Vice President Bush is between a rock and a hard place on the Iran-contra scandal. He was shoehorned there by his national security adviser and by a Central Intelligence Agency operator who reputedly was on the team that killed Che Guevara 20 years ago.
The inside story is that it was not Bush who clamored for a role in the Iran-contra deal. It was his national security adviser, Donald P. Gregg. The story shows tremendously bad judgment on the part of Gregg and of Bush, who has stood by Gregg and seems prepared to make him the country's national security adviser if Bush is elected president.
The Iran-contra scandal continues to fester. But the question is no longer: "What did the president know?" It is: "What did the vice president know?" Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bush has not answered that question in a way that meshes with official memos on his involvement. Thanks to Gregg, Bush had plenty of access of details about the sale of arms to the Iranians and the diversion of money to aid the Nicaraguan contras. Yet Bush maintains he did not know.
White House sources now tell us that Gregg, a former CIA agent, was constantly seeking a niche in the National Security Council. In 1986, that meant getting close to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. Our sources say Gregg "pestered" North on the contra issue, setting up appointments and making phone calls to get himself and Bush in the inside circle.
For help, Gregg turned to an old CIA buddy, Felix Rodriguez. He puffed up Rodriguez's reputation, spreading the word that Rodriguez was part of the special team that hunted down Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in the hills of Bolivia in 1967. An authoritative account by ex-CIA official Victor Marchetti says the CIA was on the scene when Guevara was caught and that they tried to question him, but the Bolivians executed him the next day.
Whatever Rodriguez's role, he was a charismatic cowboy in the North mold. Gregg set up a meeting between Rodriguez and Bush in early 1986. As we first revealed last June, the briefing memo on the meeting said the purpose was for Rodriguez to brief Bush "on the status of the war in El Salvador and resupply for the contras." Rodriguez was working with North on the secret supply line to the rebels.
Bush claims that he never talked about the contra resupply at that meeting or at two more meetings with Rodriguez. Only Bush, Gregg and Rodriguez know what went on in those meetings. We do not. We do know that it would have been in keeping with Bush's character to stay abreast of everything Gregg was up to.
In a deposition, Gregg admitted that he knew Rodriguez was working with North on the resupply operation, but said he did not know the money came from Iran and he never told Bush about it.
Gregg should have been questioned in public about what he knew, and what Bush knew, but Bush's friends on the Iran-contra investigating committee prevented it. When news of the Gregg-Rodriguez meetings hit its peak last year, Gregg went to Bush to discuss his possible resignation. As Gregg told it, Bush said, "It's not time. I need your help." Republican officials say Bush should cut his losses and let Gregg go before poor political judgment costs him the presidency.