Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan's former national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to four misdemeanor criminal charges in the Iran-Contra scandal and agreed to cooperate with the independent counsel's continuing investigation of the affair.
Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh said McFarlane's plea, which could result in a sentence of up to four years in prison and $400,000 in fines, "greatly facilitates" the investigation, which is expected to result in broad conspiracy charges against several others this month.
McFarlane, 50, admitted four instances of withholding material information from congressional committees investigating secret support for the Nicaraguan rebels. He became the first former high-level Administration official to be prosecuted in the foreign policy scandal, which erupted in the fall of 1986.
Witness Against Others
Besides giving Walsh's effort the symbolic lift of a key insider's admission of guilt, the plea bargain means that prosecutors now have an important witness to testify against defendants who are expected to be charged with conspiracy to defraud the government and possibly obstruction of justice.
The plea bargain strategy follows that used by prosecutors in the Watergate scandal. In that historic inquiry, prosecutors obtained guilty pleas and cooperation from such former White House officials as counsel John W. Dean III and special assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder in building their larger conspiracy case against top government officials.
McFarlane's cooperation, which will be elicited before he is sentenced by chief U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., could pose particular legal problems for two Reagan Administrati1869488239with--John M. Poindexter, who succeeded him as national security adviser, and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the fired National Security Council aide who coordinated the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the Contras.
'Shredding Party' Plans
McFarlane is expected to testify about his knowledge of plans for "a shredding party" to destroy potentially incriminating documents as the affair began to unravel and about the drafting of misleading chronologies to present to Congress on the arms-for-hostages operation.
In last summer's congressional hearings on the scandal, McFarlane testified that North told him of the shredding plans and McFarlane described the doctoring of the chronologies.
Other Testimony Uncertain
It is not known whether McFarlane will provide testimony touching on any roles played by two others with whom he worked closely: Reagan and Vice President George Bush.
Entering his plea in a jammed courtroom, with his lawyer, Leonard Garment, at his side, McFarlane admitted that on four separate occasions in 1985 and 1986 he willfully and knowingly "did refuse and fail to answer fully and completely" questions from three congressional committees on support the Nicaraguan rebels were receiving.
On Sept. 5, 1985, the criminal information filed by Walsh stated, McFarlane told the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in a letter that "I can state with deep personal conviction that at no time did I or any member of the National Security Council staff violate the letter or the spirit of the law" banning military aid to the Contras.
Actually, Walsh charged and McFarlane admitted, he "knew and believed" at the time that an NSC staff member had violated the ban--known as the Boland amendment after its author, Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.)--by soliciting support for paramilitary and military activities of the Contras and offering them military advice. The charge did not identify the staff member, although sources said it was North.
A week later, McFarlane wrote the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs that none of the NSC staff "has solicited funds, facilitated contacts for prospective potential donors, or otherwise organized or coordinated the military or paramilitary efforts of the resistance."
At the time, McFarlane admitted in his guilty plea, he "knew or had reason to believe" that an NSC staff member had violated the Boland amendment by providing "support for military and paramilitary activities in Nicaragua." North was the unnamed staff member, sources familiar with the investigation said.
Denial of North Influence
On Oct. 7, 1985, McFarlane, responding to questions from the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said that "North did not use his influence to facilitate the movement of supplies to the resistance."
He also wrote that "there is no official or unofficial relationship with any member of the NSC staff regarding fund raising for the Nicaraguan democratic opposition," adding that "this includes the alleged relationship with (retired Maj.) Gen. (John K.) Singlaub," a well-known private fund-raiser.
McFarlane admitted in pleading guilty that he "knew and believed that Lt. Col. North had used his influence to facilitate the movement of certain supplies to the Contras . . . that a member of the NSC staff had had contact with Singlaub on raising funds for the Contras . . . (and) that the Contras had received millions of dollars from a third country." Sources identified the staff member as North and the country as Saudi Arabia.
Comment on Third Country
The fourth count dealt with McFarlane's Dec. 8, 1986, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee when he was asked about press reports of citizens of a third country being involved indirectly in financing the Contras. "I have seen the reports and I have heard that the (nationals of a third country) have contributed," McFarlane testified. "The concrete character of that is beyond my ken."
But McFarlane admitted Friday that he had known since 1984 that those people had expressed willingness to contribute millions of dollars to the Nicaraguan rebels, that he had provided a representative of that country with a Contra-controlled bank account number and that millions of dollars were contributed. The third country was identified by knowledgeable sources as Saudi Arabia.
On the stairs of the federal courthouse after entering his plea, McFarlane said that in withholding information from Congress "my actions were motivated by what I believed to be in the foreign policy interest of the United States."
'Fundamental Issue' to Him
McFarlane said what he regards as "the fundamental issue here--why congressional-executive relations broke down so tragically--has not been and apparently cannot be addressed in the Congress or the courts."
The question must be explored in depth, McFarlane said, "if the United States--meaning both the President and the Congress--is to shoulder its global leadership responsibilities in the years ahead."
Walsh told reporters outside the courthouse that he could have sought felony perjury charges with greater penalties but chose not to do so because McFarlane had shown remorse, even attempting suicide in February, 1987, and had tried to set the record straight.
Judge Robinson, in questioning McFarlane to ascertain that his plea was voluntary and that no promises about sentencing or other matters had been extended to him, noted that he can fine McFarlane up to $100,000 on each of the four counts using a sentencing enhancement provision passed by Congress in 1986.
Third to Plead Guilty
McFarlane is the third person to plead guilty in Walsh's 15-month investigation.
Last year, conservative fund-raiser Carl R. (Spitz) Channell and an associate, Richard R. Miller, pleaded guilty to charges of defrauding the government by improperly soliciting tax-deductible contributions for the Contras. They promised to cooperate with Walsh and have not yet been sentenced.