The Washington Post Magazine


Hostile Witnesses
(Page Two)
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 1998

Poindexter and Reagan
Poindexter's testimony may have saved Reagan's presidency.
(Don Rypka – AFP)




He had been ordered here to give testimony against his will, he wanted to get it over with, and he wasn't going to try to charm us or persuade us. We were, in short, the enemy.

Rudman swore Poindexter in. Then I asked Poindexter his occupation, and he immediately took the Fifth -- that is, he refused to answer on the ground that his answer might incriminate him. A Joseph McCarthy or a Roy Cohn, needless to say, would have harassed Poindexter with one loaded question after another, thereby forcing him repeatedly to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege, but we didn't. Instead, Rudman read Poindexter the court's immunity order and asked him whether he understood that he had to testify. Poindexter nodded, and at that point, as we'd agreed, Rudman withdrew from the bubble.

Poindexter sat across the table from me.

On one side of me was an assistant, and on the other, John Nields and one of his aides.

I began with some routine questions about Poindexter's background. He answered them, but he was clearly impatient. He wanted the $64,000 question about the president without any foreplay, so he could answer and leave. But I chose to get there more gradually. One reason was tactical: I was sure Poindexter had worked with his lawyer and would deliver a carefully rehearsed answer. I hoped that, if the topic came up later when perhaps he was not expecting it, he would be less able to stick to his canned answer. His reply would either destroy the president of the United States, or it would leave the rest of our investigation an anticlimax.

POINDEXTER HAD BEEN

ORDERED TO GIVE

TESTIMONY AGAINST HIS

WILL, HE WANTED TO GET

IT OVER WITH, AND HE

WASN'T GOING TO TRY TO

CHARM US OR

PERSUADE US. WE WERE

IN SHORT, THE ENEMY.

It seemed like a whole day, but it was only about an hour into the deposition when I turned to the diversion of profits from the Iranian arms sales to the contras. And out spilled Poindexter's story.

He alone, not Reagan, was the villain. He alone had authorized North to make the diversion to the contras. He took full responsibility. The coverup, too. He'd never told the president about the diversion because he knew it would be politically explosive if it ever came out. From the beginning, he'd wanted to give the president deniability.

But didn't the doctrine of deniability, I asked, mean that the president was put in a position where he could deny what he actually knew? That was the point of deniability, wasn't it? It certainly didn't mean that aides made decisions on their own that could wreck a presidency without telling the president, did it?

My questions didn't faze Poindexter in the slightest. He insisted he had told the president nothing.

"But do you understand," I asked him, "that by claiming to be the most senior government official who approved the diversion, you're leaving yourself without any legal defense that you were acting on presidential orders?"

This didn't faze him either.

When we stopped for a break, I asked Poindexter's lawyer the same question. Didn't he understand that his client's position was exposing him to serious criminal liability?

"He is fully aware of the consequences," Poindexter's lawyer replied. "You can believe his testimony or reject it, but as far as he's concerned, it's the truth."

At that point I was reminded of Billy Budd, Herman Melville's sailor who, upon being sentenced to death by his captain to make an example of discipline, thanks the captain for permitting him to serve.

Sometimes a witness gets flustered when confronted with an inconsistency. Not Poindexter. I couldn't shake him. He sat the whole time with his pipe between his teeth, completely at peace with himself. During one recess he told me proudly -- the only emotion he ever displayed -- that two of his sons were in the Navy. Probably I realized then that he wasn't going to embarrass them by becoming a snitch against the commander in chief.

Whenever necessary, he contradicted Oliver North.

North said he had written five memoranda, intended for the president, detailing the diversion. Poindexter denied it. He also gave equivocal testimony about what the president knew about the National Security Council's efforts to direct the resupply and support of the contras. According to Poindexter, yes, the president knew that North was the NSC staff officer on Central America and knew, in a general sense, that it was North's responsibility to keep the contras alive.

But what of the Boland Amendment?

Well, in the president's view, the Boland Amendment simply didn't apply to the NSC staff.

Just as I was coming to the end of Poindexter's deposition, an urgent phone call interrupted us. It was for me. Rudman was on pins and needles in his office. He was about to leave for home, he said, but did I have anything to report?

I told him he could go home. That there was nothing to discuss.

I didn't have to tell him that Poindexter had just saved Ronald Reagan's presidency.

I never bought Poindexter's story. To begin with, it would have been totally out of character for him to have authorized either the diversion or the coverup on his own. While I was preparing for his deposition, I'd studied his background carefully, and his work habits, too. First in his class at Annapolis, he'd been studious, on the dull side, dutiful with a capital "D." As he rose through the ranks of the Navy, he'd consistently received the highest ratings from his superior officers. He didn't want to be national security adviser -- he'd have much preferred to command the Sixth Fleet and then become chief of naval operations, positions for which he seemed destined -- but the Navy had sent him to the White House so that there would be more of a saltwater flavor to national security policy.

Throughout his career, he'd been an obedient and disciplined officer, playing everything by the book. One of his former commanders told me that Poindexter would never take an initiative without the approval of his superior, and that his obedience was almost a fault. It was inconceivable, the same man told me, that Poindexter had approved the diversion or any other illegal activities without the president's approval, and he would have insisted, furthermore, that that approval be explicit.

In this context, I would find North's testimony -- that Poindexter had told him to write five memoranda for the president, describing the diversion -- far more believable. What would North possibly have to gain by implicating Reagan with some phony story about nonexistent memoranda?

But it was something Poindexter said about his duties as the president's national security adviser that most convinced me that he was lying. During his secret deposition, that Saturday in May, he surprised me by testifying that, once the Iran-contra story broke in November 1986, he'd torn up an order, a presidential "finding," signed by Reagan, that authorized selling weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the hostages. This had been the only signed copy in existence. The White House now denied that the president had ever signed the finding, and the president claimed he'd gone along with selling missiles to Iran only because he thought it might encourage and promote a relationship with moderate elements inside Iran.

If Poindexter was right, the signed finding contradicted that story, and when he testified under oath, on national television, Poindexter was categorical on this point:

(continued on Page 3)

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