WASHINGTON — Vice President George Bush, who previously said that he was "out of the loop" when the Reagan Administration made its ill-fated decision to sell arms to Iran, was one of the key backers of the initiative, according to a White House memorandum released Thursday.
Shortly before the first direct U.S. weapons sale to Iran, then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter wrote that while some top Administration officials opposed the transactions, "most importantly, President and VP are solid in taking the position that we have to try."
The House and Senate panels that investigated the Iran-Contra affair, which released the memorandum, described it as "the first evidence (albeit hearsay) the committees have found concerning the vice president's position on the Iran initiative."
At a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Bush told reporters that he has not yet seen the entire memorandum but added that if it "says that I stood with the President, the answer is yes, as I've been saying all along." He insisted that the disclosure would not damage his credibility.
Although Bush has said that he had missed some key meetings involving the arms transactions, Thursday he repeated an earlier contention that "I expressed reservations" about the sales.
Poindexter's description of the vice president's views came in a computer message sent on Feb. 1, 1986, to his predecessor, Robert C. McFarlane. It was one of 96 such messages recently uncovered through the use of a computer program developed by the committees.
The congressional investigators and the presidentially appointed commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) have concluded that Bush's role in the Iran-Contra affair was minor. The Senate panel's leaders, Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Vice Chairman Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), said in a joint statement that nothing in the new evidence "would alter the committees' conclusions."
However, the revelation could damage Bush's prospects in the 1988 presidential campaign, in which his role in the scandal already has been raised repeatedly. At least one other GOP contender, Alexander M. Haig Jr., wasted no time in criticizing Bush after the disclosure.
Haig, who has previously denounced the vice president's role in the Iran-Contra scandal, said that the latest revelation proves "George Bush has a credibility crisis on this issue. The American people have a right to know just what he advised our President: to pay ransom or not to pay ransom?"
Throughout the presidential campaign, the Iran-Contra affair has put Bush in a particularly uncomfortable position: If the vice president did not know much about the sales, he appears to have been left out of the decision-making in an Administration where he has claimed to have had an important role.
On the other hand, if Bush--a former U.N. ambassador and director of central intelligence--did participate more extensively in the decision, his role raises questions about his judgment that undermine the appeal of his strong background in foreign policy.
"I think he has not faced the issue directly; I think he will have to in the course of his (presidential) primary campaign. . . . The question becomes not one of intent but one of judgment," said Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a member of the Senate panel.
The vice president once told the Washington Post that he had been "out of the loop" when the White House decided to sell arms to Iran and he complained that the initiative had not been subjected to closer scrutiny by the National Security Council, of which he is a member.
As recently as last Sunday, Bush said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press": "If I'd had a lot more knowledge of what was going on, I would have said, 'Don't do this.' Or if I had been sharp enough to see into the future, that a program that started out as not having arms for hostages turned into that, I'd have said, 'Don't do that.' "
The Administration has contended that its original goal was to reach out to less radical elements in Iran, as the foundation for a long-range improvement in relations between the two countries. However, Poindexter referred to the sales in his memoranda to McFarlane as "the hostage plan" and "this risky operation."
The memoranda again underline how deeply divided top Administration officials were over the decision. Poindexter wrote on Jan. 22, 1986, that Secretary of State George P. Shultz and former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger were "against it on policy grounds," an apparent reference to the Administration's public opposition to negotiating with--and particularly paying ransom to--terrorists.
On Feb. 1, Poindexter again noted that Weinberger and Shultz opposed the deals but that the late CIA Director William J. Casey, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and himself were "fully on board."
The committees said that they turned the new evidence over to independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who is expected to announce soon whether he plans to seek indictments.