead to the release of American hostages.
Clarridge, who ordered CIA and State Department officials in Lisbon to obtain permission for the plane to land there, has told investigators that he believed the aircraft contained oil-drilling parts bound for Iran. Its actual contents were 80 U.S.-made HAWK anti-aircraft missiles.
North, the central figure in the Iran- contra affair, had hoped to transfer the arms in Lisbon from an Israeli plane to a second aircraft in an attempt to maintain the secrecy of the mission. However, Portuguese officials reportedly denied the request to allow the plane to land, and North turned to a CIA proprietary company to make the delivery.
The CIA official in Lisbon who received Clarridge's order has refuted his version in his closed testimony, a summary of which was released Wednesday by the panels.
The official, whose identity was not disclosed, said he informed Clarridge in a cable "that the flight would contain HAWK missiles and that they were being shipped to Iran to secure the release of American hostages," said W. Neil Eggleston, deputy chief counsel of the House select committee investigating the scandal.
The disclosure of the discrepancy is a significant development because it may have been illegal for the CIA at the time to become involved in the shipment of weapons to Iran without an official authorization from President Reagan. That approval--known as a "finding"--was not signed until the following January.
Eggleston added that the CIA communications technician who was on duty then also recalls that the cable--sent on a private agency channel--specifically mentioned missiles. In addition, a State Department official in Portugal who was trying to assist in the effort also told the panels that he either recalls reading the cable or being told by the CIA official that it contained information about the HAWKs.
However, that document was not among copies of about 80 cables that Clarridge provided the committees. Also missing is Clarridge's original cable telling CIA and State Department officers in Lisbon to help retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord obtain landing rights for the plane. The CIA official said it was Secord who informed him that the plane was carrying missiles.
In Personal Files
"The committees were informed by the CIA that the only place where these (private channel) cables were located was in Mr. Clarridge's own personal files at the agency," Eggleston said. "No copies were maintained in the official files of the agency."
The agency's role in the delivery was also the subject of six hours of testimony Wednesday by former CIA general counsel Stanley Sporkin, who told the committees that he had advised the White House against using Secord as the middleman in the U.S. arms sales to Iran. His advice was ignored.
Secord, who was selected by North to serve as middleman in the Iran arms sales as well as a clandestine operation to provide military supplies to the Nicaraguan resistance, has proven to be among the Iran-contra affair's most controversial figures. Despite mounting evidence that he reaped a sizable profit from the venture, Secord insists that he made no money.
Sporkin said he had known Secord since 1983, when the retired Air Force general was rejected for a CIA security clearance because of his friendship with former CIA agent Edwin P. Wilson, who had been convicted of illegally selling munitions to Libya.
During a 1983 meeting with Secord, Sporkin recalled, he explained his reason for rejecting the security clearance by quoting from a Russian proverb: "If you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas."
As a result, Sporkin said he called then White House National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter in January, 1986, when he learned that Secord was going to be involved in the Iran initiative. "I asked him whether he knew about it; he told me that he did not know about it and would look into the matter," Sporkin said.