Accountability and Democracy

Presidential Responsibility and "Plausible Deniability"

The Iran-Contra Affairs involved concerted efforts by the executive branch to work around the restrictions and intent of Congress. “The Enterprise” was a kind of privatization of foreign policy, conducted in secret and without the balance of powers envisioned by the constitution. These transgressions were seen by many as far worse than anything that happened in Watergate. Chairman Hamilton used his closing remarks to address the significance of the rule of law and the dangers of subverting democratic processes in the name of patriotism. Given the gravity of the matter, why wasn’t President Reagan impeached? Why was there so little serious discussion of impeachment?

One reason is that the President Reagan was very popular. [internal link to public opinion poll data]. It is difficult, if not impossible, to impeach a popular president. A second reason is that the impeachment of President Nixon was still too fresh in the memory of the American people. There was no political will to endure another impeachment proceeding so soon after Watergate. A third reason is that there was insufficient proof about “what President Reagan knew and when he knew it.” That formulation, of course, is a function of Watergate, where the cover-up was considered far worse than the underlying crimes.

The Iran-Contra Affairs were designed to provide the President with plausible deniability. Poindexter testified to Congress: "I made a deliberate decision not to ask the President, so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability for the President if it ever leaked out." North testified: “I was that deniable link and I was supposed to be dropped like a hot rock when it call came down.”  Is “plausible deniability” just a clever way of making the President impeachment-proof? How plausible is it that Vice-Admiral Poindexter cooked up the entire “enterprise” without ever getting the approval of the President. That is what “plausible deniability” apparently means in this case: that it is plausible that the President did not know. Or maybe “plausible deniability” means something different: the lack of a smoking gun. There were secret tape recordings from the Oval Office in Watergate. There was no definitive evidence like that in the Iran-Contra Affairs. Does that fact alone translate into plausible deniability for the President? Or would it be reasonable to hold the President responsible even in the absence of explicit orders? Those questions were never given serous consideration beyond the Watergate-based question of what the president knew and when he knew it.

Discussion Questions

  • Is the “plausible deniability” of President Reagan a reasonable basis for deciding against impeachment?
  • Does the president avoid responsibility for actions that he or she can plausibly deny, even when, as in this case, they were clearly taken on the president’s behalf? If so, is the realpolitik lesson of Watergate that future president can avoid being impeached if they spurn secret taping systems and always have “plausible deniability”?

Notes and Additional Resources:

  • Wikipedia on “the smoking gun” in Watergate.
  • David Bogen and Michael Lynch, “Taking Account of the Hostile Native: Plausible Deniability and the Production of Conventional History in the Iran-Contra Hearings,” Social Problems, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jun., 1989), pp. 197-224.
  • The “RICO conspiracy” laws convicted Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci of presiding over a corrupt political machine. Cianci, a convicted felon, had certainly perfected the art of plausible deniability. While his Director of Administration was caught on videotape accepting bribes on Cianci’s behalf, there was never any direct evidence of Cianci’s involvement in the criminal enterprise that operated on his behalf. Cianci complained bitterly about his conviction in light of the lack of direct evidence. Judge Torres sentenced Cianci to five years in prison. Cianci lost his appeal. Should the same logic used against Cianci have been used against President Reagan? How significant is the fact that one case is about personal political futures and the other is about foreign policy?