WHAT THE PRESIDENT KNEW AND WHEN HE KNEW IT

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- The president knew. Presidents always know, but are supposed to be protected from what they saw, heard and did when the best-laid plans hit the fan.

I have covered, researched or written hundreds of pages about that process -- sometimes called "plausible deniability" -- as used by three presidents: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In each case it was revealed or later revealed that the president knew and he knew from the beginning. In all cases, I would argue that each president was the beginning. Presidents give the orders, usually not on paper or with a tape recorder running.

Did President Kennedy know about plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, an operation being run by his brother, the attorney general? Did he know about the probability that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem would be assassinated when Kennedy ordered his people not to block a coup by Diem's own generals? C'mon!

Did President Nixon know about Watergate? LOL!

Did President Reagan know about Iran-Contra? Please!

After the disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, which Kennedy knew of but never asked the right questions to understand, he created something called the "Special Group (Augmented)." That meant Robert Kennedy and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who were ordered to investigate the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to find out how and why the president had been so stupid.

A month later, the president approved a "Record of Action" that began: "Agreed that U.S. policy toward Cuba should aim at the downfall of Castro." After that, Bobby said: "We will take action against Castro. It might be tomorrow. It might be in five days or 10 days, or not for months. But it will come." Defense Secretary Robert McNamara advised in a White House meeting: "The only thing to do is eliminate Castro!"

Then in a classified memo in October titled "Contingency Plan for Cuba," everything was blanked out after, "In confirmation of oral instructions ..." Added Taylor: "The president's interest in this matter (should) not be mentioned." The White House cable to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge before the coup read, "This effort must be totally secure and fully deniable."

Before Watergate, Nixon created a "Special Investigations Unit," popularly known as "The Plumbers," to investigate leaks, which they did by breaking into offices and safes -- and medical offices. Whatever it took. Nixon and his men denied and denied, until that wasn't plausible anymore. Even Nixon's friend and secretary of State, William Rogers, responded to White House stories by saying, "The attempts to cover up make the basic alibi of non-involvement of the White House inconceivable."

President Reagan, as he often was, was the boldest in responding to more and more information leaking to the press about the bizarre plot, hatched in the White House basement, to send U.S. ballistic missiles to Israel and then have Israel sell them to Iran; then we would use the money to finance "contra" military operations to overthrow leftist governments in Central America -- because Congress had cut off the funding for the White House's secret wars.

Although the president's national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, said bluntly, "The president did agree to the project ... I did spell it out for him," Reagan responded in a handwritten letter: "The only honest answer is to state that try as I might, I cannot recall anything whatsoever about whether I approved an Israeli sale ... around August of 1985. My answer therefore and the simple truth is, 'I don't remember -- period.'"

Right! And President Obama did not know his National Security Agency was spending hundreds of millions of dollars year after year spying on our enemies and our allies -- who probably were doing the same thing to us, but had less money and less-sophisticated capacity. Gimme a break!