Inouye Denies Senate Leaks Led to Losses in Libya : A Fellow Warrior Reprimands a Colonel
In the end, it was a time for one warrior to speak to another--men a generation apart but united, as the older one said, by “the burning sting of bullet and shrapnel and . . . the unforgettable and frightening sounds of incoming shells.”
After six days under the television lights, being alternately denounced and fawned over by political men operating with the gift of hindsight, the beribboned Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was sent on his way with a withering farewell from the chairman of the special Senate investigating committee that crossed the cultural gap between political and military men.
In a final statement at the end of North’s six-day appearance, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) delivered more than a lecture by a congressional leader. It was a reprimand from a comrade-in-arms, one who lost his right arm in World War II and who earned the nation’s second-highest medal for valor when he charged a German machine-gun nest before North was born.
For 20 minutes, North sat unflinching, ramrod straight, his deep-set eyes sinking deeper as Inouye’s doomsday baritone called him to account for suggesting--as North had in earlier testimony--that loose-lipped senators had caused American planes to be shot down in the Libyan air raid. And for forgetting somewhere along the way the requirements of the Naval Academy honor code and the Uniform Code of Military Justice--the requirement to tell the truth and not deceive.
When Inouye started to compare North’s contention that he only followed orders in the Iran- contra scandal to the defense used by Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials, North’s furious attorney interrupted.
“I find this offensive,” Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. shouted at Inouye. “I find you engaging in a personal attack on Colonel North, and you’re far removed from the issues of this case. To make reference to the Nuremberg trials, I find personally and professionally distasteful, and I can no longer sit here and listen to this.”
The senator replied: “You will have to sit there, if you want to listen.” He brushed Sullivan’s continued objection aside and turned back to North.
It was one of many discourses North had heard on patriotism in the last two days of his testimony, but it was the most stinging because it came from the senator who was a war hero in his own right, and who used his prerogative as chairman to say the last word before dismissing North and ending the most-publicized congressional testimony since the Watergate scandal in 1973.
What irked Inouye as much as anything revealed about the Iran-contra affair itself was North’s suggestion earlier Tuesday that two members of the Senate had perhaps been to blame for two Americans being killed in the U.S. air raid on Libya.
North told the committee that after a White House briefing on the operation, “Two members of Congress proceeded immediately to waiting microphones and noted that the President was going to make an address to the nation on Libya.
“While we may have had tactical surprise, strategic surprise was probably sacrificed by the comments made. If I were Moammar Kadafi hearing those words . . . those words alert our adversaries,” North had declared.
Returned to Capitol Hill
Obviously angry, Inouye proceeded to give a lengthy account of the episode, saying neither of the members had proceeded to microphones but had passed up reporters at the White House and had returned instead to Capitol Hill. There, they were intercepted by reporters again.
One senator, according to Inouye, had responded to questions with a simple “No comment” and the other had said: “You should ask the President the question. He might have something to say tonight at 9.”
Inouye then recited a litany of press reports attributed to Administration, not congressional sources, beginning several days before the raid and making it clear that the United States was in the process of deciding to retaliate against Libya for a terrorist bombing in which an American serviceman was killed and others injured in a West Berlin disco.
“I think it is grossly unfair” to suggest, Inouye told North, “that two American lives were lost because one leader said, ‘No comment,’ and another said, ‘I believe you should ask the President. He may have something to say tonight at 9.’ ”
But for all that he found lacking in North and his machinations at the center of the Iran-contra plotting, Inouye conceded that the controversial Marine’s appearance before the committee had in the last week transformed him into something of a national hero.
The senator scarcely could have concluded otherwise. Once the mail began to pour in, Republican members of the committee turned their criticism toward committee attorneys for questioning North too harshly.
On Tuesday morning, in fact, two of them, Reps. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) and Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) criticized Inouye for routinely gaveling North’s attorney into silence, and DeWine used his turn at examination to encourage North to recite every recallable instance of unfair treatment since he became identified as the chief operative in the affair.
To emphasize the point of the spreading public support, North’s wife, Betsy, sat behind him throughout the day, reading silently through a stack of sympathetic telegrams.
“I believe during the past week we have participated in creating and developing very likely a new American hero,” Inouye said, but he warned North: “The burdens of a hero will be difficult and heavy.”
At bottom, Inouye’s clear message was that, in the operation that brought him his notoriety, North had not performed in the same heroic fashion that brought him his six rows of combat ribbons.
Still, said the old officer to the grave, unbowed young one who had skillfully turned the hearings into a platform: “Your presence should make your fellow officers very proud of the way you have presented yourself.”
“And to your lady, I wish her the best. You have a fine lady.”