North Destroyed National Security Staff Documents : Potentially Crucial Files Shredded by Fired Aide, Government Sources Say

Times Staff Writers

Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the National Security Council official accused of funneling Iranian arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan rebels, last weekend destroyed a series of documents from NSC files that are believed to have indicated the scope of involvement in the venture by other Administration officials, government sources said Wednesday.

Destruction of the potentially crucial documents is now being investigated by the FBI, which did not enter the case until Wednesday, one senior government source said.

Although the contents of the documents in question could not be determined precisely, sources said they could have played an important role in the Administration’s effort to establish the full dimensions of the mushrooming scandal--especially the question of how many officials were involved.


North, who was relieved of his duties by President Reagan on Tuesday, entered his secure office adjacent to the White House and shredded the papers at least 36 hours before Administration officials dispatched White House security officers to change the combinations on North’s office and safe locks Tuesday afternoon, government sources said.

It was not clear whether North acted before or after being interviewed last weekend by Atty. Gen Edwin Meese III and other senior Justice Department officials about his role in the affair, the sources said.

However, because Meese conducted the first stage of the Iran probe personally, without drawing on the FBI’s expertise, the sources indicated, North’s office was left unguarded during a critical period when he was under scrutiny for his role in the Iran arms-and-hostages deal.

‘Closed the Barn Door’

“Too late,” one knowledgeable source said. “He was shredding over the weekend. They closed the barn door after the horses were gone.”

The allegations further complicate what has become the most serious crisis of President Reagan’s six years in office, and they could lead to criminal charges, legal experts said.

Meanwhile, there were these further developments Wednesday:

--The Justice Department’s investigation of the scandal focused on whether Administration officials other than those who have already left office were involved in the diversion of profits from Iranian arms sales to the U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras, in Nicaragua.

In addition to removing North, Reagan on Tuesday accepted the resignation of his national security adviser, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter. Meese said that Poindexter, who was North’s boss, knew--but did not tell the President--that profits from sales of arms to Iran were being diverted at a time when Congress had banned U.S. military aid to the contras.


--Meese, who is heading the investigation, said that evidence gathered so far has “pretty clearly established” that Reagan and his top assistants who remain in office were not involved. However, Meese and other officials close to the investigation said he was speaking only on the basis of preliminary interviews.

A comprehensive inquiry is just getting under way. As of Wednesday, sources said, a number of officials across the government believed to have knowledge of the Iran arms operation and North’s activities had not been interviewed or contacted by investigators.

--Reagan appointed a three-man commission, headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), to review the Administration’s foreign policy-making apparatus, especially the role of the President’s national security adviser and his staff. The commission is expected to produce general policy-making and organizational recommendations, not a detailed account of the present controversy.

The other commission members are former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), who served as secretary of state in the Jimmy Carter Administration, and Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in the Gerald R. Ford Administration.

Reagan on Wednesday personally telephoned North to offer his thanks for his service in his National Security Council post, an associate said. But North was described as depressed and extremely angry over his dismissal after initially accepting the news with equanimity.

North was said to be especially concerned about support for his family and about continuing uncertainty over his future--if any--in the Marine Corps. He reportedly told friends that he did nothing wrong and only followed orders.


But Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was reported by one source Wednesday to be reluctant to see North return to Marine duty. Administration officials apparently have reached no decision on where, if anywhere, North will be dispatched now that he has been fired from the NSC.

Efforts to reach North for comment were unsuccessful.

‘Clearly Established’

Meese, commenting on the continuing inquiry Wednesday morning, said it is “entirely possible” that other people were involved, “but as far as anyone in the top levels of government, let’s say at the department-head level or top people in the White House, such as the chief of staff, certainly the President or vice president or any Cabinet members being involved, we’ve pretty clearly established at this point that that has not happened.”

But one knowledgeable government source, noting how few persons had been interviewed by investigators so far, charged Wednesday that the Justice Department lacked hard evidence to back up that claim.

