North Says He Was Ready to Be Reagan’s Scapegoat : Puts Blame on Casey for Cover-Up
Fired White House aide Oliver L. North today said he had been fully prepared to be a scapegoat for President Reagan over the Iran- contra scandal and described how he and other Administration officials worked to shield Reagan from political damage as the affair unraveled last fall.
North, under intense cross-examination in his third day in the witness chair at congressional hearings, said he took direction from then-CIA Director William J. Casey, misled Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and conferred with then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, as he struggled to contain the damage.
“It is entirely likely that I was shredding documents right up until the morning of the 25th” of last November, the day he was fired, North said.
The Marine officer said that he removed his personal notebooks and hundreds of pages of other records from his National Security Council office and took them to his home in an effort to protect himself.
“After the press conference,” he said, referring to the announcement of his firing, “my perspective changed, and it was one of protecting myself.”
But the 43-year-old Marine lieutenant colonel, testifying in his military uniform with six rows of medals, said his intention was merely to shield his commander in chief from domestic political damage.
“I never imagined that we had done anything illegal,” in his actions at the NSC staff, he said.
North said that Casey knew all along of the diversion of Iranian arms sales proceeds to the contras. But he said he concealed that fact when Meese questioned him last Nov. 23.
Deception ‘Part of Plan’
Meese was conducting an inquiry at the time, but North said the deception was “part of the plan” to keep the affair hidden.
North also said he assured Poindexter--wrongly as it turned out--that he had destroyed all memos in his files relating to the diversion.
And he described how Casey told him last fall that the time had come to begin destroying documents relating to the covert activity, and then for someone to step forward and take the fall.
“He was concerned that the President not be damaged by it and I shared” that view, North said.
Casey worried aloud that someone senior in rank to North might have to become the scapegoat and suggested Poindexter for the role, North recalled.
The testimony marked a sharp turn in the nationally televised session from a crowded Senate hearing room.
North began the day by turning on his pursuers, criticizing the Iran-contra hearings as unfair and damaging to the national interest. He said Congress must shoulder the blame for a “fickle, vacillating, unpredictable” policy toward the Nicaraguan rebels.
“Of one thing I am certain, that you will not investigate yourself in this matter,” he said to more than two dozen members of Congress arrayed before him, each one waiting a turn to ask questions.
Despite the allegation, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Senate investigating committee, said the nationally televised hearings are “neither pro-contra nor anti-contra.” Instead, he said, they are focusing on “a flawed policy-making process. . . . I would hope that in our questioning and in our responses we would keep that in mind,” he said.
Ready to Be Scapegoat
In the crowded Senate Caucus Room, North told his afternoon questioner, Senate counsel Arthur Liman, that he had been fully prepared to be a political scapegoat if the covert Iran-contra operation came unraveled--but not the fall guy for a criminal investigation.
The cross-examination got off to a contentious start as North’s attorney, Brendan Sullivan, demanded that Liman “get off his (North’s) back” and cease questioning him about the notes to which he was referring to frame his answers.
Sullivan’s multiple objections were swiftly gaveled down by Inouye. “We have a public address system here and there is no need to shout,” the Hawaii Democrat admonished him.
Just a Staff Officer
Reading his lengthy prepared opening statement in advance of what was expected to be a withering cross-examination, North portrayed himself as a simple staff officer during six years on the National Security Council staff.
“I did not engage in fantasy that I was the President or vice president or Cabinet member or even the director of the National Security Council,” he said.
North is testifying under a congressional grant of limited immunity. His wife, Betsy, sat behind him as he read the statement that was written to be delivered before his opening day of testimony on Tuesday. The investigating committees ordered him to wait the 48 hours required under the rules before going ahead.
In a moment of drama shortly before the committees took their customary two-hour lunch break, North swore he was telling the truth, even when he was confronted with a compendium of his previously acknowledged lies and deceptions. He was asked by House Republican counsel George Van Cleve how investigators could know he was not now “lying to protect your commander in chief"--President Reagan.
“I am not lying to protect anybody, counsel. I came here to tell the truth. . . . Some of it has been ugly for me,” came back the reply.
In other testimony, North said:
--He has great admiration for Amiram Nir, an Israeli official who accompanied him to Tehran in a secret 1986 negotiating session. “If he was fired because of my testimony I regret it,” North said of Nir, who reportedly has been stripped of his authority as terrorism adviser.
--He knew Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian-born arms broker who was a key middleman in secret arms sales, to be a “duplicitous sneak.” North said he believed he was an agent of the Israeli government, who lied both to the Americans and to the Iranians in arms-for-hostages negotiations.
--Does not know whether Michael Ledeen, a former government consultant, profited from his role in arranging the secret arms sales to Iran. But North said that printed reports saying he accused Ledeen of making money are untrue.
--That as he testified on Wednesday, he stonewalled earlier congressional investigators seeking details of the Iran-contra affair because “many, many lives were at stake.”
--Described his role in helping to apprehend some of the terrorists to seized the Italian luxury liner, the Achille Lauro, in the summer of 1985.