THE IRAN-CONTRA HEARINGS : ‘Here to Tell You the Truth, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ : North Appears Unchastened Over Role
Yes, Oliver L. North confessed Tuesday to the Congress, the country, the television audience and the world, he did tell some whoppers and he did shred a lot of documents.
But if he has been chastened for his role as the ringmaster of the Iran- contra affair, he did not show it as he broke seven months of silence and appeared before the long-running congressional inquiry as the most eagerly awaited witness since Watergate’s John W. Dean III.
“I came here to tell you the truth,” he said, “the good, the bad and the ugly. I am here to tell it all, pleasant and unpleasant, and I am here to accept responsibility for that which I did. I will not accept the responsibility for that which I did not do.”
For the first hours of what will be a week of examination, the controversial Marine lieutenant colonel, wearing six rows of decorations and a presidential staff medallion on his olive-green uniform, seemed to almost enjoy himself, to be pleased with the web he wove in orchestrating the U.S. arms sales to Iran and the secret support operation for the Nicaraguan rebels.
On an occasion or two, he broke into a grin, and often he seemed to have some difficulty suppressing a smile as chief House committee counsel John W. Nields Jr. constructed a latticework of questions to frame the coming days.
There was a hint of condescension, as when he attempted to lecture Nields and the committees on the nature and purpose of covert operations, and when he caught an obviously uninitiated Nields saying “two thousand hours” instead of “twenty hundred hours,” which is the military’s way of saying 8 p.m.
“I think it is very important for the American people to understand that this is a dangerous world,” North said, “that we live at risk and that this nation is at risk in a dangerous world . . . they ought not to be led to believe, as a consequence of these hearings, that this nation cannot or should not conduct covert operations. By their very nature, covert or special activities are a lie. There is great deceit, deception practiced in the conduct of covert operations. They are at essence a lie.”
The laid-back approach brought some titters from the audience, but none from the committee members, long split on the question of whether they should allow North to appear under limited immunity from prosecution, which he did.
Arthur L. Liman, the chief Senate counsel who will cross examine North today, glowered. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the select committee’s co-chairman, gaveled North’s lawyer to silence when the attorney objected that his client was being badgered.
During the luncheon recess, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) and other committee members tersely observed that they found North’s demeanor “flippant,” using the precise word that North himself used several times to deny that he was giving a less than serious answer.
After the recess, there was a perceptible change.
North was all seriousness as he doggedly defended his every action. Nothing he had done in the delivery of arms to Iran and diversion of proceeds to the rebels in Nicaragua, he insisted, was done without full approval of his National Security Council superiors.
Whether memoranda he wrote for presidential approval ever got presidential approval, he could not say; he could only say that they were forwarded to his boss, then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter. Whether they later were marked with a presidential approval, he did not know. The documents were shredded.
As for the now-famous shredding and the equally famous stories he told of chatting with the President, he had no apologies.
Yes, he said, he had told retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, an old colleague he recruited for the secret operations, a whopper about joking with President Reagan that the Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini’s money was going to the contras in Nicaragua. There had been no such conversation, but it was a good story to buck up Secord’s spirits and encourage him in his private efforts to raise money for the rebels. And yes, he had told the Iranians some “baldface lies.”
But, he added: “I’ll tell you right now, I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten Americans home for it.”
After weeks of negotiations over the conditions under which he would appear, North appeared headed for the rocks the moment the hearing opened.
Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., his lawyer, who has a reputation for putting up uncompromising defenses, bitterly accused the congressional investigators of working “hand in glove” with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who is gathering evidence against North on a wide variety of potential charges.
“I have never been in a position where a client is forced to testify about all matters which are the subject of a pending indictment,” he complained. “We believe he has an absolute right not to testify under the Fifth Amendment.”
Inouye not only shut off the argument, he refused to hear a prepared opening statement by North--on grounds that it had not been submitted 48 hours in advance, as required by committee rules.
But even if committee members later found North in danger of playing wise guy, his good humor and earnest responses got him past the potentially destructive beginning.
With hard questions still ahead, though, he was clearly drained by the end of the day, his fatigue as apparent as his 5 o’clock shadow.
Over and over, as Nields marched him through the chronology of the whole affair, North seized opportunities to defend himself.
“I did a lot of things, and I want to stand up and say that I’m proud of them,” he said during the morning session. “I don’t want you to think, counsel, that I went about this all on my own. I realize there’s a lot of folks around that think there’s a loose cannon on the gun deck at the NSC. That wasn’t what I heard when I worked there. I’ve only heard it since I left. People used to walk up and tell me what a good job I was doing. . . . “
When the first day was over, he wearily said he could think of better ways to spend an afternoon.
As he walked out of the Senate Office Building, staff members came out of offices to get a look at the man President Reagan called an American hero before all the details started coming out. And as he passed the office of conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), staff members politely applauded.