shy, bespectacled national security adviser shunned the media and tried mightily to avoid the political lime-
light. But that was before the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986 and propelled John Poindexter to centre stage—and into Federal Court. Poindexter, a retired navy admiral who was once decorated for his excellence at paperwork, was charged with misleading Congress in an illegal effort to cover up the affair, which
involved the secret sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of the profits to Nicaragua’s contra rebels. Last Saturday in Washington, after four weeks of testimony and six days of deliberation, the jury found Poindexter, 53, guilty of all five charges he faced: two counts of lying to Congress, two of obstructing Congress and one of conspiracy. Outside the courthouse, prosecutor Dan Webb told reporters,
“In my judgment, the conviction of John Poindexter has marked the end of a very difficult and very important trial in American history.”
Poindexter is the highest-ranking administration official to be arraigned in the Iran-contra scandal, which rocked the last two years of the Reagan presidency.
He was also the last major defendant to stand trial in an inquiry stretching back 3V2 years. Last May, Oliver North, the gung-ho ex-marine lieutenant-colonel who was Poindexter’s aide, was convicted of obstructing Congress, destroying government documents and accepting an illegal gift. And Robert McFarlane, who preceded Poindexter as national security adviser, pleaded guilty to four coverup misdemeanors in March, 1988.
Neither man, nor four lesserknown defendants who have also been convicted of Iran-contra misdeeds, have served any time in jail.
Last week, sentencing in the Poindexter case was set for June 11,
and Reagan’s former adviser could face as much as $1.5 million in fines and up to 25 years in prison.
The Poindexter trial, which featured testimony by star witnesses North and Reagan— the latter on videotape—centred on the dramatic summer and fall of 1986, when White House officials were struggling to contain the
Iran-contra crisis. When Poindexter testified, under a promise of immunity, before the 1987 congressional hearing into the affair, he appeared a dour figure in striking contrast to the theatrical North. But, unlike North, who shifted blame for his activities to his superiors, Poindexter accepted full responsibility for his actions. He told lawmakers that, while he had Reagan’s general approval to sell arms to Iran, he made the final decision to divert profits from those sales to fund the contras. “The buck
stops here with me,” Poindexter declared. “I was convinced the President would, in the end, think it was a good idea. But I did not want him to be associated with the decision.”
At Poindexter’s trial, the defence demanded that Reagan testify in an attempt to show that the former president gave his aide authority to carry out Iran-contra policies however he saw
fit. Judge Harold Greene conceded that demand, ordering Reagan to provide videotaped testimony to avoid a circus atmosphere at the Washington courthouse. Taking the stand on Feb. 16 and 17 in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles, Reagan was a decidedly friendly witness for the defence, once even winking at Poindexter, who was sitting in the room. But whether he actually helped Poindexter was another question. At one point, Reagan said: “It was the consistent policy of my administration to advocate the support [of the contra rebels]. Thus, administration officials were generally authorized to implement that policy." But Reagan also said that he would not have wanted his top officials to lie to Congress. And he often appeared confused and unfamiliar with exact details of Poindexter’s activities— “I don’t recall,” he said over and over—and continued to insist, against all evidence, that no crimes had been committed and no funds diverted to Nicaragua.
The prosecution, for its part, sought to show that after news of the scandal first became public, Poindexter was the key figure in a plot to withhold information from Congress in order to spare Reagan political embarrassment. North testified that Poindexter had congratulated him for lying to a congressional inquiry and that he had watched Poindexter tear up a politically embarrassing presidential document on the shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran in 1985. In his closing argument, prosecutor Webb argued that he had provided ample evidence that Poindexter had conducted “a private war in Nicaragua” and knowingly misled Congress about his activities. Webb also accused Reagan of giving “biased” testimony.
In a move that surprised some legal experts, the defence decided not to put Poindexter on the stand. His lawyer, Richard Beckler, told the jury in his closing statement that his client was a “victim” in a “political battle” between Congress and the Reagan White House over U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. “This was not some grimy little conspiracy,” he said, adding that Poindexter had been “working for the President” and never lied to or tried to conceal anything from Congress. But the jurors obviously disagreed. After the five guilty verdicts were read, provoking murmurs of shock throughout
the courtroom, Beckler vowed to
appeal, telling reporters: “We’re going
to keep fighting it as long as we can.” If so, the troubling Iran-contra chapter in American history may yet require a postscript.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.