Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s former secretary has admitted to federal investigators that she helped him alter, destroy and remove large numbers of White House documents dealing with the Iran- contra scandal, knowledgeable sources said Sunday.
Fawn Hall, North’s secretary while he was on the staff of the White House National Security Council, said she altered about four memos taken at North’s direction from NSC document files by using a word processor on her desk, sources familiar with her statement said.
About a week later, they quoted her as saying, she and North used an NSC shredder or other paper destruction device to destroy an unknown number of documents, believed to include printouts of computer messages he had sent to other NSC officials.
Carried Away Material
And on the day North was fired from the NSC, in what one source called a final “desperate, crazy” act, she physically carried away material from the NSC that detailed much of North’s activity.
Hall provided her account after independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who was appointed by a federal court to investigate U.S. arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits to Nicaragua’s rebels, granted her immunity from prosecution.
FBI agents working for Walsh have gone to the NSC’s central computer system to recover part of the material that she and North destroyed, sources familiar with the matter said. But they fear that they will be unable to recover the original versions of the altered documents and that they can identify only some of the documents that had been removed from the NSC, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.
The actions of North and Hall during the two weeks before North was fired from the NSC on Nov. 25 may provide key material for later charges of obstruction of justice and theft of government property, sources said.
But an individual familiar with Walsh’s strategy said no such charges are likely to be sought until investigators establish that those who engaged in the destruction, alteration and removal of documents were trying to hide substantive criminal acts.
Hall’s statements confirm a report in the Nov. 27 Los Angeles Times that North had destroyed a series of NSC documents that it was believed would shed light “on the scope of involvement by Administration officials” in the scandal.
White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and other top Administration officials repeatedly have dismissed as overblown the report of document destruction. Regan said last Nov. 27 that all documents relevant to the North inquiry were in “a central file” at the NSC--but investigators now know that to be false, sources said.
Denial by Speakes
Former White House press spokesman Larry Speakes last Jan. 6 called the shredding report “grossly misrepresented in the press. . . . We have uncovered nothing in our review of the documents that, within the documents themselves, indicates any gap within those documents, points to anything that we can’t find.”
At the time of Speakes’ statement, investigators had known for well over a month that NSC files had been destroyed or tampered with, sources now say. Hall appears to have provided confirming evidence beginning in late January.
Plato Cacheris, Hall’s lawyer, said he negotiated immunity for her last month and that she “has been debriefed by the independent counsel.” He said the special Senate and House committees looking into the Iran-contra scandal also have tried to interview Hall, but that she would not talk to them without grants of immunity from each panel.
Washington Post Report
Walsh’s office advised the committees Friday that she had been granted immunity from prosecution by his office, and the Washington Post reported Sunday that she had told Walsh’s investigators that she had helped North destroy memos and computer messages on Nov. 21.
Sources familiar with the case said Sunday that Hall’s involvement in altering and removing documents reached beyond the destruction of possible evidence.
Another former NSC staff member, Marine Lt. Col. Robert Earl, who worked in North’s office, was described by sources involved in the case as “knowledgeable” that some documents had been shredded and others removed.
But the investigation of the suspected obstruction reaches no higher than North, the sources said.
Despite details provided to them by Hall on the alteration of documents, investigators doubt that she has been “totally forthcoming,” one source said.
“They don’t have everything they need out of her,” another source said.
May Be Given Lie Test
As a result, Walsh’s lawyers are considering asking Hall to take an FBI polygraph examination, sources close to the case said. If Hall is shown to have told less than the full truth, the independent counsel could remove her immunity or pursue perjury charges against her.
“There’s an incredible loyalty (to North) on her part,” one associate of Hall said.
In December, Hall told a reporter who attempted to question her about her former boss that North was a patriot and that anything he had done had been in the best interests of his country.
Sources said that what began as evidence of isolated destruction of NSC documents has since mushroomed into evidence of a systematic and large-scale effort by North and others to conceal and destroy key documents in the Iran-contra probe.
North and Hall began that effort in mid-November, barely a week after the first U.S. press reports that the Administration had sold arms to Iran in the hope that Iran would help secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon, sources said.
Continued to Final Hours
It continued, they added, to the final hours before North’s office was sealed last Nov. 25, hours after he was fired. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who conducted the investigation in its earliest stages, was widely criticized for allowing North to have access to his office for so long.
Investigators now believe that the scheme first involved altering documents, progressed to shredding and ended with the removal of bundles of papers from North’s office in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.
In mid-November, sources now say, North’s office checked out and altered roughly four critical documents from the NSC’s numbered and indexed files. The subjects of the documents are not known, but they apparently were North-authored memos that Hall had transcribed on an IBM Displaywriter word processor before sending the typed final versions elsewhere in the NSC.
Rewriting of Documents
Hall then rewrote the documents on the same IBM Displaywriter so that crucial facts were either altered or omitted, sources said. The rewritten documents then were placed in NSC files from which the originals had been taken and the originals were presumably destroyed.
Because the Displaywriter was not linked to the NSC’s internal computer system, sources said, no electronic version of the originals ever existed. The alterations would not be noticed by anyone who was unfamiliar with the wording of the original documents, they said.
Those NSC documents were altered and not shredded, the sources said, because they were part of the agency’s filing system of written documents. Any papers missing from that system would have raised investigators’ suspicions.
North probably had copies of the originals in his own private files and destroyed them, but “it made no sense to shred documents of which there was another copy” elsewhere, the sources said.