WASHINGTON — Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter's testimony that he did not tell President Reagan about the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to Nicaragua's contras prompted a terse reaction Wednesday from the President:
"What's new about that? I've been saying it for seven months."
What is new is that it was Poindexter, the former presidential national security adviser who had been silent on the Iran-contra affair since last November, who said it.
Poindexter's former subordinate, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, had testified that he had kept Poindexter informed of the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras--and that he had assumed that Poindexter had received Reagan's approval.
But, while Poindexter's account divorced the President from the diversion scheme, it confirmed a different charge by Reagan's critics--that he was unaware of the actions of his own subordinates in the White House.
The Tower Commission, the board appointed by Reagan and headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) to investigate the Iran-contra affair, raised this criticism in its report last February.
"The President's management style," the commission said, "is to put the principal responsibility for policy review and implementation on the shoulders of his advisers. Nevertheless, with such a complex, high-risk operation and so much at stake, the President should have ensured that the NSC system did not fail him."
The NSC is the National Security Council, whose chairman is Reagan and whose staff was headed by Poindexter until he resigned last November.
The congressional Iran-contra committees have yet to hear from some witnesses, notably former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, who were as close to Reagan as Poindexter was. Those witnesses could shed further light on the specific question of whether the President knew about the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras and on the more general issue of how he managed the White House.
Even as Reagan reacted with understated satisfaction to Poindexter's testimony, the White House was seeking to undo the damage of another statement by the former national security adviser.
That statement undercut Reagan's repeated assertions that he intended the sale of weapons to Iran as a "strategic" opening to the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--and not as barter for American hostages held by Islamic groups in Lebanon that were allied with the ayatollah.
Poindexter said Reagan signed a presidential "finding" on Dec. 5, 1985, that cited the hostages' freedom as the reason for the arms sales. The former national security aide said he destroyed the document after Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III said he was beginning an inquiry into the Iran affair last November.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that, although Reagan could not recall signing such a document, "he doesn't have any problem with the content of it as he sees it today."
Fitzwater added: "The President deals with hundreds and thousands of pieces of information and documents a day and a week and a year and a month."
It was Fitzwater who informed Reagan of Poindexter's testimony about the diversion of funds. At the time, Reagan was leaving an elevator in the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, after delivering a speech to representatives of minority business groups.
"He said, 'Good,' " Fitzwater said.
Moments later, reporters encountered Reagan as he was about to enter the White House, and one of them shouted a question about Poindexter's statement that he had not informed the President about the diversion. It was then that Reagan said: "What's new about that? I've been saying it for seven months."
Later in the day, Reagan met briefly with former Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.), who is directing the Administration's efforts to obtain congressional approval of additional funding for the contras. The current appropriation expires on Oct. 1.
Poindexter's assertion that Reagan was unaware of the diversion follows several months of public skepticism about the veracity of the President's denials. Among recent public opinion polls turning up such doubts, a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted last weekend found 52% of those surveyed agreed that Reagan "has lied about the Iran-contra affair" and 30% disagreed.
Whether Poindexter's testimony will turn public opinion around remains unclear.
"Most of the American people think he (Reagan) knew anyway," a Democratic Senate aide said. "The damage to his credibility has been done."