WASHINGTON — Although President Reagan declared Wednesday that he is "the one who is ultimately accountable to the American people," he failed to answer some of the most significant remaining questions about the Iran- contra affair.
On one point, he remained emphatic: that he did not know about the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to Nicaragua's rebels. And he went further than he has before in describing how the arms sales "went astray."
But in his nationally televised speech, Reagan did not explain precisely why his Administration had embarked on two disastrous foreign policy endeavors.
He left unclear whether he believes that he failed to keep a sufficiently tight rein on his staff--or whether Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, his former national security adviser, and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, Poindexter's former aide, were merely following the wishes of a President who had communicated his policies to them clearly.
"Col. North and Adm. Poindexter believed they were doing what I would've wanted done--keeping the Democratic resistance alive in Nicaragua," Reagan said.
But were they? How far did Reagan want his staff to go to save the contras? How much did he know about the secret contra supply operation being run from the White House? Was he so eager to rescue the Iran initiative that he was willing, as Poindexter testified, to allow private businessmen to press for the release of terrorists? Would he have sanctioned the creation of a secret alternative to the CIA, described by North, as a means of carrying out his policies when Congress was unwilling to support them?
The President is the only person who can ultimately answer those and other questions. Thus far, he has not done so.
It was Reagan himself who told the White House staff to help the Nicaraguan rebels "hold body and soul together" after Congress cut off U.S. government aid in 1984, according to then-National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane's testimony.
Did the President envision that his directive ultimately would lead North to run a secret contra supply network? How much did he know of the extent of North's operation?
On these subjects, the President has given contradictory and confusing statements. On May 15, he said he was "kept briefed on that. As a matter of fact, I was very definitely involved in the decisions about support to the freedom fighters. It was my idea to begin with."
But, less than two weeks later, he denied what he described as suggestions that he had "done all sorts of shady things to try and violate the Congress' restrictions on aid to the freedom fighters."
McFarlane testified that he believed his staff was legally bound by Congress' ban on contra aid. But Poindexter, his successor as national security adviser, insisted the law did not cover the White House National Security Council staff, which he headed, because the NSC did not meet the law's definition of an "intelligence" agency.
Reagan himself did not say whether he thought Poindexter and North were doing the right thing by supporting the contras.
But Reagan during a picture-taking session on July 31 said he had not heard "a single word that indicated in any of the testimony that laws were broken." White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater clarified that statement the next day by noting that the President "was reflecting some of the testimony that he had seen on TV, but obviously not every aspect of the case."
As for the Iran arms sales, Reagan blamed himself for being "stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray." However, the President did not resolve conflicting testimony over how much he was willing to sacrifice to achieve his goals.
For example, Poindexter testified that Reagan approved a nine-point agreement with the Iranians last October that included a provision in which private businessmen, acting as U.S. agents, pledged to win the release of 17 convicted terrorists imprisoned by Kuwait. Among their offenses was violence against Americans.
Others in the Administration, however, contended that Reagan never gave his blessing to any such proposal, which ran directly counter to U.S. policy. Indeed, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said Reagan "reacted like he'd been kicked in the belly" upon learning last December of the agreement.
North indicated in his testimony to Congress' Iran-contra investigating committees that the contra supply network was only the first of a number of secret projects that he and the late CIA Director William J. Casey had contemplated.
The two, North said, hoped to create an "off-the-shelf, self-sustaining, stand-alone entity that could perform certain activities on behalf of the United States" without having to go to an often-hostile Congress for approval or funding. A chart found by the FBI in North's office indicated he expected to initiate operations in Africa, the Middle East and South America.