May 26, 1999
Like I Wasnt President at All
By Robert Parry
In 1992, less than four years after leaving the White House, Ronald Reagan claimed to have forgotten virtually every fact about the Iran-contra scandal, according to a newly released transcript of a formal deposition.
"It's like I wasn't president at all," Reagan said in response to one inquiry.
Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh accepted that Reagan's memory loss was a consequence of the ex-president's Alzheimer's disease. But the deposition also reveals that Reagan answered in rich detail when questioned about coincidental events not connected to alleged Iran-contra crimes.
Despite Reagan's unresponsive answers, the deposition offered a look at unreleased Reagan diary entries that were read into the record. The diary demonstrated that Reagan was intimately involved with the Iran-contra operations and fully aware that some of his actions violated the law.
Yet, when Walsh and his prosecutors questioned Reagan about even basic facts that connected to the scandal, the ex-president asserted a near-total lack of memory.
Asked if George Shultz was secretary of state in Reagan's second term, Reagan answered, "I think so, but I can't swear anymore."
"During your second term was Bud McFarlane the national security adviser?" asked a prosecutor.
"I can't tell you or remember when Bud left that job," Reagan responded. Robert "Bud" McFarlane resigned on Dec. 5, 1985, nearly a year into Reagan's second term.
On more substantive questions, Walsh's team read entries from Reagan's diary to refresh his memory about the Iran-contra arms-for-hostage deals, but that didn't help.
Walsh asked about a Feb. 26, 1985, entry in which Reagan wrote, "Assad seems to be making effort to get four kidnap victims back from Hezbollah."
Reagan answered, "You know something? I'm trying to remember now who was Assad." Hafez Assad, of course, was the president of Syria.
At another point, Reagan was reminded that "you had a task force on counter-terrorism. Do you remember? I think Vice President Bush headed it."
Reagan answered, "I had forgotten about that."
When asked a question about a late July 1985 diary entry about "P.M. Nakasone sending emissary, very hush hush," Reagan needed to be reminded that Yasuhiro Nakasone was then prime minister of Japan.
"I don't know what that would have been about," Reagan said.
"All right, sir," Walsh said.
"I'm very embarrassed," responded Reagan. "I'm sorry. It's like I wasn't president at all."
Reagan, however, did acknowledge that he approved a plan to have Israel ship U.S. weapons to Iran and then have Israel restocked by the United States, a key question in the legal issue of whether Reagan violated the Arms Export Control Act in 1985.
"I have a dim memory of, through Israel, they would make available the weapons to the Iranians, but we would replace the weapons to Israel," Reagan said. "I do remember that we did something of that kind and we replaced with Israel what they had sent the Iranian people."
But Reagan's memory was clearer about non-Iran-contra events that occurred in the same time period.
When Walsh tried to question Reagan about a key Iran-contra discussion in Geneva in mid-November 1985, Walsh set the stage by mentioning the summit there with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The ex-president suddenly launched into a detailed account of the Gorbachev meeting. Gorbachev "replied to our people in the invitation that no, he wanted it in a neutral country. ... He didn't say no to a summit meeting, but he wanted it neutral. We said yes and he was the one that then said by virtue of that, in Switzerland we have the meeting and so we agreed on that.
"We had quite a meeting there with him and his people. I can remember a few things about that because of the oddity of it. We decided that the subject of the summit meeting would be mutual reduction of armaments and he agreed on that
Then the first meeting with him, real meeting, it was going to be the first meeting in a big home along Lake Geneva and at a table like this only a little longer he and his team on one side and me and my team on the other to deal with the weapons.
"I told my people what I was going to do so they wouldn't be surprised. As everybody started to sit down, I looked across the table at him and I said, 'Why don't we let our two teams start this discussion about the reduction of the weaponry and all, and why don't you and I get some fresh air? He was out of his chair before I finished that sentence, and there he was. So, he and I left and we walked about a 150 yards down across the lawn to the lake where there was a beach house, and again I had told our people about this.
"It was cold, a real wintry day and that beach house had a big roaring fire going in the fireplace. We entered and in there were the two translators. I stopped him before we even sat down and looked right at him and I said, 'I'm going to give you a quotation that's not mine. Someone else has said that we mistrust each other because we're armed.' I said, 'I believe we're armed because we mistrust each other.'
