WASHINGTON — A year after the eruption of the Iran-Contra scandal, the harsh judgment of congressional investigators fell heavily upon two of President Reagan's oldest and closest allies: the late CIA director William J. Casey and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
Casey, the select House and Senate committees concluded Wednesday, misused the nation's intelligence processes "to support the policy he was promoting" in Central America. He was, investigators suggested, the guiding hand behind a move to create secret machinery outside the government to carry out "off the shelf" covert operations abroad.
When the scandal broke, investigators concluded, the attorney general--the nation's top law enforcement officer--so seriously "departed from standard investigative techniques" that his investigation of the entire affair was placed under a cloud.
The committee findings regarding Casey and Meese were not unexpected, but they formed the cornerstone of the majority report's conclusion that President Reagan "created or at least tolerated an environment" in which the scandal took place.
The President's two old friends from political wars and scores of lesser Administration crises played a far more prominent role in the somber conclusions of the congressional inquiry than they did in the parade of witnesses swept before television cameras during the three-month investigation.
While laying much of the blame for the whole affair on Casey and scorching Meese for his handling of the investigation, the committees dealt less harshly with Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the chief operative in the fund diversion, and Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, then the White House national security adviser.
North's six days on the witness stand made him briefly a matinee idol, but in the end his chief role was to implicate Casey. He played a role somewhat comparable to that of White House counsel John W. Dean III in the Watergate investigation. Ironically, the implied criticism of him came from the committees' Republican minority, who had been sympathetic to him during his long cross-examination.
The affair, Washington's biggest political furor since Watergate, erupted a year ago this month with the disclosure that American arms had been secretly sold to Iran and the proceeds illegally diverted to insurgents fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua.
A minority report signed by six Republican House members and two GOP senators took issue with the findings, saying the majority had implicated Casey by making selective use of uncorroborated testimony from North. The allegations against Meese were characterized as "untrue" and "outrageous."
Casey, stricken with brain cancer soon after the investigation began, died without ever appearing before the congressional probe, leading critics to contend that the full story can never be known.
Arthur L. Liman, counsel for the Senate Select Committee, acknowledged that investigators had accepted North's account that "Casey knew and was involved in setting up this whole scheme." But he disagreed with the contention that Casey's death foreclosed the possibility of finding the truth.
"If Casey had lived, we not only would not have known more," Liman told The Times, "we would have known less because Casey would have controlled what everyone said."
The congressional panels did conclude that in the first days of their inquiry into the affair, before Casey entered the hospital with his terminal illness, he was already taking part in a cover-up.
North Chronicles Role
"The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Casey, and other government officials showed contempt for the democratic process by withholding information that Congress was seeking and by misrepresenting intelligence to support policies advocated by Casey," the report concluded.
The basis for the finding that Casey perverted the very intelligence process he was charged with running came as North, granted partial immunity from prosecution, chronicled his own role in the grand scam.
By North's account, he kept the CIA chief constantly informed of his activities in diverting the arms sale proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras. It was also Casey who brought retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord into the operation as a private merchant to provide the anti-government guerrillas with inexpensive small arms.
In the report released Wednesday, the majority of the congressional panel concluded that Casey, among others in the Administration, "came to believe that the CIA could no longer be utilized for daring covert operations. So the National Security Council staff was enlisted to provide assistance in covert operations that the CIA could not or would not furnish."
The majority also said it believed that Casey personally encouraged and directed North "and promoted the concept of an extra-legal covert organization," but it noted that North had managed to exculpate himself at the same time his congressional testimony implicated the deceased CIA director.