WASHINGTON -- A note made by a former Reagan Cabinet officer six years ago says that George Bush, when vice president, supported the illegal arms-for-hostages swap with Iran at a very early stage -- months before he has claimed he even knew it was a swap.
The note, part of the long-secret personal diary of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, directly contradicted a number of statements Mr. Bush has made about his role in the Iran-contra scandal and forced the president last night to acknowledge that he may have known about the arms-for-hostages deal at the time.
Mr. Weinberger's one-paragraph note was made public yesterday as the special Iran-contra prosecutor obtained from a federal grand jury a new criminal charge against Mr. Weinberger, who is to go on trial Jan. 5 on five charges of lying about the scandal.
After Gov. Bill Clinton used the memo to mount a new attack on the president's credibility, Mr. Bush was asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" whether he at the time understood that the deal under consideration involved trading arms for hostages.
"To this day, you ask Ronald Reagan, 'Was it arms for hostages?' [and] he'll say no," Mr. Bush replied.
But "was it?" Mr. King persisted.
President: "In retrospect, perhaps."
Mr. Bush has never hinted publicly that he knew of the arms-for-hostages deal as early as January 1986. He also said last night he realized that Mr. Weinberger and then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz opposed the deal, but he said as vice president "I supported the president."
Mr. Clinton said the Weinberger memo showed that Mr. Bush could not tell the truth. Democratic running mate Al Gore said it amounted to "a smoking gun."
"Where's the smoking gun?" Mr. Bush asked on CNN. He continued to dismiss the memo's significance even after Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos called to confront him on the issue.
Mr. Weinberger's diary entry was included as part of the prosecutor'snew claim that the former defense secretary lied by saying he had not kept a daily diary during the scandal.
The most specific contradictions emerging from the new Weinberger note are these:
* Mr. Weinberger wrote that Mr. Bush favored in January 1986 the direct swap of U.S.-owned weapons for American hostages, while Mr. Bush has said he supported the sale of arms to Iran when he did not know that the aim was to buy freedom for the hostages.
* Mr. Weinberger wrote that the deal was discussed specifically as a swap by those attending the January meeting at the White House, including Mr. Bush, while Mr. Bush has said he did not learn until the next December that this was the true nature of the deal.
* Mr. Weinberger wrote that Mr. Shultz and Mr. Weinberger had voiced their opposition to the swap at that meeting, while Mr. Bush has said he was not at meetings where they opposed the deal and that he was "out of the loop" on the deal.
The president yesterday insisted there was nothing new in the Weinberger note but called the timing of the indictment "peculiar" with the election just four days away.
The Iran-contra prosecutor had announced Oct. 9 that he would be seeking new charges, and was under pressure from the judge in the case and from defense lawyers to do so quickly. At a hearing Oct. 9, a prosecutor promised the new charge "later this month." A news release about the new indictment of Mr. Weinberger said "the indictment was returned today [Friday] in order to meet the Jan. 5, 1993, trial date."
The Weinberger note, if it accurately reflected what happened at the January 1986 meeting, was potentially more damaging to Mr. Bush than an earlier Weinberger note that partly contradicted Mr. Bush.
The new note apparently was written right after the January meeting, while the earlier note -- made public in August -- was written many months after the Iran-contra affair had been exposed fully in public. The new note also was Mr. Weinberger's own observation at the time.
According to the indictment released yesterday, this is the key part of what Mr. Weinberger wrote in his diary after the Jan. 7, 1986, White House meeting: "President [Reagan] decided to go with Israeli-Iranian offer to release our 5 hostages in return for sale of 4000 TOWs to Iran by Israel -- George Shultz + I opposed -- Bill Casey, Ed Meese + VP favored -- as did Poindexter."
In the note, the references to individuals are to Secretary Shultz, Mr. Weinberger, the late CIA Director William Casey, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, then-Vice President Bush, and then-National Security Adviser Adm. John M. Poindexter.
Iran-contra documents released earlier have shown that top-level Reagan administration officials had been working on the details of a hostage-release plan that involved selling U.S.-owned arms through Israel as an intermediary to Iran in return for the release of American hostages held by Iran.
In December 1985, according to another Weinberger diary entry made public yesterday, the defense secretary wrote that he had argued that such a deal would violate a U.S. embargo then in effect on arms deals with Iran, and "that 'washing' transaction thru Israel wouldn't make it legal."
But that note went on to say that President Reagan said "he could answer charges of illegality but he couldn't answer charge that 'big strong President Reagan passed up a chance to free hostages.' "
From that note, it appeared to confirm earlier evidence, in court and before Congress, that the transaction was understood at the top of the government as an arms-for-hostages deal. A month later, Mr. Weinberger again described it that way in his entry about the January meeting, saying Mr. Bush took part and actually took a position in favor of the swap.
In public statements by Mr. Bush and by his aides, there has been only one comment -- by the president himself -- that implied he had approved an arms-for-hostages deal.
That came earlier this month, on the NBC-TV "Today" show when Mr. Bush was asked directly: "You knew about the arms for hostages?" He replied: "Yes, and I've said that all along, given speeches on it."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.