Former President Ronald Reagan, discussing the Iran-Contra affair under oath for the first time, said in testimony released Thursday that he did not authorize the diversion of money from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan resistance. He also declared that he still doubted whether it actually ever happened. Reagan's testimony, an eight-hour videotaped deposition given in a Los Angeles courtroom last week, corroborated the previous testimony of many former top White House aides who have said the president supported the objectives of the Iran-Contra affair but never approved any of the allegedly illegal acts carried out in his name.
The former president was questioned by both prosecution and defense lawyers in preparation for the coming trial of his former national security adviser, John Poindexter. Defense lawyers have not asserted that Reagan instructed Poindexter to engage in unlawful activity, but have adopted a defense strategy that centers on trying to show that the former president gave Poindexter the authority to carry out the administration's Iran-Contra policies.
The videotape, which will be viewed by the jury in the Poindexter trial, was shown for the first time to the news media in Washington. Under a court order it cannot be aired on television.
Reagan told his interrogators that he had no recollection of many of the key events of the Iran-Contra affair. He offered that reply in answer to more than 120 direct questions, and also said he has forgotten the names of several key players in the affair _ including Gen. John Vessey, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during his administration.
Reagan also refused to acknowledge many of the commonly accepted facts of the Iran-Contra drama as it has been recounted many times in public testimony by a variety of his
former aides over the past four years.
He expressed doubt, for example, that Poindexter had ever admitted misleading Congress _ as the former national security adviser did during testimony before Congress in 1987.
Similarly, Reagan said he could not recall the Tower commission telling him in March 1987 that ex-White House aide Oliver North gave illegal military assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance.
Nor was he aware, the former president indicated, that Poindexter's predecessor as national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, had pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress.
But Reagan's views on the diversion of money from the Iranian arms sale to the Contras was particularly surprising, considering the mountain of evidence about it that was unearthed during the 1987 congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra affair.
The bipartisan panel concluded that the Contras received $3.8-million from the sale of $16.1-million in U.S. weapons to Iran.
"To this day," Reagan testified, "with all of the investigations that have been made, I still have never been given one iota of evidence as to who collected the price, who delivered the final delivery of weapons, whether there was ever more money in that Swiss account that had been diverted someplace else. I am still waiting to find those things out and have never found them out."
Asked directly if he had approved the diversion, Reagan added:
"May I simply point out that I had no knowledge then or now that there had been a diversion and I never used the term. And all I knew was that there was some money that came from some place in another account, and that the appearance was that it might have been part of the negotiated sale. And to this day, I don't have any information or knowledge .
. that there was a diversion."
When prosecuting attorney Dan Webb showed him excerpts of the Tower commission report in which both Poindexter and North acknowledged diverting money to the Contras from the Iran arms sale, Reagan said it was the first time he had seen their testimony. Reagan himself created the Tower commission after the the Iran-Contra affair came to light in November 1986.
"I didn't know about it, and (it's) very possible that he (Poindexter ) didn't," Reagan added. "But as I say, this I can't explain. .
. This is the first time that I have ever seen a reference that actually specified there was a diversion. .
. I don't understand. This is very confusing to me."
It was the only moment during his eight hours of testimony that the former president seemed flustered by the questioning. Otherwise, despite the frequent lapses in memory, he was composed and clearly confident of himself _ even telling a joke now and then.
As Reagan described it, the Iran-Contra affair was a controversy sparked entirely by an "erroneous" report in a Middle Eastern newspaper that his administration was trading arms for hostages _ a misunderstanding Reagan said he could never correct, despite numerous public denials.
Reagan acknowledged that he had approved the sale of arms to Iran, beginning in November 1985, even though he could not recall when he was first told of the initial shipment of 80 Hawk missiles in November 1985. He remembered that both Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger opposed the sale because they said it would appear to be an arms-for-hostage swap, which was against the policy of the administration.
"Well, now I have to say they were proven right," Reagan added.