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Panel Members Scold Poindexter : Admiral Ends Testimony Amid Charges of Secrecy, 'Disarray'

July 22, 1987|SARA FRITZ and KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, who by his own account unilaterally decided to divert Iranian arms sale profits to Nicaragua's contras , was condemned by members of the congressional investigating committees Tuesday for creating "disarray in the Oval Office" and cutting President Reagan out of the decision-making process.

As he concluded five arduous days of testimony, Poindexter was forced to listen to a succession of committee members portray him as a man obsessed by secrecy, contemptuous of the normal processes of government and insensitive to the special prerogatives of the presidency.

Locked Out of Process

"You locked the President himself out of the process . . . " said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House investigating panel. "Secrecy contributed to disarray in the Oval Office. The President apparently did not know you were making some of the most important decisions of his presidency."

Undaunted by the scolding, Poindexter insisted that a majority of Americans support the efforts he made to provide secret assistance to the contras. Moreover, he asserted that the hearings, although widely viewed as a serious political setback for the President, had actually increased public acceptance of Reagan's policy in Central America.

"The people understand; they are getting the message," he said, citing thousands of telegrams he has received since he began testifying last Wednesday. "They are supportive of the actions that I have taken and the President has taken, and they're appreciative. . . . They are beginning to understand the policy."

The defiant 50-year-old rear admiral later concluded his appearance by declaring: "I leave this hearing with my head held high that I have done my very best to promote the long-term national security interests of the United States."

Although Poindexter's testimony left many unanswered questions, he apparently settled the central question of the President's role. Since he disclosed last Wednesday that Reagan knew nothing about the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras, committee members of both parties have expressed a growing desire to bring their lengthy inquiry to a rapid close.

"The hearings have changed dramatically since last week," said Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.). "The important questions have been answered. . . . We now go on to other things."

Final Authority

Even those who suspect that Poindexter was not telling the truth appeared willing to accept him as the final authority.

"As the King of Siam said, 'It's a puzzle to me,' " remarked Senate Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii). "Who should I believe? . . . The jigsaw puzzle will not be complete."

Outside the hearing room, Inouye said that Poindexter's decision to leave the President uninformed was at the heart of his inability to convince all committee members that he had told them the truth.

"He has made it very clear that he withheld information from the President," said Inouye. " . . . And therefore there is this gnawing question that all of us have: 'Is he withholding any information from us at this moment?' "

Inouye said that the hearings, now in their 10th week, will conclude within two weeks after testimony by at least four more witnesses: Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan. After taking today off, the committees are scheduled to hear from Shultz on Thursday and Friday.

It was inevitable that Poindexter, who took sole responsibility for the most important aspect of the Iran-contra affair, also would take the brunt of criticism from Congress. In general, however, his critics seemed to accept the truth of his contention that he deprived the President of any opportunity to approve or disapprove the diversion of funds.

Documents Destroyed

Hamilton excoriated Poindexter not only for failing to tell Reagan about the diversion but also for destroying key documents, for withholding information from Congress and for cutting other agencies of government out of the policy-making process.

He said that Poindexter compounded these errors by withholding information from the President after the Iran-contra affair became public, causing Reagan to make many false statements that undermined his credibility.

"Because he lacked information, the President inflicted serious and repeated political wounds upon himself," Hamilton said.

He added: "If the President did not know what you did, he should have known."

Conservative Joins In

Likewise, Rep. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio), a conservative frequently at odds with Democrats such as Hamilton, criticized Poindexter for withholding information from Reagan.

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