Bush Excused as North Trial Opens Today

Times Staff Writer

On the eve of Oliver L. North’s trial in the Iran-Contra scandal, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell on Monday excused President Bush from testifying but ordered former President Ronald Reagan to be available as a potential witness and said that parts of his personal diary might be examined.

Gesell’s ruling capped months of legal wrangling over classified documents and subpoenas for high-ranking officials. It set the stage for a trial beginning this morning that finally will submit to judicial fact-finding many of the allegations that have swirled around the former White House aide, whose 1987 appearance before a congressional committee set off a wave of “Olliemania” around the country.

Main Charges Dropped

North is charged with attempting to cover up his “secret war” in Nicaragua by shredding documents and with misleading Congress and members of a presidential board of inquiry. Because the principal charges of conspiracy and theft against him were dismissed earlier this month out of concern for national security, the trial is not expected to produce major revelations about the scandal.


But if North chooses to take the stand and is given wide latitude by the judge to explain his actions, he may reveal details about covert operations abroad that occurred during his tenure as a National Security Council official, legal sources said.

The trial may last four to five months, with jury selection taking up to two weeks. This process may be more difficult and lengthy than usual because prosecution of the boyish-looking retired Marine lieutenant colonel has stirred deep emotions across the country.

Beginning this morning, Gesell plans to question prospective jurors about how much they have read and seen in the media about North, and whether--if they have formed opinions about his conduct--they could lay these thoughts aside in favor of what they hear in the courtroom. Aside from this issue, many potential jurors are expected to cite personal hardships in asking to be excused from serving in such a long trial.

To prove the charges of cover-up and misleading Congress, prosecutors plan to call dozens of high-ranking officials including former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and others. North is seeking to call, among others, some NSC colleagues and at least two members of Congress who investigated his activities.

He is expected to contend that he had reason to believe his activities were authorized by then-President Reagan and other high officials. Some defense witnesses will be called solely to attest to his character and integrity, legal sources said.

Hearing on Reagan

Gesell, in his ruling Monday, excused Bush on grounds that there has been “no showing (by North) that President Bush has any specific information relevant and material to the charges.” The judge said that Reagan, however, “shall remain subject to call” by North’s lawyers but will not be ordered to appear until a hearing on the relevance of testimony he might give.

Quashing defense subpoenas for documents in the possession of Bush and Reagan, Gesell said that he would consider ordering Reagan to produce some of his diaries only if North’s lawyers could show some bearing “in light of the limited precise counts that still remain in the case.”

Yale Kamisar, a criminal law expert at the University of Michigan Law School, said North’s trial will be “good for the country in demonstrating that no one is above the law--even someone who has held a high government position.”

Kamisar added in an interview that in spite of the substantial information about the Iran-Contra scandal produced by the 1987 congressional hearings, “trials present a more authoritative and credible version of events.”

“There is a tendency among members of the public to take sides without knowing the facts. North’s trial should help resolve the gossip and rumors about what he did or did not do,” Kamisar said.

Hailed by Reagan as “a national hero,” the 45-year-old North soared in popularity when he appeared on national television in his bemedaled uniform before a joint Senate-House committee in the summer of 1987 to defend his activities.

While some viewed his actions in diverting Iranian arms-sale profits to the Nicaraguan rebels as arrogant and beyond the law, much of the public saw him as a patriot or as a “fall guy” for the Reagan Administration--someone who had put love of country above personal concerns.

A North Defense Fund organized by friends and headquartered in Virginia reportedly has raised most, if not all, of his legal expenses--currently estimated at $2 million to $3 million--and North has commanded fees of $25,000 per appearance for speaking to mostly conservative organizations.

Grant of Immunity

Testifying to Congress with a grant of immunity from prosecution for what he might say, North forthrightly declared that “I think it was a neat idea” to give Iranian money to the Contras in 1985 and 1986, even though such government aid had been prohibited by Congress.

Originally indicted last March for conspiracy to defraud the government and theft of government property--a case based on evidence that was independent of his Capitol Hill testimony--North saw his indictment pared down earlier this month when Gesell dismissed those two main charges.

Gesell acted after independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh accepted the determination of Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh that important government documents needed to support those charges could not be produced in open court without compromising national security interests.

What remains for North’s trial are the 12 lesser counts.

Among them are accusations that North improperly accepted the gift of a $13,000 security fence for his house and converted job-related traveler’s checks to his personal use. Although jurors may decide that the remaining charges are minimal when compared to allegedly diverting $14 million to the Contras, these counts nonetheless carry a maximum punishment, upon conviction, of 65 years in prison and fines of more than $2 million.

William Schneider, a political analyst for The Times, said that opinion samplings over the last year show that North’s public support has diminished.

“The drama of the congressional hearings has gone, and people are having second and third thoughts about what he did,” Schneider said.

“Most people think he probably did something wrong but that he should not be pardoned in advance. They think everything that happened should be put out in the open but that North should not be made to pay a heavy criminal penalty. They view North as a good soldier, someone who has taken responsibility for the policy-makers above him.”

A prominent attorney who once served as a special prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that--because of a vast expenditure of public funds on the case--the government “will bear a very heavy burden to obtain a conviction.”

“At the same time,” he said, “perhaps by trying to prove too much, the prosecutors will invite further protests over ‘Why is North being singled out?’ And if North is acquitted, will the other trials ever go forward? Probably not.”

He was referring to Gesell’s decision that, after North, separate trials should follow for three co-defendants: former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, who was North’s superior; retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, North’s logistical expert, and Albert A. Hakim, an Iranian-born businessman who assisted Secord.