Four key House members, acting swiftly on the Iran-contra report's recommendations, have introduced sweeping legislation to prevent an administration from providing arms secretly to nations officially found to support international terrorism, such as Iran.
The bill would prohibit all arms sales, whether publicly known or covert, to countries placed on the so-called "terrorist list" by the secretary of state unless the president provides Congress with prior notice and detailed justification for the transfer.
The ban would apply not only to arms deals arranged by the U.S. government but those carried out by any "United States person," which the bill defines as any citizen and resident of the United States, American companies or affiliates based abroad, or foreign subsidiaries of a U.S. firm.
Thus, the measure would seek to prevent a repetition of what happened in the Iran-contra scandal, in which several private Americans set up a network of dummy corporations and bank accounts abroad to funnel arms and funds secretly on behalf of the administration to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Any person found "willfully" violating the bill's provisions would be subject to a $1 million fine for each violation and a maximum prison term of 10 years.
In their final report issued Wednesday, the Iran-contra congressional investigating committees recommended that present law be modified to require notice to Congress of any covert arms shipment totaling more than $1 million.
The bill is the latest of a series in recent months aimed at tightening congressional control over covert activities approved and undertaken by the White House in response to the Iran-contra affair. Many of the bills reflect recommendations made public in the congressional report.
The latest bill is sponsored by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.). Its cosponsors are Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the Senate-House Iran investigation panel; and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), one of the panel's dissenting Republicans who published their own minority report on the investigation.
Hyde said in a telephone interview he decided to support the legislation after certain provisions he objected to were dropped. He said he thought the bill's stringent notification requirements on arms transfer to "terrorist" nations was "a good idea . . . a useful approach."
Berman, who introduced the bill Wednesday, said its intent was to close existing and potential loopholes in present legislation on arms exports.
"This bill is a cleanup after the fiasco that dirtied the reputation of the United States with the embarrassing and unwise arms-for-hostage policy," Berman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.
Berman said he wanted to reaffirm "in statute law" two fundamental principles of American foreign policy: that the United States does not sell weapons to terrorist nations, and that it is the duty of the White House to keep Congress informed of arms transfers abroad.
The bill would amend at once the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, the Export Administration Act and the Hostage Act to establish uniform standards and restrictions on all U.S. arms transfers to nations on the "terrorist list." Such nations on the list now include Iran, Syria, Libya, South Yemen and Cuba.
The measure would remove the present $1 million threshold for administration reporting to Congress on licences approved for the export of munitions and "dual usage" items to terrorist nations and would require prior notification of all sales.
The president would still have waiver authority but would have to provide a detailed report on any transfer of arms to such nations to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee. If done under a presidential finding authorizing a covert action, he would have to inform the two intelligence committees.