The Iran-contra congressional committees yesterday released a key memo prepared for Vice President Bush last year that raises fresh questions about his repeated assertions that he never discussed contra resupply efforts with former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, a participant in the airlift who had close ties to Bush.
The House and Senate panels released an April 30, 1986, briefing memo prepared for the vice president that lists "resupply of the contras" as one topic Rodriguez was going to discuss with Bush on May 1.
Three Bush staff members were questioned by the committees about the briefing memo and a related scheduling document for the meeting that also refers to the contra resupply effort. Donald P. Gregg, Bush's national security adviser, said he did not know how the contra reference was included. Army Col. Samuel J. Watson III, Gregg's deputy, also said he did not know. Their secretary, Phyllis M. Byrne, said Watson gave her the information and she signed Gregg's initials on the document in his absence.
According to an informed source, Bush received the briefing paper but "does not recall" reading the part about the contras. Gregg said such papers typically were put in Bush's daily notebook to tell him the purpose and participants in meetings. Watson said Bush often did not read these papers but instead referred to an index card summarizing them that his staff prepared, but in this case said "my inclination is to say he didn't" get a card.
Bush has said the contras did not come up at the meeting with Rodriguez, which instead was devoted to Rodriguez' activities in El Salvador, a topic also listed on the briefing memo.
Bush, the front-runner for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, has declared frequently in recent months that he told the truth about his relationship with Rodriguez. Both publicly and privately, the vice president has angrily attacked those who have questioned his veracity, and he recently accused the congressional Iran-contra committees of having "distorted reality" on his role.
Yesterday, the committees released a number of exhibits that conflict with previous explanations by Bush and his staff on their dealings with Rodriguez. The panels also released depositions taken in May and June from Gregg, Watson and Byrne, portions of which were deleted for security reasons.
The documents show that earlier statements by Bush's office on contacts between Rodriguez and members of the vice president's staff -- statements Bush himself described as "full disclosure" -- actually omitted key details about the contacts.
Gregg has said he did not discuss the contras with Rodriguez until Aug. 8, 1986. However, informed sources said yesterday there is another document, not yet public, casting doubt on this statement by Gregg. The sources described a report written by Col. Watson in January 1986 following his visit to two contra camps in Honduras. In the report, apparently prepared for Bush, Watson refers to overall resupply problems then being faced by the contras. The sources said Gregg wrote in longhand in the margin, "Felix would agree with this." This notation indicates Gregg had discussed the contra resupply problems with Rodriguez earlier than he has acknowledged.
Rodriguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran, is a close friend of Gregg, also a former Central Intelligence Agency official, from their service together in Vietnam. Rodriguez was sent to El Salvador in early 1985 with assistance from Gregg and Bush to help the Salvadoran air force fight leftist insurgents there using special helicopter tactics devised in Vietnam.
Documents and testimony from the Iran-contra hearings have shown that Rodriguez also was recruited by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, then a National Security Council staff aide, to help in the secret contra resupply missions, working from the Ilopango air base near San Salvador. Gregg has said, although he talked frequently with Rodriguez, he was never told, until August 1986, about his contra role. Gregg said even after he learned North had recruited Rodriguez, he did not tell the vice president until December.
"We had never discussed the contras," Gregg said. "We had no responsibility for it. We had no expertise in it." Asked again why he didn't tell Bush, Gregg said, "It was just nothing in which I had any competence or felt he had any competence."
Bush has frequently said he has been a participant in all major decisions of the Reagan presidency and he has often stressed his foreign policy experience as a diplomat and former director of central intelligence. Bush has given many speeches on behalf of the contras.
The depositions and exhibits made public yesterday made these other points:The initial chronology issued last Dec. 15, described as a summary of Bush and staff contacts with Rodriguez, omitted such details as the briefing memo disclosed yesterday. Gregg said he came across the documents in December while preparing the chronology and that they "leaped out at me." Gregg said "it jumped out at us that there was an anomaly, an error." He said he raised this privately in his interviews with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, but it did not appear in the document issued by the vice president.
On May 14, a revision in the chronology was issued by the vice president's office, disclosing that the original account had omitted a June 1986 meeting between Watson and Rodriguez. The vice president's office said it had conducted a "comprehensive review" of files and records and the review "confirms" that Bush's contacts with Rodriguez dealt "entirely with the insurgency in El Salvador and there was no discussion, direct or indirect, on the contra aid network."
This revision also did not mention the briefing memo and scheduling paper.
The chronology also omitted a conversation between Watson and North in late July 1986 in which North said "F screwed up S front," which Watson told the committees meant "Felix had done something about resupplying the southern front that Ollie North didn't like." This was a reference to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in southern Nicaragua.
Nor did the chronology disclose a telephone conversation between Watson and Rodriguez at this time in which Watson noted they discussed "resupply." Marine Lt. Col. Robert L. Earl, a deputy to North, told Watson at a staff meeting that Rodriguez is "your friend and your problem," Watson testified, adding that he had difficulty getting more information out of North about Rodriguez' role. Gregg also denied writing or reviewing a press release issued with the chronology that said while there had been contacts with Rodriguez, the vice president's office was "never involved in directing, coordinating, or approving military aid to the contras in Nicaragua." Gregg said it was written by Marlin Fitzwater, then Bush's press secretary and now a White House spokesman. However, two informed sources said yesterday that Gregg wrote the chronology and reviewed the press release summarizing the chronology before it was issued. Neither Gregg nor Watson passed on to Bush information they received from Rodriguez on Aug. 8, 1986, that North's resupply operation might be corrupt and involved with Edwin P. Wilson, the former CIA officer who was convicted of selling arms to Libya. Gregg testified that he did not think "it was vice presidential level" to pass on to Bush the names of "four or five Americans who apparently were ripping off donated funds and making unseemly profits" on the contra resupply operation run by North. When he was interviewed last December by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the Iran-contra story was unraveling, Gregg did not pass on the names of those in the contra resupply organization given to him by Rodriguez. Instead, he told the committees, he gave the FBI agents Rodriguez' name and telephone number, and then called his friend to tell him what he had done. The committees released a "Dear Ollie" handwritten note from Bush to North that Gregg said was from Thanksgiving 1985 in which Bush praised his "dedication and tireless work with the hostage thing and with Central America . . . . " Gregg said he believed Bush was not referring to North's role aiding the contras but rather assistance North gave Bush on a trip to El Salvador in 1983.