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National Security Advisor Testimony

I. Introduction

Since the administration of President Carter, national security advisors from Republican and Democratic administrations have provided testimony in congressional investigations.  These include Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Jimmy Carter), Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter (President Ronald Reagan), Samuel Berger (President Bill Clinton), Condoleezza Rice (President George W. Bush), and Susan Rice (President Barack Obama).  

This testimony included lengthy sessions with House and Senate investigators. For example, former Reagan national security advisor Poindexter provided over 25 hours of testimony in 5 days of public hearings and 20 additional hours of deposition testimony over four days, and former Reagan national security advisor McFarlane provided 20 hours of testimony over 5 days of public hearings and an additional 3 hours of deposition testimony, in the joint 1987 House and Senate investigation into the covert transfer of U.S. arms sales proceeds to Nicaraguan contras (the “Iran/Contra inquiry”).

The testimony of these National Security Advisors encompassed conversations with top officials including the president; top White House aides; U.S. cabinet officials; and foreign emissaries. In their testimony, the National Security Advisors described views offered by the president, the deliberations of senior White House staff preparing advice for the president, and the explanation and interpretation of White House documents.

Detail on the congressional appearances of national security advisors and select excerpts of testimony follows.

II. Hearing and Deposition Appearances

  • Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor for President Carter, provided eight hours of public hearing testimony, and additional deposition testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee to Investigate Individuals Representing the Interests of Foreign Governments (1980). 
  • Admiral John Poindexter, former National Security Advisor for President Reagan, provided over 25 hours of public hearing testimony and 20 additional hours of deposition testimony before the joint hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition (1987).
  • Robert McFarlane, former National Security Advisor for President Reagan, provided over 20 hours of public hearing testimony on May 11-14, 1987, and July 14, 1987 and 3 additional hours of deposition testimony before the joint hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition (1987).
  • Samuel Berger, National Security Advisor for President Clinton, provided 2 hours of public hearing testimony before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs in the Committee’s inquiry into campaign finance practices (1997).
  • Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor for President George W. Bush, provided three hours of public testimony, and additional closed session testimony, before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States that Congress had established to investigate the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States (2004).
  • Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama, provided closed session testimony to the House Select Committee on Intelligence in its review of the how the Obama Administration handled identification of U.S. citizens in U.S. intelligence reports (2017).

III. Select Excerpts of National Security Advisor Testimony from the Iran/Contra and Billy Carter/Libya Inquiries

For the congressional inquiry into the Iran/Contra matter, President Reagan did not assert executive privilege, permitting both NSA McFarlane (who served October 1983-December 1985) and NSA Poindexter (who served December 1985-November 1986) to testify publicly at the Committee proceedings over the spring and summer of 1987, where they addressed questions from committee counsel and committee members about allegations that the Administration was involved in covert weapons transactions with Iran and the Nicaraguan opposition (“contras”) that Congress had prohibited.  

For the congressional inquiry into Billy Carter’s business dealings in Libya, President Carter waived executive privilege , permitting NSA Brzezinski to testify publicly at Committee proceedings in September 1980, where he addressed questions about the Administration’s interactions with Billy Carter and whether Carter had influenced U.S. policy toward Libya.

Topics covered included:

1. Meetings involving the President and National Security Council principals (the heads of the departments and agencies relevant to the subject matter discussed):
  • McFarlane testified about a principals meeting where there was “general agreement” that there should not be an arms-for-hostages approach, and the President’s specific instruction to him not to use that approach;
  • McFarlane discussed a meeting of the National Security Council principals at which President Reagan was “fully involved” and at which the President and top aides discussed the controversial decision to secretly mine a harbor in Nicaragua, providing a description of the kinds of questions the President asked in the meetings, and how these questions were addressed at a follow-up meeting.
2. Additional conversations involving the President:
  • McFarlane testified that the President expressed to him a view about what was permitted under relevant congressional restrictions that was more expansive than the view McFarlane himself held;
  • McFarlane described two instances when he informed the President that a third party country had decided to donate money to the contras and the President’s expression of gratitude and satisfaction upon receiving that information;
  • Poindexter described a meeting he attended in the presidential residence on December 7, 1985 (when Poindexter was deputy NSA but had effectively taken over as NSA after McFarlane had given notice), with the President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Chief of Staff, and CIA Deputy Director regarding whether they should send McFarlane to London to negotiate for hostages with a particularly questionable Iranian figure; 
  • Poindexter testified about a private conversation he held with President Reagan on Air Force One, describing the President’s state of mind after reading Benjamin Netanyahu’s book and how that led to the President’s statement to Poindexter that he did not want to abandon the contras. He also testified that the President asked him if there was anything the White House could do unilaterally (i.e., without Congress);
  • Brzezinski testified about a phone call with President Carter, in which the President asked Brzezinski to look into working with a private US citizen to pursue a particular foreign policy goal. Brzezinski testified about his response to the request, and what the President did or did not say about what that private individual’s role should be;
  • Brzezinski testified about how the CIA Director pulled him aside after a large meeting broke up to give him an intelligence briefing. He then testified about the steps he took after receiving that briefing, including his conversation with President Carter about the intelligence.
3. Decision-making among top White House and cabinet aides:
  • McFarlane discussed President Reagan’s management style, and that the President generally “d[id] not enjoy being involved in the resolution of” disagreements between his advisors;
  • McFarlane testified that he and the Director of the CIA held different opinions about how to best approach working with a hostile Congress; 
  • Poindexter testified (here and here) about two presidential findings and the chaotic deliberative and drafting process that created them;
  • Brzezinski testified about the general flow of information between cabinet-level officials in the Carter Administration. Specifically, he testified that he had a regular practice of informing the Secretary of State about his important conversations, and that therefore he was confident he would have informed the Secretary of State about a particular meeting.
4. Conversations with foreign officials:
  • McFarlane testified about private conversations he had with Israeli officials in which the Israelis sought assurances that they could replenish missiles they were considering transferring to Iran; 
  • McFarlane testified about instances when he disagreed with the way certain Israelis handled the hostage negotiations and described the representation by his Israeli counterpart that it was in Israel's interest for the Iran-Iraq conflict to continue to be at a stalemate; 
  • Brzezinski testified about a meeting he held with the Libyan Chargé, Mr. El-Houderi. He testified about who attended his meeting with the Chargé, the purpose of the meeting, and who spoke about which topics during the meeting.