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THE IRAN--CONTRA HEARINGS : Excerpts: Plausible Deniability . . . Is Not Any Printed Doctrine or Dogma, Simply a Concept

July 22, 1987|From a Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Following are excerpts from testimony Wednesday by Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, President Reagan's former national security adviser, before the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair:

Defining Deniability

(Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia asks Poindexter to clarify his use of the term "plausible deniability," which Poindexter has testified he was trying to provide Reagan with respect to the diversion to Nicaragua's contras of profits from the Iran arms sales.)

Question: Everybody I've talked to in the intelligence community and around town where that term has been used tells me that the definition of that term is that, when you set up plausible deniability for someone, the President or someone else, what that means is that they know the facts in question, but they can deny the knowledge, and that the denial is believable. Now, would you tell us whether that is your definition or whether you have some other definition in mind?

Answer: First of all, senator, I believe if you go back and look at my testimony on May the 2nd when this issue first came up (in private hearings), I used the term "deniability," that I wanted to provide the President deniability and insulate him from the decision. Since that testimony, the terminology has been raised in these hearings of plausible deniability, and I have gone along with that definition. Since this is not any sort of printed doctrine or dogma, it simply is a concept. I think it's open to interpretation. And my interpretation of it is simply and very straightforwardly that the ability of the President to deny knowing anything about it and be very truthful in that process. He didn't know anything about it.

Q: That's what Ollie (Lt. Col. Oliver L. North) called absolute deniability. If you don't know, it's not only plausible, it just didn't happen. Is that what you mean, then?

A: Absolute deniability would be a more accurate description.

(Nunn asks about the finding that Reagan signed on Dec. 5, 1985, approving a swap of arms for hostages. Poindexter later destroyed the finding because he thought it would be "politically embarrassing.")

Q: The question I have is, why . . . did that finding ever go to the President to begin with? Wasn't it your job to keep that kind of incomplete finding, which you have testified was inconsistent with the objective (in dealings with Iran), from being read and signed by the President of the United States?

A: It was and I believe in my earlier testimony of--or possibly in one of the depositions--indicated that I had some regret that I let him sign it.

Q: Well, you do have--the morning headlines are not correct then, you do have some regrets?

A: Of course I do, senator.

(Richard Beckler, Poindexter's attorney, intervenes.)

Beckler: Mr. Senator, you know, we're not going by the morning headlines, here, fortunately. We're going by what the American public feel about this, not by the headlines.

Q: Thank you Mr. Beckler. Admiral--

A: I thought I answered--

Q: So do you have regrets about that.

A: Yes, as I've testified, I think that I acted under pressure when I should have had the finding fully staffed. I didn't, and the President signed it. But also I think it is important to note that from a forward-looking standpoint, nothing was done under that particular finding. It was an acknowledgment that after the fact that the President had approved the Hawk (missile) transfers in November. It did not shed any light on his prior approval that may or may not have taken place in Geneva.

Iran or Iraq?

(Nunn asks Poindexter why he sent a memo to Reagan suggesting that the Israeli position on the Iran-Iraq war--that Iran was in danger of losing the war--was correct, in contrast to what others in the U.S. government believed.)

Q: . . . Everything I recall about that period of time indicates that that position, though it may have very well been the Israeli position, was not the United States government position. That is, we did not believe the Iranian position was deteriorating vis-a-vis Iraq in that war. Do you have a different recollection of that?

A: I do. We were always concerned about the ability of the Iranians to hold on for a protracted period of time.

Q: The Iranians? I thought it was the Iraqis we were--

A: No, no.

Q: We were--

A: There were differences of opinion on this issue--

Q: So you agree with the Israeli position?

A: Yes, I think we did agree with that at that time.

Q: When you say "we," who do you mean?

A: I think members of the (National Security Council) staff and I think (CIA) Director (William J.) Casey felt that way.

Q: Why in the world did we have a roving ambassador going all over the world trying to stop the flow of arms into Iran and calling it Operation Staunch with the State Department people going all over trying to prevent that if we thought the Iranian position was the one that was deteriorating?

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