Excerpts: North Said if Story Broke 'He Would Always Be the Fall Guy'

From Times Staff Writers

Following are excerpts from testimony Tuesday of Robert W. Owen, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's "courier," on how he mingled arms and intelligence information for the contras, which Congress had sought to ban, with then-legal humanitarian aid. The testimony by Owen, who was a contract employee for the State Department's Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office (NHAO), also suggests that ranking CIA officials had a direct hand in the covert operation:

An Arms Mission

(Questioned by House deputy chief counsel W. Neil Eggleston, Owen described a March, 1986, mission to fly NHAO-sanctioned medical supplies to a contra base in Honduras, then continue the mission by flying arms to an air-drop rendezvous in the same aircraft.)

Answer: There was a flight leaving Dulles Airport, an L-100 which was chartered through Southern Air Transport. It was loaded with medical supplies, and it was going down to the Nicaraguan resistance air base in Central America. . . . (North) asked me that once I completed overseeing the unloading of the medical supplies . . . that I then help them put together the reloading of the L-100.

Question: And what did you talk about with Col. North that would be reloaded on the L-100?

A: There (was) a list of munitions that were going to be reloaded on the L-100. . . . They were going to go to another air base in Central America where they would be packaged and palletized for a drop into Nicaragua.

(Eggleston questioned Owen on his relationship with NHAO, which was forbidden to supply any munitions to the contras.)

Q: Is it true that your contract with NHAO specifically precluded you from doing anything with regard to the transportation or facilitation of lethal supplies?

A: There was a section in there which did say that. I might add right here, though, that I believe since I had completed my NHAO work on that delivery of medical supplies, that I was on my own time, and I was also doing this at the direction of the National Security Council and an adviser who I believe was working under the auspices of the President of the United States.

Q: Let me ask you this: Did you tell (NHAO Administrator) Ambassador (Robert W.) Duemling that you had taken off your NHAO hat and decided to . . . help facilitate a lethal air drop?

A: He never asked, and I never told him.

CIA Role

(Owen explained that "Murphy's law " prevailed and the munitions were not on hand to be loaded, a problem North had anticipated.)

A: This was a concern that (North) had had, so I went and talked with a CIA officer who was at the base, asked him if he knew anything about it. He did not. I then subsequently asked the CIA officer, through a secure communications contact, to . . . contact his base station in Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and then to subsequently relay a question to one of the senior CIA officials in the country. . . . The message I got back was that the material was not released (by contra commanders).

(Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) asked about direct CIA involvement in the Owen missions directed by North.)

Q: When you delivered maps and photos from Col. North to various contra leaders in November, 1984, and February and April of 1985, did you have any indication that CIA personnel knew that Col. North was going to use CIA-prepared materials for that purpose?

A: Sir, I was in his office on several occasions when he made phone calls to what I believed was the CIA. . . . I believe I was in Col. North's office when he picked up the phone and at one point called and talked to the director of the--

Q: The Task Force chief?

A: Task Force. Yes, sir.

Q: So you had the impression from that conversation that the director of the Task Force at the CIA at least knew about these maps, that they were there?

A: I can't testify to that, but I would have to assume it . . . .

Question of Guilt

(Eggleston asked whether Owen was aware that North's contra activities may have been illegal.)

A: I know there were a number of investigations that constantly involved Col. North. We had some conversations about them. There were different times when he thought that he was probably going to be moved, and he said: "I will just let the chips fall where they may." Oftentimes, when information came out, he and I would talk, and he said on several occasions that he would always be the fall guy if this story ever broke.

Q: Let me ask you about that. Did Col. North indicate to you whether or not his superiors at the NSC knew what it was that he was doing in Central America?

A: It was my understanding that he did. I was never given any clear indication. I once asked him what he did with my memos, and he said: "I take them across the street," and I just assumed that that would probably go to the national security adviser, either Robert McFarlane or John Poindexter.

Q: And did he ever indicate to you whether or not the President knew what he and you were doing in Central America?

A: I don't think the President has time to know who Robert Owen is. But I imagine that he had an idea that Col. North was doing things to help the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance.

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