The House minority leader and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee engaged in an angry shouting match on the House floor yesterday over disclosure of the date when U.S. warships will begin escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.
Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) set off the exchange when he accused Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) of "unforgivable" behavior in publicly discussing some details of the escort operation after senior Reagan administration official briefed congressional leaders on the plan.
A visibly agitated Aspin replied that none of the information he disclosed was classified and that Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) had also quoted Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying the escort operation would begin next Wednesday.
The plan calls for 11 Kuwaiti tankers to convert to U.S.-flag vessels, which then will be eligible for escort by U.S. warships in the gulf. The Coast Guard will reflag the first two vessels Tuesday, sources said.
The clash in the House took place as the Senate abandoned efforts to pass legislation calling for postponement of the operation but voted overwhelmingly to authorize a total trade embargo against any Persian Gulf country that attacks U.S. vessels, property or personnel in the region.
Following the briefing by administration officials Tuesday, Aspin told reporters the first escort was planned for Wednesday, a second for Aug. 6 and that two more were planned before the end of August. He also mentioned other details of the convoy operation.
Dole also said publicly that the escort operation would begin Wednesday, but did not discuss other details.
A senior White House official said later that the date and details of the operation were likely to change because of the disclosure, but that the operation still will begin sometime next week.
His voice rising in anger, Michel said, "If Congress wishes the administration to consult us on these and other sensitive matters, we owe it to them and ourselves to show a little discretion and prudence. We simply can't expect to rebuild trust between these two great branches of government if classified information, given in a small meeting, becomes known almost immediately after it's disclosed."
Aspin interrupted Michel, insisting that dates of the operation were not classified and that the leaders were never cautioned to keep details of the briefing secret.
Rep. Larry J. Hopkins (R-Ky.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had confirmed that the briefing was "a very sensitive and classified meeting." He said he was "appalled" to find Aspin discussing the escort operation with reporters.
Michel said later he was unaware that Dole had also said the operation would start Wednesday. "I'm not going to say it's wrong for one person and right for another," he said.
Meanwhile, the Senate failed in a third attempt to block a threatened Republican filibuster against Democratic-sponsored measures aimed at delaying the reflagging operation. Democratic leaders then claimed victory and withdrew.
"We've had our shots at reflagging . . . and we've sent our message," said Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), noting that a majority of the Senate has voted three times in favor of a delay, even though opponents of the operation could not muster the 60 votes necessary to head off a filibuster.
In yesterday's attempt to invoke cloture on a proposal from Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to amend pending trade legislation to force a 90-day delay, the vote was 54 to 44, six short of the required number. Democrats lost ground because several oil-state senators switched sides and voted against cloture, fearing it would throw procedural roadblocks in the way of their efforts to amend the trade bill to repeal the windfall profits tax on oil.
The Senate then approved, 82 to 16, a proposal from Dole aimed at preventing escalation of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, specifically including Silkworm antiship missile attacks by Iran.
Dole's proposal would empower the president to impose a total trade embargo against Iran if it launches or appears on the verge of launching "a purposeful attack in the Strait of Hormuz utilizing Silkworm missiles" or against any gulf country that mounts a "purposeful military or terrorist attack on U.S. vessels, facilities or personnel in the Persian Gulf region."
The proposal also calls on the administration to "use all available appropriate leverage to persuade all nations to desist from any further transfers of offensive weaponry, such as Silkworm missiles, to any belligerent nation in the Persian Gulf region."