“They haven’t done a thing,” that source said. “So far, this investigation could be conducted better by my Aunt Tillie than these guys have done it.”

Meese also said: “We will be pursuing this, and whoever is involved, I’m convinced that our investigation will show clearly what the facts are.” Anyone guilty of violating the law will be prosecuted, he said, and he pledged that there will be no “scapegoats” or “concealment.”

“It appears there were some others involved,” Meese said. “There are some consultants involved and other people who have a tangential relationship to the U.S. government.”


He named no names, but Michael A. Ledeen, a senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, reportedly participated in the initial contacts between the United States, Israel and Iran that led to the establishment of the arms pipeline through Israel to Iran.

White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, seeking to distance himself from the scandal, insisted Wednesday that he had no control over the White House national security apparatus.

Regan told NBC News: “Does the bank president know whether a teller in the bank is fiddling with the books? No. This is an episode going on in the National Security Council, and the NSC does not report to me.”

However, other sources said Regan has been heavily involved in the NSC’s operations. When Reagan appointed Poindexter as his national security adviser last December, Regan began accompanying him in his daily briefings of the President.

Dismissals Urged

A group of Reagan’s longtime California confidants, working in concert with several top Administration officials, are pressing for the dismissal of both Regan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz, a vocal opponent of the policy of arms shipments to Iran.

“Several of us have told the President that he’s got to get out all the facts about this and get out all the people who are responsible or have publicly opposed him and do it fast in order to save his presidency,” a former Reagan Cabinet member said Wednesday.


The Californians and some Administration officials seek Regan’s ouster, according to reliable sources, because they think he gave Reagan bad advice on the arms deal and then tried to distance himself from the scandal and let the President shoulder all the responsibility. And they consider Shultz, who opposed the Iranian arms sales inside the Administration, to have been disloyal for repudiating it publicly.

The President, obviously shaken by the revelation that as much as $30 million from Iranian arms sales was diverted to a Swiss bank account for the contras, left Washington at midday Wednesday to spend the Thanksgiving weekend at his ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains northwest of Santa Barbara.

The President was relatively silent on the subject Wednesday. At a turkey-petting session at the White House before leaving Washington, he was peppered with questions about the scandal and its impact on his presidency. Studiously ignoring the questions, he looked at the 57-pound prize turkey and said, “Did you hear a question?”

Regan had planned to take a vacation, according to sources, but decided to accompany the President to California because of the unfolding scandal. Several sources suggested that he wanted to be present in case any members of the California group sought to confer with the President there.

An ABC News poll released Wednesday showed that 44% of Americans believe Reagan knew from the beginning that money from the Iran arms sale was being diverted to the contras.

The telephone survey, conducted Tuesday night, found that 18% of those polled believe he learned about it after it was begun but before this week, 34% believe he did not know money was diverted and 4% had no opinion. Fully 80% said that they believe officials other than Poindexter and North were involved in the scheme.


Tower’s appointment to the policy commission set off a controversy over his longtime association with some of the principals in the Iranian arms operation.

Tower is a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where one of his staff aides in 1980 was Robert C. McFarlane.

McFarlane later became Reagan’s national security adviser, and Meese said Tuesday that he and Poindexter, who replaced McFarlane as national security adviser last December, knew of the diversion of Iranian arms sale profits to the contras.

Moreover, sources say that as national security adviser, McFarlane was instrumental in Reagan’s appointment of Tower as one of his arms negotiators in Geneva talks with the Soviet Union, a position from which Tower has since resigned.

Another former aide to Tower on the Armed Services Committee was Alton G. Keel Jr., Reagan’s acting national security adviser now that Poindexter has stepped down. And Tower’s brother-in-law is Sam Cummings, head of Interarms, one of the world’s largest private arms dealers.

The commission was directed to review the roles played by the State Department, the National Security Council and other government agencies that make and operate foreign policy. The NSC has come under intense criticism for operating the Iranian arms operation without the participation of the State Department.


Times staff writers Eleanor Clift and James Gerstenzang also contributed to this story.