Judge Scores North, Limits Use of Secrets for Defense
A federal judge Monday excoriated Oliver L. North and his attorneys as trying to “frustrate the prosecution” in the Iran arms scandal and ordered that North can have less than one-tenth of the classified government documents he is seeking for his defense.
U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, declaring that the former National Security Council aide has demanded an abundance of secret documents merely to cause confusion and delay, imposed a deadline of next Jan. 3 for defense lawyers to cut their request for 3,500 documents to 300, roughly the same number to be used by the prosecution.
Gesell said his order is aimed at resolving disputes over secret documents to be used in the case so that all parties can move closer to trial. The judge has been conducting a series of closed conferences at which lawyers for both sides have argued about how still-secret matters may be handled openly at a trial.
‘Delay and Uncertainty’
In a memorandum, Gesell complained that North “seeks disclosure of masses of classified material which under no conceivable version of a defense could have any utility whatsoever.”
“The effect of this tactic on the efficient and reasonably expeditious pretrial proceedings is immense,” the judge said. “Confusion, delay and uncertainty result, and the court’s control of proceedings is undermined.”
Stressing his impatience with North personally and with his lawyers, Gesell declared that “this obdurate, purposeful obfuscation (has) brought matters to the breaking point.”
Early next year, after North’s lawyers submit their more limited request for documents, the judge said, he will conduct additional closed hearings so that they might outline the “relevancy and materiality of each item.” The judge emphasized that “generalities will not be accepted.”
To prepare for trial, North and his lawyers have been permitted to look through more than 300,000 uncensored pages of sensitive records housed in a special office.
Attorneys’ Silence Ordered
There was no immediate public reaction from Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North’s chief lawyer, or from independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who is leading the prosecution, because attorneys in the case have been forbidden to make out-of-court statements.
The dispute over sensitive documents has become a key matter in the case. If the Reagan Administration refuses to clear secret papers that Gesell deems necessary for a public trial, the judge might be forced to dismiss the conspiracy and fraud charges against North. This has been referred to by some lawyers as “a back-door pardon” for North.
Gesell, referring to classified documents demanded by North that appear to be extraneous, said: “This trial does not concern the reaction of various Central American countries to congressional legislation, the life history of a potential defector, the precise distribution of Sandinista forces at a particular time among various villages.
“This is a case charging fraud and deceit on the United States, its chief executive and Congress, involving the use of arms profits in a manner allegedly unauthorized by the President. It must remain focused on these issues, rather than be derailed by the myriad unrelated issues (raised by North.)”
Diversion of Profits Charged
North has been accused of “corrupting” Reagan’s arms-for-hostages initiative in 1985 and 1986 by illegally diverting at least $12 million in profits from arms sales to help resupply rebel forces in Nicaragua.
Gesell also issued a series of rulings in response to North’s objections that government documents to be used by Walsh contain too many portions deleted by government security analysts. North has contended that most of these deletions, if fully restored, could help him convince a jury that he had done nothing illegal.
The judge said the names of all U.S. officials and American citizens must be identified, with the notable exception of CIA agents or anyone else working under cover. But deleted names must be identified by general category.
References to Central American countries in the documents must not be deleted, except when a reference pinpoints the precise location of a CIA facility, Gesell said. In that case, a more general reference will be substituted.