Oliver L. North and two of his superiors at the National Security Council denied repeatedly to members of Congress in 1985 and 1986 that the White House was enlisting outside military aid for Nicaragua's rebels, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee testified Wednesday.
The official, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), was called by prosecutors as their first witness at North's trial to support charges that North, while a White House aide, sought to mislead Congress and obstruct congressional inquiries into U.S. policy on the Nicaraguan Contras.
Those charges form the core of 12 felony counts on which the retired Marine lieutenant colonel is being tried in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Hamilton said that North denied press reports that he was aiding the Contras during an August, 1986, meeting with members of the Intelligence Committee in the supersecret Situation Room in the basement of the White House.
Earlier, the committee had received similar denials in writing from Robert C. McFarlane, who was former President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser in 1985, and, several months later, from McFarlane's successor, John M. Poindexter.
McFarlane pleaded guilty last year to four misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress and is scheduled to testify against North. Poindexter is under indictment in the Iran-Contra case and is to be tried separately after North's trial.
Hamilton said that his panel began making official inquiries in 1985 in the wake of "a flood of press reports alleging that North was involved in assisting the Contras by raising money and providing military advice."
Hamilton said that he wrote to McFarlane about the reports and McFarlane replied that he "took the charges seriously" because Congress had prohibited the Reagan Administration from funding, directly or indirectly, any further military operations by the rebel forces.
The ban was in legislation written by Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) and was commonly called the Boland Amendment.
McFarlane's reply, introduced into the court record, flatly denied the press reports, adding that "at no time did I or any member of the National Security Council staff violate the letter or the spirit of the law."
In reply to a set of follow-up questions from the committee, McFarlane sent a second response which added that the NSC had not provided any assistance to the Contras "directly or indirectly," Hamilton testified.
"Do you know who wrote those responses?" John W. Keker, the associate independent prosecutor, asked.
"I do not," Hamilton replied.
Keker, in his opening statement to the jury Tuesday, said McFarlane will testify that North drafted the letters for him.
Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh has charged that, despite the denials, North and others were helping to raise money for Contra military operations from wealthy U.S. citizens and from friendly foreign governments.
Hamilton rejected suggestions by North's attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., that congressmen could not be trusted with secret information about covert operations abroad.
Hamilton said that, by law, the President must notify both the House and Senate Intelligence committees of such operations in a timely fashion. He added that "we cannot fulfill our responsibilities unless we have accurate information from the executive branch."
When the committee later met face to face with North to ask the same questions, "Col. North insisted he had not violated the Boland Amendment, that he was not assisting the Contras by raising money, that he had not provided any military advice to the Contras," Hamilton said of the 1986 meeting in the White House Situation Room.
"I relied on what Col. North told me at the meeting," he said.
It was not until three months later--November, 1986--that Reagan went on national television to disclose the first details of the scandal, in which proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran were secretly diverted to aid the Contras.