Defends Integrity : Beleaguered Witness Goes on Offensive
After seven months in a foxhole and eight hours under withering congressional fire, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North attempted his equivalent of a combat landing Wednesday, going on the offensive just when it appeared he was hopelessly exposed.
With a mammoth display of chutzpah, the star witness of the long-running Iran- contra investigation quickly seized the initiative after confessing to accepting an expensive home security system paid for from the proceeds of arms sales to Iran.
Recalls Death Threat
The brigade of congressional investigators sat in stony silence as North launched into a passionate discourse in which he defended both his personal honesty and his marital fidelity and recounted how he had been threatened with death by the notorious Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal.
It may have been one of the turning points in North’s exhaustive interrogation, for it was the first time the committee had touched upon integrity issues that had tarnished the hero’s mantle he had taken in early days of the saga.
Despite his testimony, there was still sharp disagreement about North on Capitol Hill. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) provoked a quarrel in the House when he took the floor and declared North a “bona fide American hero.” Democrats answered with boos and hisses, and Dornan hoarsely shouted at them: “Do you have five Purple Hearts? Do You?”
North, in his most earnest, compelling narrative, portrayed himself as a lonely figure targeted for death by the world’s most feared terrorist at the very moment he was to leave for Iran on his secret mission to free American hostages, a mission on which he was prepared to commit suicide if tortured.
Intractable bureaucratic rules kept him from getting special government protection for his family, he said. He wound up accepting a security system paid for from money that was supposed to go to the anti-government rebels in Nicaragua and later wound up trying to conceal his action.
“I’ll be glad to meet Abu Nidal on equal terms anywhere in the world,” said the colonel. “There’s an even deal for him. But I’m not willing to have my wife and my four children meet Abu Nidal or his organization on his terms.”
Not since Watergate had congressional hearings produced such theater, and there was the promise of more, not to mention an increasingly likely conflict over how long the panel will keep North on the stand. Further questioning--undoubtedly rugged--still lay on the colonel’s beachhead. Even if members fully accepted his explanation of the security gate and his testimony that he put “not one penny” of contra funds to personal use, there was still a congressional imperative to demonstrate the folly of privatizing foreign policy.
But, for the moment, some of the congressional inquisitors conceded it had been a good moment for the man who still smiles when he talks about the “neat” concept of putting the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s money into the hands of the contras in Nicaragua.
Seen as ‘Persuasive’
One of them was Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), who has been assigned to conduct the questioning for Senate Democrats. “He was very persuasive,” the senator told reporters. But, he quickly added, North has had the advantage so far because the committee was not able to interrogate him extensively before the public hearing started Tuesday. The facts of North’s dramatic narrative remain to be checked.
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) told reporters that his own guess was that North had effectively “come across on the tube, and he will be viewed sympathetically by many Americans.”
The congressman’s suspicions seemed to have been borne out by an ABC News poll taken after the first day of testimony.
Fifty-eight percent of the 510 Americans surveyed in the nationwide poll said they believed North was generally telling the truth, while 35% believed he was lying.
Fully 70% said they thought North had done a good job defending himself under questioning by committee counsel John W. Nields Jr.
Callers Offer Donations
Of perhaps greater consolation to North was word that phones were jumping off the hooks at the Oliver North Legal Assistance Fund. Since his testimony began, said Mark C. Treanor, an Annapolis classmate and trustee of the fund, there have been “scores and scores, probably hundreds of phone calls asking where people can send contributions.”
Still, in Congress, where the Iran-contra scandal has been a preoccupation ever since it began to leak out last November, there were divergent opinions about the gung-ho Marine who took the Fifth Amendment and declined to talk until Tuesday, when he began telling his story with the protection of congressionally granted limited immunity.
Among the Democratic party elders outside the hearing room, there were suggestions that the panel was not addressing itself to the really over-arching issues that have made the affair the White House’s most difficult problem of President Reagan’s second term.
Instead of picking at minutiae, said House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), “they should try to find out how and why and who authorized (policies) that violate the law by selling arms to Iran. There are very alarming questions, and are far more important than evidence that suggests someone should go to jail.”
As for North, Foley said, the colonel “may be an appealing personality to some people,” but he was nevertheless behind “an operation of widespread deceit.”
Reacts With Patience
Accusations of deceit leveled at North repeatedly in his two days on the witness stand as often as not evoked from him a reaction of seeming bemusement or long-suffering patience with civilians who grasp little of the necessity or elegant complexity of covert operations.
But when Nields turned to questions of financial honesty, North turned darkly serious.
He not only insisted upon his honesty, he went out of his way to denounce insinuations that there had been “hanky-panky” with Fawn Hall, his beautiful secretary who helped him shred documents as the secrecy around the Iran-contra operation collapsed.
And he suggested for the first time that he considers himself something of a martyr.
In light of his experience under assassination threat, he entered a personal plea for better government protection of its agents in similar circumstances.
“If there is a law that prevents the protection of American government employees and their families from people like Abu Nidal, then, gentlemen, please fix it,” he said, “because this kid won’t be around much longer, as I’m sure you know.”
Times staff writers David Lauter and Josh Getlin contributed to this story.