THE SHREDDER : Oliver North’s Was Fast and Effective, With a Name Right Out of James Bond. But Among High-Tech Mulchers, It Wasn’t a Cut Above.

Times Staff Writers

It’s a high-speed shredder, Lt. Col. Oliver North told his congressional inquisitors, and it eats ‘em pretty quick.

By quick, he meant that in one second it chews one sheet of paper into 10,000 pieces of confetti.

By shredder, he meant the Datatech Intimus, a popular model within Washington’s intelligence community. So popular, in fact, that its manufacturer calls it the 007. James Bond, on the other hand, was never called before Congress.


Yet despite its glamorous code number and $7,500 price tag, North’s 007 isn’t the suave, state-of-the-art machine one might expect. It is a stock, middle-of-the-line model restricted to 12 sheets of standard paper per swallow. Said one former intelligence operative: “Its biggest problem is a tendency to eat your tie.”

Currently, North’s shredder (built like a Marine Corps reject at four-feet tall and 350 pounds) resides behind the heavily secured doors of the National Security Council. A few offices away is Dana Rohrabacher, a White House speech writer. Rohrabacher does not rate a shredder. He has a burn bag. “I receive the President’s schedule about two weeks in advance; it is updated every two days and so the old schedule goes into the bag for burning,” said Rohrabacher. “He (North) could have borrowed my burn bag any time.”

North’s shredder is neither the fastest nor the most expensive in the document demolition business. It doesn’t do notebooks or microfilm. But it does do the job. You can buy an Intimus 007 (that’s German for “intimate friend, a buddy”) through a few of the mass of shredder distributors listed in the the Yellow Pages--from, say, Pacific Paper Cutter Co. near downtown Los Angeles.

In truth, the sophisticated, once secretive shredder is now as commonplace in modern business as computers and answering machines.

Today’s shredders come in designer colors with lacquered cranes, lotus blossoms and fish. One, in recognition of the machine’s most notorious hour, is called the Watergate 500. There’s the Destroyit and the Piranha and even a shredder disguised as a molded wastepaper basket.

Last year alone, according to Larry Schroyer of the General Services Administration, the federal government spent $4.3 million on shredders. In 1986, said Ray Alegrezza, editor of Office World News, American businesses bought shredders worth “between $80 million and $100 million.”

The Intimus 007 is distributed by Datatech Corp. of West Conshohocken, Pa. For $4,000 more, you can get a version that chops microfilm, and a competing company makes one that actually functions like a big Waring blender. And, at $25,000, there’s the ultimate Intimus--tough enough to gulp down a 3-inch-thick loose-leaf binder. Or a 2x4.

“We are the largest suppliers of shredders to the United States government,” said Vince Del Vechio, a co-owner of Whitaker Bros., an office equipment firm in Rockville, Md. “The Intimus in North’s office is one of several we supplied the White House in 1985. The Shredmaster 400 that (J. Gordon) Liddy used during Watergate was sold by us, and we have that machine in our demonstration room.

“One of our shredders was on board the (aircraft carrier) Nimitz . . . during the (John and Michael) Walker spy case . . . and in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis.”

Most of these machines, Del Vechio added, are “high security” shredders, designed to meet rigid Department of Defense specifications. Unlike faster (but less refined) “straight cut” shredders that reduce documents to strips that can be restored, the North shredder is a crosscutter.

“It slices down, then cuts across until each piece is 1/35th of an inch by 3/8ths or about the size of one side of a staple closed in a sheet of paper,” he said. “They (Iranians) did piece together documents from papers that went through a straight-cut shredder.

“They went through hundreds of thousands of strips in many, many bags, just like jigsaw puzzles. But it took them a long time. They (documents) didn’t start appearing in public until a year after the hostages were captured.

“It would take you 10 years to reconstruct one page from a crosscut shredder, and if multiple pages had been shredded, it’s impossible.”

The shredder business, in the view of most industry observers, went mainstream with the revelations of Watergate. It has been increasing considerably ever since and the latest visibility is a thrill for government suppliers.

Datatech, said spokesman Steve Ogden, considers North’s secretary Fawn Hall “to be our poster girl.” Another supplier is ready to drop the traditional reticence surrounding government contracts and is planning a quiet publicity drive about his shredder sales.

And there are improvements to report.

“A lot of shredders can now destroy computer diskettes and the ribbon cassettes on computer printers, as well as paper,” Alegrezza said. “You can erase a diskette but the data can still be accessible to a real computer pro.”

Hundreds of models of shredders are now available, ranging from $100 “hand-crankers,” to moderately sophisticated $2,000 crosscutters that will eat two to four sheets of paper in two to four seconds, to the $25,000 Datatech model, said to be the highest-priced paper-shredder on the market.

Such equipment is routinely used by a large variety of businesses: police departments, welfare offices, hospitals, insurance firms, law offices, aerospace companies, physicians’ offices, accounting firms . . . virtually any organization that wants to be sure its internal affairs remain internal.

“It would be easier to tell you who doesn’t use a shredder today than who does,” said Wally Wagner of MBM Corp. of Maspeth, N.Y., a leading manufacturer.

“They (shredders) were first developed in Europe and got started here about the time of World War II,” said S. M. Alsynick of General Binding Corp., in Northbrook, Ill. “The government uses a great many of them because of the security aspect and because they’re great paper reducers. Shredders reduce the bulk of paper by about 60%.”

Despite the seriousness of the contra hearings, the subject of North’s machine (“not quite the smoking gun . . . more like a steaming shredder,” said one Washington pundit) has stirred much lightness among users and sellers.

Said Del Vechio: “In addition to the 007, Datatech has a 004 shredder and a 006 that will shred microfilm to dust. But no 005. They must have lost an agent somewhere between Sean Connery and Roger Moore.”