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Possible to Forget, Reagan Points Out : Responds to Questions About Report He Couldn’t Recall Arms Deal Stance

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan, responding to questions about his changing recollections of key events related to the Iran- contra scandal, declared Tuesday: “It’s possible to forget.”

Reagan was asked by a reporter whether he was upset about a report in the New York Times that he could not remember whether he approved in advance the initial Israeli shipment of U.S.-made arms to Iran in 1985.

“I’d like to ask one question of everybody,” Reagan responded. “Everybody who can remember what they were doing on Aug. 8, 1985, raise your hand.”

He posed the question during a photography session at the start of a meeting with educational, religious and community leaders of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda. He looked about and said: “I think it’s possible to forget. Nobody’s raised any hands.”

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Conflicting Statements

Reagan’s memory of events 18 months ago became an issue when the Los Angeles Times reported last week that, in two closed-door appearances before the presidential commission investigating the National Security Council, he gave conflicting statements about whether he authorized Israel’s shipment of arms to Iran in August, 1985.

In his first meeting with the commission, Reagan reportedly said that he had approved the shipment, a statement that conflicted with the congressional testimony of his embattled chief of staff, Donald T. Regan. In his second meeting with the commission almost three weeks later, the President said he had not authorized the shipment.

The President’s comments in the White House Tuesday echoed those given by Regan last week at the opening of a White House senior staff meeting. “OK, this is a test,” Regan declared then. “For the next 60 seconds, write down everything you did on Aug. 5, 1985, and then swear to it.”

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Speaker Reacts

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), after a White House meeting Tuesday, said he found it “appalling” that the President could have forgotten whether he had taken so important a step as approving the Israeli arms shipment to Iran. But he added: “I find it believable that someone might have forgotten, and if the President has a lot on his mind, maybe he did forget.”

The presidential commission, chaired by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), is scheduled to deliver its report to Reagan Thursday. And whether Reagan approved the initial Israeli arms shipment to Iran will be a central issue addressed by the report.

Although Reagan appointed the commission last November to examine the White House foreign policy-making apparatus, the commission’s report is expected to be highly critical of the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to Nicaragua’s rebels. The White House regards the report as a pivotal event in the unfolding scandal that has enveloped the Reagan Administration.

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After the White House receives the report, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged Tuesday, the President will meet with Regan and discuss Regan’s future in the Administration. Regan’s departure is widely expected.

The President and his senior aides have held off responding in public to questions about the Iran affair until the report has been completed. They view its publication as the starting gun in their effort to restore the Reagan presidency in the wake of more than three months of disclosures about the Iran-contra affair.

Advisers Recommend Action

“I would not anticipate a response from the White House in any fast fashion,” Fitzwater told reporters. However, he said, Reagan already has met with a group of long-time advisers on how he should respond to the report and his advisers generally favor a speedy effort to put the best possible face on what is likely to be a sharply critical document.

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The commission’s report is only one element in the investigative process. Both the Senate and House have appointed special committees that are investigating the entire scandal and they may begin public hearings in April. And an independent counsel is probing whether laws were broken by Administration officials. Thus, the investigation of the Iran-contra affair will continue to be a major issue for the Administration for a considerable time.

Reagan has not met the press at a news conference since Nov. 19. But an hour after receiving the Tower Commission’s report Thursday, he may appear before reporters to introduce Tower and the other two commissioners--former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.) and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft--who will then brief the press on the report’s contents.

Reagan will not receive the report, which may run up to 300 pages, before it is made public, Fitzwater said. But White House counsel Peter J. Wallison may receive a copy several hours earlier.

‘Bright and Alert’

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With questions focusing on Reagan’s recollection of events, Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the White House meeting between Reagan and House leaders: “He seemed to be very bright and alert.”

When asked whether the White House was trying to cover up the Iran-contra affair, Fascell said:

“I’d like to think there was no cover-up. What we know so far is that there were a lot of efforts for damage control. When testimony is changed, when positions are changed, you have to say it’s more than just a failure of memory.”

He added: “I’m prepared to say the President was an unwitting participant, if indeed there was a cover-up.”

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May Be Hanging On

Despite the general expectation in Washington that Regan will be the next victim of the scandal, some sources in the White House report that he is trying to hang onto his post.

“Don’t hold a wheels-up party yet,” said one senior official. He reminded a reporter that Regan and the President have a “gentleman’s agreement” that the chief of staff could remain at the White House as long as he wishes.

The names of more than half a dozen current and former Administration officials have been mentioned as possible replacements for Regan. One of those on the list, who asked not to be named, said: “People are just speculating like wild.”

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