Vice President George Bush defended his support for the Administration's Iran arms sales plan on Saturday, but in replies to written questions on the topic he illuminated an apparent lack of personal initiative and curiosity about the venture.
Bush, whose presidential campaign has been plagued in recent weeks by controversy over his role in the Iran-Contra affair, portrayed himself as essentially a captive of a bureaucratic process gone awry, rather than as the forceful and experienced leader he professes to be when courting voters.
The vice president, for example, has said previously that he expressed reservations about the arms sales plan to President Reagan and others. Bush has acknowledged that those concerns centered on the role of Israel as a conduit for arms shipments to Iran and about difficulties that would have occurred if the plan prematurely became public.
Never Sought Changes
But in response to written questions posed by The Times, Bush acknowledged that he never sought nor accomplished any changes to accommodate his concerns.
"I had no operational role in the initiative," Bush said when asked why he had not pressed for changes.
While Bush did not coordinate the Iran arms sales plan, he did as vice president attend as many as three dozen meetings at which the topics of arms sales to Iran and the hostages were discussed, his aides have previously disclosed. Bush also served as chairman of the Administration's task force on terrorism, which reaffirmed a national policy against making concessions to terrorists or terrorism-sponsoring states.
In a similar passive vein were Bush's explanations for being unaware of the heated objections to the arms-for-hostages plan by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Bush has blamed his ignorance of their objections on the failure of the Administration to convene a formal National Security Council meeting at which all senior participants would have been obliged to detail their views.
But in answers to The Times, Bush said he never took it upon himself to ask for such a meeting, nor did he separately ask Shultz and Weinberger for their positions. The vice president did not explain, when asked, why he personally failed to suggest that format.
"I regret, as I expect all NSC members do now, that at the time we did not insist on following the process which would have required a formal NSC meeting," Bush said. "This is how the views of other National Security Council principals on a matter such as this should be received by a President and vice president."
Written questions were posed to Bush by The Times in early January, after the vice president told reporters on a campaign swing in Iowa that he would provide responses to all such inquiries. Bush aides refused a request for a formal interview on the matter.
The Iran-Contra affair has followed the vice president throughout his campaign, most insistently since a Jan. 7 Washington Post story detailed his participation in meetings at which the plans were discussed. Bush's competitors, Republicans and Democrats alike, also have raised the issue as a liability for the GOP front-runner.
Bush Aides Thrilled
The controversy peaked Monday when Bush, in a live interview with CBS News, angrily berated anchorman Dan Rather for impugning Bush's integrity by suggesting that he had not told the truth about his level of involvement. Bush aides declared themselves thrilled with what they characterized as an outpouring of support for the vice president in the wake of the 10-minute, nationally televised exchange.
In his frequent defenses of his actions, Bush has consistently denied he was let in on details of the arms-for-hostages plan and contends that he was not fully aware of its scope until after the Administration went public with the ill-fated effort in November, 1986.
Despite Bush's protestations, the issue has continued to confound him because it strikes at the heart of his candidacy. On the campaign trail, Bush describes himself as the most experienced of the candidates in the areas of foreign policy, intelligence and diplomacy and portrays his role in the Administration as weighty. His characterizations of his role in the Iran-Contra affair seem to contradict that portrayal.
Also contributing to the continuing debate over Bush's role are his contradictory answers to the central questions about the Iran-Contra affair. On one hand, Bush has denied knowing that what he called a "two-track" plan to rescue hostages and separately sell arms to Iranians had disintegrated into one track, that of an exchange of arms for hostages. But at the same time, he says concern for the hostages caused the errors in judgment that led to arms sales to Iran.
If the matters were not linked, Bush was asked, why would concern for the hostages enter into the debate over arms sales? In response, Bush again insisted that his comments were not contradictory.
"It was our understanding that the individuals who held U.S. hostages in Lebanon could be influenced by certain factions in Iran. Our hope was to find a faction, build some level of a constructive relationship and use it to gain the release of the hostages," he said. "What was requested by those contacted in Iran were a limited amount of weapons. . . .
"The lack of oversight led to a number of actions that got us into a trade of arms for the hostages. But, this is not how it started."
Bush also was asked how the broad foreign policy experience he boasts of on the campaign trail aided him in the Administration's arms-for-hostages plan, and how, given his background, he did not see the plan for what it was.
"That is for the American people to judge," Bush replied. "We took risks here, and just as the President accepts his responsibility, I'll accept mine."