WASHINGTON — Former President Ronald Reagan testified in a videotaped deposition released today that he "never . . . had any inkling" that White House aides were secretly helping arm and advise the Nicaraguan Contras at a time when Congress had banned such aid.
And he said, "No one has proven to me" that profits from secret arms sales to Iran were diverted to the rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Reagan testified as a defense witness in the forthcoming Iran-Contra trial of former national security adviser John M. Poindexter. U.S. District Judge Harold Greene allowed the former President to give a videotaped deposition in Los Angeles last Friday and Saturday but barred reporters from attending.
A transcript of that testimony was released today after Bush Administration officials said it did not pose any national security problems.
Reagan said he "assured everybody that we would have to abide by the law" during the congressional ban on Contra aid.
Asked if he had any idea that a Poindexter aide, Oliver L. North, was giving the Contras military advice and logistical support, Reagan said:
"I guess that I had never . . . had any inkling that we were guiding their strategy in any way."
That statement came under cross-examination by Iran-Contra prosecutor Dan Webb.
Poindexter is scheduled to go to trial March 5 on charges of obstructing congressional inquiries into the sale of U.S. arms to Iran and covert Administration support for the Nicaraguan rebels.
Reagan also testified under oath that he never authorized Poindexter to obstruct congressional inquiries into the Iran-Contra affair or to destroy documents.
The former President said repeatedly under cross-examination by Webb that Poindexter never told Reagan that he planned to lie to Congress or to destroy documents sought by Iran-Contra probers.
"At any time, did John Poindexter ever tell you that he had in fact obstructed or impeded any congressional committee inquiry into events relating to the Iran-Contra affair?" Webb asked.
"No," Reagan replied.
"At any time, did he ever tell you that he had actually destroyed any records or documents related to the Iran-Contra affair?" Webb replied.
"No," the former President said.
Reagan said he was never told that North had destroyed Iran-Contra documents, an act for which the former National Security Council aide was convicted of a felony last year.
Asked about his dealings with North, Reagan said: "I didn't ever have any extensive contact with him. I heard about him a great deal and reports on him and so forth."
Reagan acknowledged that he supported the solicitation of donations from foreign governments and others who could help finance the Contra effort.
Although the law banned direct U.S. military aid to the rebels, Reagan said, "there wasn't any restriction on . . . informing others as to how they could help, things of that kind. And that I did approve."
Reagan also testified that he wasn't aware that money was being diverted from the Iran arms sales to the Contras.
"I was only aware finally that we got our 12-million-2," Reagan said, referring to the $12.2 million the U.S. government received for providing weapons to Iran.
"May I simply point out that I had no knowledge then or now that there had been a diversion, and I never used the term," the former President said. "And all I knew was that there was some money that came from some place in another account, and that the appearance was that it might have been part of the negotiated sale."
Webb asked: "To the extent that there was in fact a diversion of proceeds, did you in any way approve or authorize that while you were President of the United States?"
"For heaven's sake, no," Reagan replied. "And when I was once asked about that extra money and said if it was an added sum to the purchase price, what would I do, I said I would have given it back."
He added: "No one has proven to me that there was a diversion."
"To this day, all I know is that some sum of money over and above the $12.2-million purchase price appeared in a Swiss bank account in which it was said that account had been used on another occasions (sic) to provide help to the Contras," Reagan said.
"And to this day, I still with all of the investigations that have been made, I still have never been given one iota of evidence as to who collected the price, who delivered the final delivery of the weapons . . . whether there was ever more money in that Swiss account that had been diverted someplace else.
"I am still waiting to find those things out and have never found them out," Reagan said.
Poindexter is charged with conspiracy, two counts of obstructing Congress and two counts of making false statements in connection with the Iran-Contra affair.
Specifically, he is accused of covering up from Congress North's secret assistance to the Contras and knowledge by government officials of a 1985 shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran.
Poindexter's lawyers sought Reagan's testimony in an attempt to show that the President approved of his national security adviser's activities.
Judge Greene ordered the release of a transcript of Reagan's eight hours of testimony but barred the news media from making copies of the videotape for broadcast.
In his order, Greene rejected arguments by Poindexter and Reagan for delaying the release of the testimony.