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Bush "didn't understand' Iran-Contra questions

The White House worked Wednesday to extricate President Bush from a remark made during a television interview on Tuesday that implied he knew more about the 1986 arms-for-hostages deal with Iran than he has admitted.

A White House spokesman, Walter Kansteiner, said Bush had misunderstood two questions about the Iran affair that were directed to him on the NBC program Today.

Bush's comments nevertheless handed Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign an opening to challenge the president's account of his role in the Iran scandal and to demand that he release testimony about it.

In the Today interview, Bush twice appeared to say that he had known "all along," as the Iran arms affair unfolded in 1985 and 1986, that the White House was swapping weapons for the release of American hostages in Lebanon.

"Did you have any knowledge of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal while you were in office as vice president?" Bush was asked.

"I've testified 450 times under oath, some of them, and our staff 3,500, that, yes," Bush first replied.

Asked later in the interview whether "you knew about the arms for hostages," Bush again replied, "Yes, and I've said so all along; given speeches on it."

Actually, Bush has repeatedly said that he knew both that arms were being shipped to Iran and that hostages in Lebanon were being released, but that he never regarded the events as two elements of a ransom deal until after the arms shipments became public. Both Reagan and Bush had characterized the arms shipments as a secret diplomatic overture to moderates in Iran's government.

Wednesday, Kansteiner said that Bush had misinterpreted the questions, taking the phrase "arms-for-hostages" as a shorthand way of describing the Iran initiative.