Search for a Mission Put Owen in North's Network of Intrigue

Times Staff Writer

When Rob Owen came to Washington six years ago at the age of 28, he was searching for a mission in life and, in a sense, for an older brother as well. In Oliver L. North, he found both.

Owen, now 34, closed two days of testimony before the House and Senate committees on the Iran- contra scandal Tuesday by reading a poem to the nonplussed congressmen--a paean to North, the fired White House aide who ran the Reagan Administration's secret aid program for Nicaraguan rebels.

"I love Ollie North like a brother," he declared.

That sudden, fervent outburst in the hushed dignity of the Senate Caucus Room seemed to bring Robert W. Owen full circle. For Owen's search for a sense of mission, friends say, stems partly from the death in Vietnam of his idolized older brother Dwight, a U.S. foreign aid official, in 1967.

Applies to LAPD

As a student at Stanford University, Owen defied the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time and tried to enlist in the Marine Corps, only to be rejected because of a bad knee. He tried to join the Los Angeles Police Department but was rejected there too.

At last, in 1980, Owen scraped together some savings and flew to Thailand to work as a volunteer in the camps housing refugees from the Indochina wars. "I guess I always had an affinity for Southeast Asia, because my brother was killed over there," he explained Tuesday.

When he returned, Owen said, he stopped in Washington and visited the Jefferson Memorial. "Around the ceiling, engraved in the marble, is a statement that (Jefferson) made . . . 'I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.' I guess I took that to heart," he said.

Begins as Volunteer

Equipped with little more than that brand of heartfelt patriotism, Owen found volunteer work with the Senate Republican Conference, then a staff job with Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), one of the Senate's most conservative members.

In 1983, by happenstance, the young Republican aide met North, a then-obscure White House aide. At the time, Congress was moving toward a ban on official U.S. aid to the contras, and North was being handed the job of finding ways to keep the rebels fighting despite the law.

North needed a private aide who could help him secretly run the contra war. Owen volunteered. In the space of a few months, the young man who had been rejected by the Los Angeles police found himself operating in a world of high-level intrigue.

He made clandestine flights to Central America, relayed envelopes of cash to contra leaders, carried secret intelligence packets from the CIA. At one point, he made a hurried trip to New York to speak a password in a Chinese grocery store and get a packet of 95 $100 bills; at another, he passed an envelope containing travelers' checks to a Nicaraguan Indian leader through the window of a car driving past the White House.

Both Contrite and Cocky

Owen, testifying under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution, was alternately contrite and cocky. A boyish smirk frequently crossed his face, and he sometimes fell into lecturing the senators and congressmen on his views of foreign policy.

He told them that the Administration had erred in trying to support the contras in secret, that Congress had erred in cutting off funding for the war, that the CIA had erred in putting more stress on military than political success, and that the contras had erred by failing to develop a more appealing political leadership.

The committee's reaction was indulgent. Conservatives praised his arguments, and even liberals like Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House committee, made a point of noting that "all of us . . . respect your conviction and your sincerity and your dedication."

Question by Boren

Only Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a contra supporter himself, brought Owen up short.

"I wonder, on reflection, how you feel about the means . . . that were adopted, perhaps with good intentions, to try to accomplish what you and I believe was a worthy end," Boren said.

Owen conceded that he had "some questions" about whether everything North did was legal. And he acknowledged that he had "walked a very fine line" in some of his actions.

But, he added, in what was the crux of his self-defense: "We had all the best intentions."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World