Denies Action Is ‘Backdoor Way to Block a Trial’ : Reagan Defends Ban on North Evidence
President Reagan on Thursday defended his decision to prevent release of documents for the trial of retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North on Iran-Contra charges, saying that “duty requires we block” disclosure of the “national security secrets.”
Also, Reagan, who answered reporters’ questions before a meeting on trade issues, repeated his vow not to pardon national security aide North and John M. Poindexter, former national security adviser, saying that would leave them “under a shadow of guilt for the rest of their lives.”
North’s trial may begin in late January. The other defendants, Poindexter and arms dealers Albert A. Hakim and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, would face trial later.
Requested by North
The issues involving pardons and the trials were raised after White House officials, citing national security concerns, said Wednesday night that the Administration will refuse to release thousands of documents that North wants to use for his defense in his conspiracy trial stemming from the Iran-Contra arms scandal.
The decision was made months ago but has taken on new importance in the last week as the White House and the federal judge in North’s case seemed to try to make each other responsible for whether the trial proceeds.
U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell said during a hearing last week that if certain testimony is perceived as a threat to “the foreign policy obligations which the President has of the intelligence needs of the country,” then the Constitution provides “various courses of action he may take.”
While the judge’s comments were widely interpreted as leaving the door open for Reagan to halt North’s trial on national security grounds, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Thursday: “The judge makes the determination as to whether it proceeds.”
Prosecutors in the case have accused North of trying to gum up the court machinery with requests for 40,000 pages of documents that he says he needs for his defense. Prosecutors contend that some counts in the former National Security Council aide’s case could be dismissed amid fears that national security secrets would be divulged. Many of the documents reportedly are unrelated to the Iran-Contra scandal.
In the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, millions of dollars in profits were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras. The charges facing North include conspiracy to defraud the government, theft of government property and obstruction of a presidential investigation of the Iran-Contra case.
In his comments to reporters, Reagan denied that withholding the documents is “a backdoor way to block a trial.”
Knew From Start
“No,” the President said, “this is something that from the very beginning, we knew we would have to do.”
Asked if he would be upset if his refusal to release the documents prevented North from going to trial, Reagan said: “The law must take its course.
“The things we’re blocking are the things that duty requires we block. These are things that are national security secrets,” Reagan said.
It is believed that the categories of information being withheld involve some that have been disclosed in media reports but which the government does not want to acknowledge, including intelligence methods and U.S. covert actions.
In his daily briefing, Fitzwater went to great lengths to defend the refusal, saying that “state secrets of the highest order” are at issue. Disclosure of them, Fitzwater said, “would gravely damage national security.”
The irrevocable decision to withhold the information was “unanimous,” Fitzwater said, made last July by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, CIA Director William H. Webster, National Security Adviser Colin L. Powell and Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, then-director of the National Security Agency.
Reagan played no part in making the decision, Fitzwater said.
The White House, in withholding the information under the Classified Procedures Act, is putting the eight-year-old law to its most rigorous test. Fitzwater said that while Gesell could order some of the material provided to North, “the government has the final judgment.”
He said that the Administration advised independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh last July that the classified information North wanted “could never be publicly disclosed.”
Walsh did not object and indicated that the case could go forward without the secret information, Fitzwater said.