WASHINGTON — Former President Ronald Reagan, discussing the Iran-Contra affair under oath for the first time, said in testimony released Thursday that he did not authorize the diversion of funds from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan resistance and declared he still doubts whether it actually ever happened.
Reagan's testimony, an eight-hour videotaped deposition given in a Los Angeles courtroom last Friday and Saturday, corroborated testimony of many former top White House aides that the President supported the objectives of the Iran-Contra affair but never approved any of the allegedly illegal acts carried out in his name.
Reagan was questioned by both prosecution and defense attorneys in preparation for the upcoming trial of his former national security adviser, Adm. John M. Poindexter. The tape, which will be viewed by the jury in the Poindexter trial, was shown for the first time to the news media in Washington, but, under a court order, it cannot yet be aired on television.
Reagan, 79, told his interrogators that he had no recollection of many of the key events of the Iran-Contra affair. He offered that reply in answer to more than 120 direct questions and said also that he has forgotten the names of several key players in the affair--as well as Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Reagan Administration.
Also, Reagan refused to acknowledge many of the commonly accepted facts of the Iran-Contra drama as it has been recounted many times in public testimony by a variety of his former aides over the last four years.
He expressed doubt, for example, that Poindexter had ever admitted misleading Congress.
Similarly, Reagan said he could not recall the Tower Commission's telling him in March, 1987, that ex-White House aide Oliver L. North had given illegal military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras.
Nor was he aware, the former President indicated, that Poindexter's predecessor as national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, had pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress.
But Reagan's views on the diversion of funds from the Iranian arms sale to the Contras was particularly surprising, considering the mountain of evidence about it that was unearthed during the 1987 congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra affair. The bipartisan probe concluded that the Contras received $3.8 million from the sale of $16.1 million in U.S. weapons to Iran.
"To this day," Reagan testified, " . . . 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 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."
When asked directly if he approved the diversion, Reagan added:
"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. 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. And, to this day, I don't have any information or knowledge . . . that there was a diversion."
When prosecuting attorney Dan K. Webb showed him excerpts of the Tower Commission report in which both Poindexter and North admitted diverting money to the Contras from the Iran arms sale, Reagan said it was the first time that he had seen their testimony. Reagan himself created the Tower Commission after the the Iran-Contra affair came to light in November, 1986.
"I didn't know about it, and (it's) very possible that he (Poindexter) didn't," Reagan added. "But, as I say, this I can't explain . . . . This is the first time that I have ever seen a reference that actually specified there was a diversion . . . . I don't understand. This is very confusing to me."
It was the only moment during his eight hours of testimony that the former President seemed flustered by the questioning. Otherwise, despite the frequent lapses in memory, he was composed and clearly confident of himself--even telling a joke now and then.
The former President stood by his long-held view that his Administration was not dealing with the Iranian regime of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but with "moderates" who wanted to restore relations with the United States.
By contrast, the Iran-Contra committees disclosed in November, 1987, that top Administration officials had known all along that the Reagan Administration was dealing with representatives of the Khomeini regime.
As Reagan described it, the Iran-Contra affair was a controversy sparked entirely by an "erroneous" report in a Middle Eastern newspaper that his Administration was trading arms for hostages--a misunderstanding that Reagan said he could never correct, despite numerous public denials.