WASHINGTON — The release of the House and Senate report on the Iran-Contra scandal clears the way for both Congress and CIA Director William H. Webster to consider a growing list of legal and operational reforms related to the affair, probably within weeks, officials said Thursday.
Members of Congress and intelligence experts are convinced that the Iran-Contra scandal will have nothing like the sweeping impact on the U.S. intelligence community and future covert operations that Watergate--the only comparable scandal in recent times--had on the nation's political campaign system.
"It's pretty much sui generis--one of a kind--to the people" involved in the scandal, said one Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide, citing former Administration officials Oliver L. North, John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane. " . . . The exposure and eradication of that problem takes care of most of it."
Nonetheless, the recommendations in Congress' Iran-Contra report contain several proposed restrictions that would have potentially long-lasting effects on the CIA, the agency likely to be hardest hit by the affair, even though only a handful of senior officials apparently had a role in the secret arms trade with Iran and the Nicaragua rebels.
Other measures suggested in the report's list of 27 recommendations span the federal bureaucracy from the White House to the Pentagon to Congress itself.
One key recommendation would require that Congress be informed of covert operations conducted by foreign governments at the request of the United States.
And at least six bills seeking other curbs on various CIA and White House intelligence powers have been filed in Congress. Hearings on some of the proposals took place in the Senate Intelligence Committee this month.
In addition, Webster is widely expected to dismiss or punish some covert-operations officials and Central America officers linked to the scandal but has pledged not to act until his own specially appointed counsel submits a report on the scandal. Now that Congress' work is done, that report should be finished in about two weeks, CIA officials have indicated.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) promised this week that the Senate would act quickly to consider legislation resulting from the Iran arms probe.
"Important repair work needs to be done to avoid some of the more outrageous of the circumventions and practices that have been brought to light by the committee," said Byrd. The Senate leader added that the Senate should take up such legislation "as early in the next session as is feasible."
The CIA bills now before Congress would make changes ranging from minor tinkering to major surgery on the intelligence bureaucracy that would amputate the agency's covert operations division from its intelligence-gathering functions.
The proposal with the brightest future, offered by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Vice Chairman William S. Cohen (R-Me.), would partly codify a series of reforms agreed on by Congress and the White House last summer.
The most important changes would require the White House to inform Congress within two days of any decision to approve a covert operation and eliminate loopholes that enable the White House to avoid notifying congressional leaders of the most sensitive secret missions.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has offered more radical reforms, proposing to strip the CIA director of his authority over the entire U.S. intelligence community and confine him to supervision of the CIA.
A CIA spokesman said that the agency has taken no official position on the legislation and declined to say whether it would offer its opinion in the future.
Many of the 27 recommendations in the Iran-Contra report are of interest to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which had indicated that it would conduct closed hearings into the CIA's role in the Iran-Contra affair after Congress' official investigation was complete.
Host of Changes
Besides seeking strict requirements that the White House inform Congress of future covert operations, the Iran-Contra panel recommends a host of changes in intelligence policy, including:
--Making the agency's chief lawyer subject to confirmation by the Senate and making the inspector general--currently an employee of the CIA director--an independent official answerable to Congress. The report concludes that the current inspector general lacks the "manpower, resources or tenacity" to uncover abuses within the agency.
--Revamping the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, a White House office with the supposed power to investigate CIA irregularities, but shown in the Iran-Contra hearings to have few real powers and even fewer full-time employees.
--Requiring the White House to identify foreign and domestic participants in undercover operations, including missions undertaken at American request by foreign agencies.