WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee has decided to launch a formal investigation of the apparent White House failure to provide key documents to the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, its chairman said Wednesday.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), who heads the intelligence panel, said that he ordered the inquiry in response to requests from several senators who said that they had not been given six significant documents that surfaced as evidence in the trial of former White House aide Oliver L. North.
The six documents center on a secret Ronald Reagan Administration effort to persuade Honduras to aid the Nicaraguan rebels, including the acceleration of U.S. economic aid to Honduras. Several of the documents also include evidence that President Bush, as vice president, was more involved in the secret Contra aid operation than he has admitted.
"We will look at this matter expeditiously and in a businesslike, nonpolitical manner," Boren said in a statement released by his office. "I am determined that this matter will not be blown out of proportion or made into a political football."
Meanwhile, jurors at the North trial deliberated for a fifth day without reaching a verdict. They met for six hours before quitting for the day at 4:25 p.m., bringing their deliberations to 27 hours over five days.
Theories of why the trial documents were not released to the congressional committees range from a deliberate cover-up to simple incompetence, congressional investigators said.
Some former aides to the Iran-Contra committees said that they have long suspected that the White House deliberately withheld some information. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who served in the Reagan Administration at the time of the 1987 congressional inquiry, has denied that charge.
White House Letter
Late Wednesday evening, the White House released copies of a letter from White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to Mitchell pledging to "endeavor to be as helpful as we can" in resolving questions about the documents.
But Gray took considerable pains to distance Bush from the controversy. "As you know," he wrote, "this Administration was not a party to (the) agreements to assist the committees and their work."
"We have confidence that the last Administration followed the agreed procedures, and that its representatives will be able to address your concerns," Gray wrote, noting that Reagan's counsel, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., "had overall responsibility" for ensuring congressional investigators received what they needed.
Could Pick Documents
The congressional committees allowed the White House to determine which documents were relevant to their investigation.
Other former committee aides have said that the problem may have been more innocent. "I went down to the White House to see how they were compiling these documents, and I've never seen a more chaotic operation in my life," one said.
Boren's decision to launch a formal investigation followed a request from Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.); Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Iran-Contra panel, and Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), the panel's vice chairman.
Mitchell, Inouye and Rudman complained that the congressional committees apparently did not receive copies of four significant documents released during the North trial. In the case of two other documents, they said, the committees received copies that were not as complete as the versions released in the North trial.
The four documents that the committees did not receive:
--A Feb. 19, 1985, memorandum from National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane to President Reagan, recommending accelerated economic and military aid to Honduras as "incentives for them to persist in aiding the freedom fighters." The memo shows that Reagan approved the recommendation and that a copy was sent to Bush.
--A Feb. 20, 1985, memorandum from North and NSC aide Raymond F. Burghardt to McFarlane, noting--among other things--that the Honduran aid deal violated the spirit of the law. "Notwithstanding our own interpretations, it is very clear . . . that the legislative intent was to deny \o7 any \f7 direct or indirect support for military/paramilitary operations in Nicaragua," the memorandum says.
--A Feb. 22, 1985, memorandum from Burghardt to McFarlane, asking for authorization to hand-carry a letter from Reagan to the president of Honduras.
--An Oct. 30, 1985, memorandum from North to McFarlane, indicating that Reagan may have approved a scheme to airdrop recoilless rifles to the Contras for an attack on weapons shipments into Nicaragua's Caribbean ports.
The two documents that the committee received in less complete versions:
--A Feb. 11, 1985, NSC memorandum on the Honduran deal. The version released during the trial includes an additional memorandum describing the aid that the United States would provide "as an incentive to the Hondurans for their continued support to (the Contras). Obviously this part of the message should not be contained in a written document, but rather delivered verbally by a discreet emissary." The author of the memorandum presumably meant "orally" rather than "verbally."
--An April 25, 1985, memorandum on President Reagan's telephone call to then-Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova. The version released during the trial includes Reagan's handwritten notes on the conversation, in which he urged Suazo to help the Contras and Suazo asked for more economic aid; it also includes a notation indicating a copy went to Bush.
Staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this article.