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THE IRAN--CONTRA HEARINGS : Responses Indirect, Repetitious : Admiral's Replies Frustrate Probers

July 22, 1987|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — To the end, John M. Poindexter was inscrutable.

Hour after long hour, day after meticulous day, he parried the sharp questions, reframed the tricky ones and swept the easy ones aside like a puff of smoke from his pipe. Even when the interrogation was innocuous, direct answers would not come.

"The decision to fire Col. North was made by whom?" Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.) affably inquired as President Reagan's former national security adviser neared the end of his five days before Congress' Iran- contra investigating committees Tuesday.

Replied Poindexter: "I don't know the answer to that, Mr. Jenkins."

"Was it someone within the Administration?"

'Simply Don't Know'

"Again," Poindexter said, "I simply don't know." Thereupon, he launched into a repetitious account of the morning the diversion of Iran arms money to the Nicaraguan contras was disclosed.

"The ultimate decision, of course, was made by the President?" Jenkins persisted.

"I really don't know that."

By then Jenkins was incredulous: "I mean, we don't know who fired North."

"Unfortunately," Poindexter replied flatly, "the only thing I know about it is what I heard and I suppose you heard on the television with Ed Meese in the White House press room." That was a reference to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III's press conference last Nov. 25 in which he announced that Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, until then one of Poindexter's aides, had been fired.

Although the line of questioning was of no great import, it illustrated the congressional committees' frustration in the long interrogation of Poindexter and perhaps explained why his testimony ran to five full days on national television after he had spent four days answering questions in private.

Partisanship Sharpened

The witness, a rear admiral who had been proclaimed by many as the most important of the entire investigation once North had stormed ashore, left the hearings drifting into increasingly sharp partisanship.

Republicans, sensing White House discomfort over Poindexter's insistence that Reagan would have approved the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras if he had known about it, were more eager than ever to bring the ordeal to a close. Democrats remained unsatisfied that they know what happened.

After Poindexter had fallen on his sword, taking full responsibility for diverting the arms money to the Nicaraguan insurgency, the House and Senate panels were left with an excruciating, repetitious exploration of what the admiral had done.

Poindexter stuck, through an occasional shaky moment, with his basic story that the secret Iran arms sales and the scheme to surreptitiously support the contras were mere tactics in furtherance of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

No amount of interrogation could separate him from that, even though there emerged clear differences of testimony between Poindexter and North and between Poindexter and his predecessor, Robert C. McFarlane.

He admitted to destroying the presidential "finding" that retroactively authorized U.S. support for an Israeli shipment of U.S.-made arms to Iran in November, 1985. He admitted to withholding information from Congress.

And he ended his testimony an even more controversial figure than when he began it. Lawmakers remained angry over the Administration's evasion of the congressional ban on U.S. military aid to the contras for two years ending last October. They remained angry about being kept in the dark about the Iran arms sales for fear that they would leak secret information.

See Possible Perjury Defense

Privately, some committee members suggested that Poindexter's repeated assertion that he could not remember details of meetings and events during the unraveling of the fiasco was a defense against possible perjury charges.

Senate Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) came close to accusing him of lying.

Among other things, he expressed skepticism about the most important piece of testimony in the entire investigation: Poindexter's contention that he had never told the President of the diversion, although North claimed to have sent forward five memos for higher approval.

"Now one would think that, if you had a neat idea or a good idea, a legal idea, that others concur would be a neat idea, I'd like to brag about it," he told Poindexter. "I'd go to my boss and say, 'Boss, I've got a neat idea. I can show you how we can pay for the contras, provide them with arms and as you said it won't cost the taxpayers any money.

"But instead you made a decision, according to your testimony, you and you alone, set up a very elaborate scheme of keeping this secret. Well, you decided not to tell the President because it would result in a political explosion, and this was done six weeks after you assumed the high position of national security adviser."

Indeed, the senator said, the secrecy and deception within the Administration may have so spoiled the atmosphere between Congress and the White House that lawmakers will insist upon putting Administration officials under oath before hearing them testify on Capitol Hill.

"I would hope that this matter can be cleared up as soon as possible," Inouye said, "because it does not bode well for the establishment and maintenance of good relations between the executive and legislative branches."

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