Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was being grilled about the price of TOW anti-tank missiles that the United States had sold Iran. Midway through a long response, he was admonished just to answer the question.
That was too much for North's lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr.
Cutting the question short, Sullivan protested to Senate investigating committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) that "we're being subjected to a stall job." He declared that "rambling questions" were resulting in an "inability to finish the subject matter and proceed," extending North's appearance and preventing him from giving complete explanations.
Objections Cause Delays
For spectators in the Senate Caucus Room and the nationwide television audience watching North testify about the Iran- contra affair, it was just one more interruption to be endured.
For Sullivan, however, it was a deliberate step in a calculated effort to maintain a confrontational style of "protecting the client at any cost." His approach, which has left some spectators uncomfortable and angered many congressmen, has nevertheless proven to be extremely effective in this instance and several others.
Although Inouye noted tartly that Sullivan had caused a significant delay himself with his four-minute protest, the tactic had the effect of gaining North more leeway to explain his conduct without so many rapid-fire questions--exactly the goal of every defense attorney.
During a recess outside the hearing room, Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice chairman of the House panel, said with grudging admiration: "If I were in North's shoes, I would want Sullivan as my lawyer."
Sullivan, 45, is one of Washington's best-known lawyers on the rise, a senior partner in the prestigious firm of Williams & Connolly, headed by famed criminal trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. Some say that Sullivan, who has a reputation as a "workaholic," is Williams' heir apparent.
Sullivan's owlish, mild-mannered appearance belies a combative nature that friends and associates say rivals that of the decorated Marine officer and former National Security Council aide whom he represents. Like his star client, Sullivan is a Vietnam veteran.
'A Cold, Prickly Type'
"He asks no quarter and he gives none," said Plato Cacheris, another lawyer who is representing Fawn Hall, North's former secretary. Sullivan is "a pure attorney," one who concentrates on the law and his clients rather than polishing a public image, Cacheris added.
"He's a cold, prickly type," another lawyer said of Sullivan. "He's capable of being warm and friendly when it suits his purpose, but an inch below the surface is solid steel."
Sullivan's confrontational style--he pounds the witness table himself on occasion--seemed to surprise and irritate many members of the investigating committees. They had been spared his type of legal guerrilla warfare, which is common practice in most courts of law.
In one particularly heated exchange, Sullivan objected to Inouye and asked: "Could Counsel please permit the witness to finish his answer and not to interrupt him in mid-answer?"
When Inouye responded that the interrogator, House committee counsel John W. Nields Jr., "may decide the pace," Sullivan said angrily: "I believe you are making the rulings here. I make the objections, you make the rulings. Please don't permit him (Nields) to make the rulings."
At another point on Wednesday, Sullivan snapped at Nields as he was interrogating North about two letters that North had fabricated to conceal the fact that a $16,000 security system had been installed at his home with arms-sale profits.
Plea to Chairman
"Mr. Chairman, Col. North has frankly admitted what he did here," Sullivan said. "I must believe that the United States Congress has better things to do than focus on two phony letters after the witness has admitted that they're phony. Could we please move on to another subject?"
"We will proceed in the fashion we wish to," replied Inouye, who admonished Sullivan at another point that his job was to advise North, not the committee.
Sullivan's performance came as no surprise to many associates, who describe him as "brilliant" and "tenaciously innovative."
They cite as an example a lawsuit he filed earlier this year on behalf of North, which he has since renewed, challenging the constitutional authority of Lawrence E. Walsh, the court-appointed counsel investigating the Iran-contra affair. There has yet been no final court ruling on it.
His legal acumen was recognized early by Williams, who hired him after his work as an Army defense lawyer in a controversial California court-martial.
That 1969 case stemmed from the death of a young private who was shot at the Presidio Army stockade in San Francisco while running away from a work detail. Three days later, 24 soldiers staged a sit-down strike and sang "We Shall Overcome" and "America the Beautiful" in what some Army officials viewed as an anti-war protest. The demonstrators were accused of mutiny.
Transfer Orders Blocked
Sullivan, a captain in the Army Transportation Corps, volunteered to defend two of the men, but his courtroom tactics so annoyed his Army superiors that he was ordered to return to Vietnam for the last six months of his tour. The secretary of the Army, under pressure from some members of Congress, personally blocked that order when the case received national publicity.
Despite his innovative tactics, Sullivan is known as a "by-the-book" lawyer who refuses to be interviewed about his career or his clients and most often does not return reporters' phone calls. "All of our responses will be in court," he recently told a reporter who sought his reaction to a court filing by Walsh.