WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, in an apparent attempt to contain information about the Administration's Iranian arms dealings, waved the head of the Justice Department's criminal division off an inquiry into a private weapons sale early last November and said that he would handle the matter personally, congressional investigators have learned.
Assistant Atty. Gen. William F. Weld, in a sworn statement given to Congress' Iran- contra investigating committees, said that Meese insisted on handling claims by defendants in the case that their sale was in line with U.S. foreign policy. The Administration later said that this plan, involving $2.5 billion in arms, was unrelated to its official Iran initiative.
Raises New Questions
The development raised new questions about the conduct of the attorney general, whose preliminary inquiry into the Iran-contra affair has been denounced as inadequate and has prompted suspicion that he intentionally avoided vigorous pursuit of leads that could have implicated top Administration officials.
"At the very least, Meese was trying to keep the information about the Iranian arms transactions from spreading--to contain things," one source familiar with the matter said.
Congressional sources said there is no suggestion of criminal intent on Meese's part in Weld's deposition, but the incident has drawn attention because attorneys general rarely get involved in the specific details of such cases, leaving these matters to prosecutors.
In this case, Weld, who heads the Justice Department's criminal division and oversees such prosecutions, told Meese that he would look into the claims in the case. But Meese said that he would check the matter himself with then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, who has played a pivotal role in the scandal, according to congressional sources.
Denies Any Impropriety
Patrick S. Korten, the Justice Department's director of public affairs, dismissed any suggestions that Meese may have acted improperly in the case. Meese "is the one who was used to dealing with Poindexter, because the attorney general is a member of the National Security Council, and he's not the kind who likes to staff these kinds of things out," Korten said.
Weld, a former U.S. attorney in Boston, is a political appointee but is not considered a member of Meese's inner circle of advisers. Weld was excluded from the team of close aides Meese relied on in his initial Iran-contra inquiry later in November that turned up evidence of profits from the Administration's arms sales being funneled to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Weld declined to discuss his statement to the committees, but congressional sources said that Meese did contact Poindexter. As a result, on Nov. 17, 1986, the prosecutor in the arms case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Lorna G. Schofield, told U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand in New York that the Justice Department had checked with Poindexter and found no connection between U.S. arms shipments to Iran and those planned by the arms dealer defendants in the Manhattan case.
The actions by Meese outlined in Weld's deposition are the second known incident involving an attempt by the attorney general to keep secret the Administration's arms sales to Iran and efforts to trade the weapons for the release of American hostages.
About the same time as his involvement in the New York case, Meese ordered a delay into federal investigations of a Miami-based airline's efforts to support the contras, later explaining that he took the action because Southern Air Transport allegedly had roles in both the Nicaraguan and Iranian arms supplies. The investigation could have jeopardized the lives of U.S. hostages linked to the Iranian shipments, Justice Department officials have said.
Meese is expected to be questioned Tuesday and Wednesday by the congressional committees on the initial investigation he conducted of the Iran-contra affair and the steps he took affecting various related probes.
In the New York arms case, 17 international businessmen, including retired Israeli Gen. Avraham Bar-Am, are charged with conspiring to sell arms worth $2.5 billion to Iran.