"Then I said, ... 'wouldn't it be fine if we would spend just as much time trying to find out the reasons for our mistrust?' I said to him that we should do this and I said, 'The only alternative to this is we resume the arms race.' Then, looking him right in the eye, I said, 'That is a race you can't win. There is no way we're going to permit you to be superior to us in weaponry.'
"So he took that and we sat down and the meeting went under way for an hour and a half. Then, I figured that we'd better get back up to the rest of our people, so we got up and we started back up the hill."
After Reagan finished his account, the ex-president tried to assure the lawyers that his fuzzy memory about Iran-contra was not simply convenient. "I'm not fooling when I say that when I started reading the diary the other day, I couldn't even remember writing the things that I was writing about."
Then, when the questioning turned to the key Iran-contra meeting held during the same Geneva trip, Reagan responded, "I don't have a memory of that."
After Reagan's return from the Geneva summit, the possible release of hostages dominated White House meetings. The diary reflected Reagans close personal involvement.
We have an undercover thing going by way of an Iranian which could get them [the hostages] sprung momentarily," Reagan wrote on Nov. 22, 1985. "Still sweating out our undercover effort to get hostages out of Beirut," he wrote the next day.
When asked about those entries, Reagan stated, "I just don't have a clear-cut memory of the specific meetings or anything on it."
On Dec. 5, 1985, Reagan noted in his diary a sensitive national security briefing: "Subject our undercover effort to free our five hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. It is a complex undertaking with only a few in on it. I won't even write it up in this diary what we are up to."
But in the deposition, Reagan asserted no memory of this operation.
One of Reagan's few acknowledged Iran-contra recollections came from his anger over the law prohibiting him from selling weapons to Iran, a predicament that he blamed on Congress.
"I was just madder than the devil about them [the Congress] and their doing this to us," Reagan testified. "This was why something like in this-and-that supposed law about sending the arms, I felt that as far as being the president that a thing of this kind to get back five human beings from potential murder, yes, I would violate that other -- that law."
Yet, when asked about the famous May 1986 trip to Iran by McFarlane and Oliver North, Reagan replied, "What?"
"Do you remember McFarlane going to Teheran?"
"No, I can't say that I do."
Walsh also read diary entries that Reagan wrote in November 1986 when the Iran-contra story broke. Strangely, the private diary entries tracked with the false cover stories that Reagan and his advisers were spreading publicly.
On Nov. 7, Reagan wrote, "there is a discussion of how to handle the press who are off on a wild story built on an unfounded story originating in Beirut that we bought hostage [David] Jacobsen's freedom with weapons for Iran."
Asked about that entry during the deposition, Reagan responded: "Well, I don't remember it, but I agree with it."
On Nov. 12, 1986, Reagan lashed out again at the press coverage of the Iran arms-for-hostages deal. "The whole inescapable bilge about hostages and Iran has gotten totally out of hand," he wrote in his diary. "The media looks like it's trying to create another Watergate."
In 1992, when Walsh's questioning turned to secret funding for the Nicaraguan contra rebels, Reagan again denied any specific memories. He said he could not even recall the name of the Boland Amendment that barred U.S. military aid to the contras.
"I don't remember the details at all," Reagan testified. But he added that he remembered how angry the legal restriction had made him. "I'm still a little mad right now," Reagan testified.
After the deposition, Walsh decided not to pursue any legal action against the ailing ex-president.
In his final report, Walsh simply criticized Reagans role in overseeing the creation of a false account of the Iran arms sales to be disseminated to members of Congress and the American people. The deposition then went into the secret files of the Iran-contra case.
Reagans deposition was one of scores of Iran-contra documents that I requested that the National Archives process and release two years ago.
Initially, however, my request was turned down on the unusual grounds that Reagan's performance was so embarrassing that it would constitute a violation of his privacy. The National Archives reversed that decision this spring and made the deposition available in its entirety.
The imponderable question from Reagan's testimony is whether the Alzheimer's disease truly had erased his recollections of the Iran-contra crimes or whether Reagan was taking advantage of his deteriorating memory to recall only the facts that he chose to.
Nevertheless, his limited responses and the diary entries left little doubt that Reagan was aware that his decision to ship missiles secretly to Iran through Israel was illegal.
But the wily ex-president also made the correct calculation that even if he were caught, he still would be able to fight -- or to finesse -- any legal consequences.