WASHINGTON — When Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III appears before the congressional Iran- contra investigating committees today, he will be forced for the first time to answer accusations that he played a major role in trying to cover up the affair.
It is ironic that Meese, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, should be accused of trying to conceal details of the affair as it unraveled last November. After all, it was he who disclosed on Nov. 25 that money from the Iran arms sales had been diverted to the Nicaraguan resistance, an announcement that drastically widened the scandal.
But, after weeks of testimony detailing high-level Administration efforts to limit the impact of the scandal, some committee members strongly believe that the investigation undertaken by Meese during that period did more to confuse than to clarify the facts of the case.
They point out that even after Meese found evidence of the diversion on Nov. 22, he did not immediately seal pertinent records at the White House. His failure to do so allowed then-White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North time to destroy many relevant documents.
Moreover, Meese participated in an important White House meeting on Nov. 20 in which top Administration officials discussed ways to conceal the facts of the Iran arms sale from Congress and the American people.
And committee members find it peculiar that Meese, after learning about the diversion of funds to the contras, never asked anyone at the White House about the President's role.
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who has blamed most of the failures of Meese's November investigation on "incompetence," noted recently that the entire affair might have been avoided if the attorney general had simply asked White House officials to answer the key questions: What did the President know and when did he know it?
Meese has come under suspicion from the committees at the same time he is being besieged by an independent counsel's investigation of the Wedtech Corp. Although no improprieties by Meese have been alleged, it is known that independent counsel James C. McKay is looking into his actions on behalf of the scandal-plagued defense contracting firm.
The attorney general has never before publicly answered accusations involving his alleged role in the Iran-contra affair, although aides occasionally have responded to specific allegations raised in committee testimony. Last December, Meese described his role as "entirely proper."
Nevertheless, the attorney general let it be known recently that he has the complete support of the President as he faces the committees. Meese told the Washington Times over the weekend that he has received telephone calls from Reagan and White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. telling him to "fight this thing through."
A longtime Reagan confidant, Meese was viewed as the logical person to tackle the matter when it became apparent to the President and other Administration officials last November that the Iran arms sales were going to cause them political difficulties.
Initially, according to testimony, Meese did not view his role as that of an investigator, but instead saw himself as a fact-finder who would sort out the truth from the many conflicting accounts being given by various Administration officials.
One of Meese's first acts after undertaking his fact-finding inquiry was to telephone then-National Security Adviser Poindexter on Nov. 21. In a taped telephone conversation with the late CIA Director William J. Casey later that day, Poindexter said Meese had expressed a desire to be "helpful" to them in connection with the Iran initiative.
Viewed It as Warning
Meese's telephone call did indeed prove helpful to Poindexter and North--both of whom viewed it as a warning that gave them the opportunity to remove from their files whatever evidence remained of the diversion and of the U.S. role in 1985 arms shipments to Iran. Poindexter then tore up a document showing that the President had retroactively approved the 1985 shipments, and North shredded piles of other relevant papers.
At the time, Poindexter, Casey and North apparently were anxious to keep secret an Israeli shipment of U.S.-made Hawk missiles to Iran in November, 1985, because the CIA had provided logistical support for that transaction without the expressed approval of the President. The CIA is prohibited by law from such actions without written presidential authorization.
On the previous day, Meese attended the controversial White House meeting in which Poindexter, Casey and North agreed on erroneous testimony that Casey would deliver to Congress on Nov. 21, stating that no one in the Administration knew at the time that the November, 1985, Israeli shipment contained arms. They agreed to say that it was thought at the time that the 1985 shipment contained oil drilling parts.
Position to Know