When former national-security adviser John Poindexter testified last Wednesday that he never told President Reagan of the plan to divert arms-sale proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras, he seemed to lay to rest speculation about a ``smoking gun.'' Sighs of relief could be heard coming from the White House, and many observers said the rest of the Iran-contra hearings would be anticlimactic. But in the succeeding days of his testimony, Admiral Poindexter has caused many members of the congressional investigating panels to doubt his veracity and credibility. This, in turn, has revived the question of whether a cover-up of the Iran-contra affair is still under way.
Or, put another way, is Poindexter testifying truthfully about his own - and President Reagan's - role in the affair?
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, for one, says there is ``no evidence'' that Poindexter has not told the truth, so he therefore must be considered credible.
But some committee members remain skeptical of that proposition.
Testimony before the committees has provided clear indications that, initially at least, some White House staff members were not telling the truth about the Iran-contra affair.
There has been evidence of false chronologies, altered documents, and untrue testimony before Congress. Poindexter admitted that some key administration officials ``weren't telling everything that we knew'' last fall as the affair unraveled.
But, he said, that was motivated by concern over the American hostages in the Middle East. Now, Poindexter says, he is telling the full story.
Many Americans appear to have their doubts.
A CBS/New York Times poll, published at the weekend, found that 47 percent of those questioned believe that Poindexter is lying about whether he told the President that funds from secret arms sales to Iran were being used to support the Nicaraguan contras.
Members of the congressional panels also are troubled by what Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R) of Virginia calls the ``unapologetic embrace of untruth'' that has been revealed.
Asked by Senator Trible how Poindexter could justify deceiving Congress and the American public about the Iran-contra affair, the admiral replied:
``I don't have any regrets for anything that I did. I'm not going to change my mind, and I'm not going to be apologetic about it.''
In a world pitched in an ``ongoing struggle'' between democracy and dictatorship, Poindexter continued, ``We're often faced with shades of gray.''
Poindexter has taken full responsibility for choosing to divert the funds, and said he never informed the President of the decision. But Poindexter is sticking to his assertion that the President would have approved the diversion had he been asked, despite direct contradictions from the White House.
Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, his former subordinate at the National Security Council, have both admitted that they planned to hide White House involvement in efforts to aid the contras. Both men have admitted destroying official government documents about the Iran-contra affair.
One document that escaped their attention was a memo to Poindexter outlining the diversion plan and urging him to brief the President. Colonel North has testified there were five such memos. Poindexter, however, says he has ``no recollection'' of ever seeing them.
Those are the kinds of contradictions that some committee members find troubling.
Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine said in a broadcast interview that it was very difficult to reconcile what seem to be such flatly contradictory accounts.
``That one could send five specific memoranda dealing with [the diversion of funds] and the other [person] could not recall receiving them'' meant a conflict that ``is truly difficult to reconcile,'' Mitchell said.
But some committee members are much harsher in their judgments. One suggests that the congressional committees are still being given a runaround.
``I'm sick and tired of hearing, `I can't recall. I don't remember,''' he says.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Senate investigating committee and a veteran of the Watergate investigation, says he is struck by the lack of repentance or apparent regret that most of the witnesses are displaying.
Senator Inouye has made no secret of his displeasure at what he's heard from Poindexter, characterizing some of his testimony as ``incredible, mind-boggling, chilling.''