Former White House chief of staff Donald Regan had not yet finished testifying. But for the joint congressional panel investigating the Irancontra affair, the time had arrived for a final ritual. Interrupting Regan’s testimony last week, the 26 representatives and senators assembled for a formal portrait. And as they posed, many indicated they expected no new revelations to upset the plot line that had emerged from their three months of televised political theatre.
But the next morning their final witness, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, rang down the curtain on the drama with a series of show-stopping disclosures. Among Weinberger’s surprises: he had learned about key elements of the Iranian deal not through normal government channels but from foreign intelligence sources. And even after the scandal broke last November, the State Department had scheduled a December meeting with Iranian officials in Geneva to discuss further arms transfers, he said. “This is a sad story that is unfolding,” said committee cochairman Daniel Inouye, echoing his opening lines last May. The Hawaii Democratic senator added that it was “a rather dangerous chapter in the history of the United States.”
But the hearings were to close this week with major elements of the affair still shrouded in mystery. Witnesses have admitted destroying key documents. And with the death last May of a pivotal figure—former Central Intelligence Agency director William Casey— the committee will never be able to investigate conflicting charges over whether he choreographed the entire scheme. Said Georgia’s Democratic Senator Sam Nunn: “There’s an old saying in the courtroom:
‘If you can ever find someone who’s in the grave, then you just pile it on the tombstone.’ ”
But the most troubling aspect of the hearings remains the confusing and contradictory nature of much of the testimony given by key witnesses— raising grave questions about their credibility under oath. Indeed, Inouye summed up the committee’s frustration as it prepared to compile its final report when he turned to Attorney General Edwin Meese last week to ask: “Do you have any advice to us as to how we can determine who is lying and who is not lying?”
Those questions over credibility damage the one man whom many of the witnesses seemed at pains to protect: President Ronald Reagan. As the President submitted to surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital late last week—for removal of the third discovery of skin cancer on his nose in two years—some committee members indicated that many questions still hung over his role in the
affair. Said Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine: “I find it curious that all of the evidence involving presidential knowledge or approval was shredded.” The testimony that raised most questions was that of Meese, the President’s longtime confidant, whose reputation is already under the cloud of an inquiry into improprieties involving a former defence contractor. Indeed, the panel criticized Meese for fail-
ing to include the Justice Department’s own criminal division in his investigation, which one panel member characterized as sketchy and another as “remarkably incurious.” But Meese’s dogged repetition of events remained
unshaken. Still, as he constantly consulted his notes—despite 20 hours of rehearsal with his aides—he clearly failed to win over the committee. “It is really difficult to accept,” said Democratic Senator George Mitchell of Maine. “There were so many questions that could have been asked.”
In contrast, Regan unexpectedly made a hit with the weary panel members. Appearing before the committee without a lawyer or a promise of immunity from prosecution, the man whom the Tower Commission, a Reagan appointed panel of inquiry, had faulted for allowing “chaos” to develop in the White House stole the show with blunt boardroom talk spiced with salty epithets and humor. Committee members chuckled as he recounted trying to convince the President to stop selling arms to the Iranians without getting all the hostages back. “I told him we had been snookered again,” he said. “And how many times, you know, do we put up with this rug merchant type of stuff?”
But not everyone was convinced by the claims of a witness who, when he was Reagan’s chief of staff, boasted to a reporter that not a sparrow fell on the White House lawn without his knowledge. Regan insisted to the congressional panel that he had been left out of major national security decisions. He added that he had been unaware of a false White House chronology prepared as a coverup last fall. Said Cohen: “Much here has been implausible.”
Regan’s testimony cast further doubts on the credibility of both former National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his aide, Lt.-Col. Oliver North. Indeed, the witnesses made repeated jabs at North’s hero reputation, which last week propelled a paperback edition of his testimony to The New York Times' best-seller lists. And reporters peppered Reagan with questions during a photo session before he entered hospital about whether he would offer North and Poindexter pre-emptive presidential pardons, as some right-wing Republicans have urged. Aides have said that Reagan is not considering such a move. That would short-circuit yet another investigation under way—an independent inquiry by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who is reported to be preparing criminal charges against both North and Poindexter.
Reagan has promised to comment on the affair himself after he has recovered from his surgery. But White House officials privately predict that his televised speech is unlikely to dispel the air of decline and disillusionment hanging over an administration whose dirty linen and infighting has now been laid bare on the public stage.
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