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Is He for Real?

July 22, 1987

If it (the sale of arms to Iran) had not been exposed . . . who knows where it would have led?

--John M. Poindexter, July 20, 1987

Where, indeed? Had the Reagan Administration's surreptitious and self-deluding effort to curry favor with Iranian "pragmatists" and ransom American hostages from Lebanon remained a closely held secret, there's no telling what U.S.-Iran relations might look like today. In Adm. Poindexter's vision, the hostages would no doubt all be safely home and friendly voices in Tehran would be singing the praises of the once-despised Great Satan. It would be a triumph of covert statecraft. To Poindexter's great regret, none of this was to be. Instead, a spoilsport faction in Iran snitched about what was going on, the whole miserable business was exposed, and evidence of deception, knavery and cover-up has come rolling out like a mighty and polluted river.

Does President Reagan's former national-security adviser have any regrets about the foolishness of peddling arms to Iran or the deceit of diverting profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contras ? Emphatically he does not. The only regret he acknowledges is that he and his fellow schemers were caught unprepared and without a decent cover story when exposure came of what they were up to. Based on the tale that Poindexter had ample time to prepare for delivery to congressional investigating panels over the last week, that cover story no doubt would have been a lulu.

Even the Administration's strongest friends on the committees had to gag at Poindexter's repeated assertions that he did no wrong during his White House tenure. As it happens, that claim was one of the few things in his testimony that he was unequivocal about. Whether Poindexter is guilty of wrongdoing as the law defines it will be determined later. What's clear already is that he has been convicted out of his own mouth of astonishingly poor judgment and contempt for the democratic political process.

A military man, Poindexter subverted the principle of civilian control by assuming for himself the authority to make decisions that are properly the responsibility of the commander-in-chief. He deliberately withheld essential information from those who had a right to know--including, so he says, the President himself--on the absurd ground that he alone was in the best position to decide who should have essential information. In the end, it appears, he found that he could trust almost no one--not the "bureaucracy," among whom must be counted experts whose counsel might have prevented the grievous blunders that occurred, nor Congress, nor his colleagues, nor the press. In the end, if he can be believed, he trusted only himself--a poor choice of confidants, indeed.

If he can be believed . Poindexter claims that he never lied to Congress while he served in the White House. But he freely admits that he often deliberately misled Congress, that he withheld information, that he dissimulated--all in the name of a self-asserted unique understanding of what the national interest best required. The constitutional system of checks and balances is, of course, meant precisely to restrain the abuses of authority that Poindexter maintains he had the right to practice. Can he really believe what he asserts? If so, then it seems clear that he doesn't understand the Constitution that he has sworn to uphold. If not, if he is still trying to mislead with semantic tricks and bogus assertions, then the question of whom or what he is covering up for inevitably occurs.

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