WASHINGTON — One of the prosecutors who investigated the Iran-Contra affair concluded two decades ago that neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush was criminally liable in the scandal that tarnished the presidencies of both men, according to reports made public Friday.
Associate independent counsel Christian Mixter reached that conclusion in 1991 even though he found that President Reagan was briefed in advance about every weapons shipment sold to Iran in the arms-for-hostages deals in 1985-86. In a separate report on Bush, Mixter wrote that the then-vice president was chairman of a committee that recommended mining the harbors of Nicaragua in 1983.
Mixter’s reports were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group, which released them on the 25th anniversary of the Iran-Contra scandal. At a Nov. 25, 1986, White House news conference, Reagan and then-Attorney General Edwin Meese disclosed that money from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contra guerrillas fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua after Congress had cut off military aid to the rebels.
Mixter concluded it would be difficult to prosecute Reagan for violating the Arms Export Control Act mandating congressional notification of arms transfers through a third country — Israel in the case of the Reagan White House’s secret arms sales to Iran in 1985. The reason, Mixter said, was that Meese had told Reagan the National Security Act could be invoked to supersede the export control act.
Mixter’s March 1991 reports to his boss, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, and his team of prosecutors noted that they were actively investigating Bush, who by then had become president.
“As we have discussed,” Mixter wrote to Walsh and the other prosecutors, “there is an outstanding area of investigation that could conceivably lead to wholly new evidence regarding Mr. Bush’s role in Iran-Contra.” The topic concerned possible knowledge by Bush of secret military support for the Contras, including the recommendation to mine the Nicaraguan harbors.
A year after Mixter wrote his reports, Walsh obtained a grand jury indictment charging former Reagan administration Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger with concealing his detailed notes of the controversy from investigators.
Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures shortly before the former defense secretary was to go on trial in a case in which Bush could well have been summoned as a witness either by prosecutors or defense attorneys.
In a final report by prosecutors released in 1994 more than a year following Bush’s pardons, Walsh stated that Reagan acquiesced in a cover-up that had been spearheaded by Meese and carried out at the top levels of the Reagan administration. The report was immediately denounced by Reagan, Meese, Bush and others. Impeachment of Reagan “certainly should have been considered” by the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra affair, Walsh told a news conference at the time.
Mixter’s reports on Reagan and Bush reflect the absence of evidence demonstrating that Reagan or Bush hid information from investigators. Both men participated in meetings of Reagan and his inner circle in which one or the other covert operations was discussed.
“I conclude that President Reagan lacked sufficient information” about what the National Security Council staff was doing, “and the manner in which Congress was deceived, to support a criminal charge that he conspired” with others indicted in the scandal, Mixter wrote.
“The record on President Reagan’s awareness of these congressional inquiries is somewhat muddy,” said Mixter. “There is no indication that Mr. Reagan was aware of, or played any conscious role in, the administration’s efforts to deflect congressional inquiries into the shootdown” of one of the planes secretly supplying arms to the Contras, says Mixter’s report.
As for the report on Bush, Mixter wrote: “Although the quantity of information compiled by Mr. Bush’s Iran-Contra activities is much smaller than that amassed on former President Reagan, it is quite clear that Mr. Bush attended most — although not quite all — of the key briefings and meetings in which Mr. Reagan participated.”
The report went on: “However, if then-President Reagan faces no criminal liability for having ‘authorized’ any of the core Iran-Contra events of which both he and Mr. Bush were aware, then there is no basis on which to find a secondary officer like Mr. Bush liable for simply ‘being there’ while those events were discussed with the president.”
Peter Kornbluh, the National Security Archive analyst who obtained the Mixter reports under the FOIA, called them “the verdict of history on the Iran-Contra roles of both the president and vice president of the United States.”