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DEA Chief Denies Agents Broke Law to Aid Hostages

November 21, 1987|RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writer

QUANTICO, Va. — The nation's chief drug enforcement official Friday disputed a conclusion by the Iran-Contra investigating committees that two of his agents engaged in possibly illegal operations, using privately raised funds in an unsuccessful effort to free American hostages in Lebanon.

Drug Enforcement Administrator John C. Lawn insisted that the agents' role was limited to gathering intelligence on the hostages, which is permitted under federal law, and he challenged the committees' statement that they operated for more than a year under the direction of former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North.

But Lawn refused to discuss the matter in detail, disclosing that it is under investigation by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. "DEA is certainly part of what is being looked at by the special prosecutor," said Lawn, who made the comments to reporters at the DEA's training facilities at the FBI's National Academy here.

Defines DEA Role

"Our role was to gather intelligence on the hostages," Lawn said. "We gathered intelligence on the hostages."

The committees, however, found that the two veteran agents, who were not named in the report, channeled privately raised funds to their sources overseas in a North-led effort to ransom the hostages for $1 million apiece.

Lawn told the committees that, in authorizing the agents to take part in gathering intelligence on the hostages, he instructed them not to become involved in operations because federal law limits the DEA's operational responsibilities to drug-related law enforcement.

He made clear Friday that he did not approve of paying ransom, noting that he had "worked a great number of kidnapings" as an FBI official before taking command of the DEA. "We never approve the paying of a ransom. . . . We don't like the paying of ransom."

$2 Million for 2 Hostages

In May, 1985, according to North's notes obtained by the committees, the two agents assured him that their source could produce the hostages if given $200,000 for payments to officials in Lebanon and $2 million for two hostages.

"The agents explained that they needed to change their operating procedures," the committees' report said. "They wanted to report directly to the National Security Council staff to get the DEA 'off their backs' " and advised North to contact Lawn or Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to accomplish this.

In June, Meese agreed to North's request, the report said. The agents were originally assigned to the NSC for no more than 30 days, it added, but the assignments exceeded a year.

Destroyed Their Notes

"Once the DEA agents were assigned to North, they reported directly to him, except for occasional, cursory briefings to Lawn," the report said. "They wrote no reports of their activities and made no entries in the DEA informant files regarding contacts with their source. Further, they immediately destroyed their notes after orally reporting to North."

Lawn, however, said Friday: "At no time was any DEA agent assigned to NSC. At all times, the agents who were involved in gathering that intelligence were assigned at DEA headquarters and were reporting either to me or through another person."

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