WASHINGTON -- Jimmy Carter says the Iran-Contra affair has encouraged terrorists, and Gerald Ford says President Reagan should have listened to the advice of two Cabinet officers and nixed the arms deal, interviews disclose.
But Reagan, as he has in the past, said selling arms to Iran was never intended to ransom American hostages being held in Lebanon and repeated his claim that he did not know who got the profits from the arms deal.
Reagan and his two predecessors talked about the presidency and the Iran-Contra affair in interviews with David Frost for a television series called 'The Next President,' a joint project with Frost and U.S. News and World Report, which released exerpts of the interviews Saturday.
The interview with Reagan was conducted Nov. 2, 16 days before the final congressional Iran-Contra report that said he bears ultimate responsibility for the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran and diversion of profits to the Contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government.
When asked whether 'Irangate' was a mistake, Reagan said, 'I was not doing anything for the kidnappers.'
'They got two (hostages) freed and we were told that two more were coming out within 48 hours at the time that the whole story broke open that this operation was going on,' the president said.
But Carter and Ford had harsher statements about the affair, which engulfed the Reagan presidency in scandal when it was revealed Nov. 25, 1986.
Carter, interviewed Sept. 14, said the affair was 'much more serious' than Watergate, which began as a third-rate burglary and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon.
'What we did in Iran, in the most recent scandal, has not only encouraged additional taking of hostages, but it rewarded those who did kidnap Americans and who still hold them now almost three years later,' said Carter, whose own administration was shadowed by the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Ford, while saying the Iran-Contra affair was not as serious as Watergate, said he would not have swapped arms for hostages, particularly if his defense secretary and secretary of state opposed it.
Although Secretary of State George Shultz, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger advised against it, others in the administration supported the arms deal and Reagan ultimately approved it.
'I would have listened to the arguments of others, but I can't imagine overruling the two top Cabinet officers and taking the judgment of some individuals of lesser responsiblity,' Ford said in an interview Aug. 6.
Reagan has yet to respond to the final report of the congressional Iran-Contra committees issued Nov. 18 that accused the administration of 'disdain for the law' and assigned 'ultimate responsibility' for the affair to Reagan.
The interviews are the first in a 13-part series on the next president conducted by Frost in a project with the news magazine. Upcoming programs will feature interviews with the six Democratic and six Republican candidates running for the presidency in 1988.