Profiles » Edwin Meese III
Edwin Meese III Attorney General
From 1985 through 1988, a period covering both the Iran-Contra Affairs and their public exposure, Edwin Meese III served as the United States attorney general. Meese was investigated for his involvement in the cover-up of the scandals, namely for allegedly focusing more on limiting the damage to President Reagan than on his ostensible purpose of trying to investigate what had transpired.
Meese organized his own investigation from November 21 to November 24, 1986, about Reagan’s knowledge of the November 1985 HAWK missile shipment to Iran, of which Congress was not notified. As Walsh noted, the Select Iran-Contra Committees berated Meese for breaking protocol by failing to protect National Security Council documents (later altered or destroyed by NSC staff member Oliver North) and by failing to take notes of his interviews. Meese also claimed in error on November 25 that Reagan did not know about this specific sale until February 1986. Unlike the committees, the Independent Counsel did not see this as an isolated incident.
This error was part of a greater pattern of omissions by Meese to protect Reagan, since if Reagan knew of a shipment of arms made without a covert-action Finding and failed to report it to Congress as stipulated in the Arms Export Control Act, he could face charges. Accordingly, Meese never actually asked Reagan if he knew about this sale. Indeed, it seems he ignored Secretary of State George Shultz when Shultz told him on November 22 that Reagan had admitted to knowing of that shipment in advance.
Moreover, on November 24, Reagan, Vice President George Bush, White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and CIA Director William Casey joined Meese to discuss his inquiry. At that meeting, Poindexter stated that his predecessor Robert McFarlane had organized the sales to Iran prior to December 1985 alone, and Meese supplemented his claim by saying that the November 1985 shipment “[m]ay be a violation of law if arms shipped [without] a finding. But President did not know.” Meese, Reagan, Regan, Shultz, Weinberger, Bush, and Poindexter had evidence that this was false.
Another point of concern that shed doubt on the motivations of Meese’s inquiry was that when he found one of North’s documents outlining a plan to divert profits from the arms sales to the Contras, Meese first approached Reagan, Regan, and Bush privately to see what they knew of it. He did not tell senior advisers until later that day, and the Cabinet was not informed until the next day.
Nevertheless, Walsh brought no charges against Meese, largely because his office did not know of Meese’s comments at the meeting on November 24 until late 1991, when his staff received access to Weinberger’s and Regan’s notes. Since this was six years later, too many potential witnesses claimed they had little memory of those key events. There was simply not enough evidence to justify prosecuting Meese for his alleged obstruction.