President Reagan was not told that U.S. F14s had shot down two Libyan jets until six hours after the incident, White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said today.
"There was no need for a presidential decision on the matter," Speakes said in explaining why presidential counselor Edwin Meese III elected not to inform Reagan until 7:24 a.m. Washington time today. The incident took place at 1:20 a.m.
When he was given a first report on the incident, Reagan responded by expressing regret that there had been an attack on U.S. planes and commending the American pilots, Speakes said. "The action was appropriate," Speakes quoted Reagan as saying.
The president expressed no disapproval of the decision that made him the last top government official to learn of the aerial battle, Speakes said.
Meese's decision not to notify Reagan immediately raised once again a question that has popped to the surface from time to time in the Reagan administration: who is in command?
Meese and White House national security adviser Richard. V. Allen, who both are in Los Angeles with the president, learned of the military action at 2:04 a.m. Washington time in separate telephone calls from Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and the White House situation room, Speakes said.
During the early morning hours all members of the National Security Council were telephoned, including Vice President Bush who is vacationing in Maine.
Reagan was not told until all those calls had been completed.
The president entertained his son Michael and other guests in his hotel suite until about 1:30 a.m. Washington time (10:30 p.m. Los Angeles time), Speakes said. After first telling reporters he would find out what time Reagan went to sleep, Speakes later said he would not ask Reagan.
Speakes told reporters it would be "dead wrong" to say that no one was in charge during the hours before the commander-in-chief was given a report on the incident. He said it would be oversimplification to say that any one man was in charge.
Meese and Allen monitored the situation here as Weinberger and the White House situation room did in Washington.
The president, Speakes said, wants to be notified of incidents like the military clash with Libya "when decisions are required." He added that it is not administration policy to withhold information from the president until a decision needs to be made. "Each incident is treated in a separate light," Speakes said.
In this case the only two decisions required already had been made, Speakes said. The pilots had followed what Speakes called standard rules of engagement and had returned fire after being fired upon.
The fleet commander of the Mediterranean training exercise had decided not to curtail the exercise, but to let it continue to its scheduled conclusion at 1 p.m. Washington time.
Meese apparently was satisfied that the commander-in-chief would not want to consider overruling the fleet commander.
The president considers the incident closed except for the diplomatic protests the United States is making, Speakes said. No special investigation has been requested by Reagan, Speakes added.
According to Speakes, Reagan did not question the account of the clash presented to him.
Speakes denied that the training exercise in Mediterranean waters which the United States was aware Libya considers part of its territory had been designed to challenge Libya. He called it a routine exercise. The last exercise in those waters was in 1979, Speakes said.
The United States told the 2,000 to 2,500 U.S. citizens in Libya some months ago that it might be advisable for them to leave the country because of deteriorating U.S.-Libyan relations. Speakes said the U.S. government had not issued any further caution following the plane incident.
The aerial battle had no impact on Reagan's schedule. He held one meeting this morning with Meese and Allen on national security affairs, including the incident. He met later with staff secretary Richard Darman to sign a number of papers.
No public events were scheduled today and Reagan did not leave his Century Plaza hotel suite until evening when he attended a private dinner party.