North Trial Recessed in Dispute Over Censored U.S. Document

Times Staff Writer

The trial of former White House aide Oliver L. North was abruptly recessed Monday when a dispute developed over censored parts of a government document on Nicaragua.

U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, calling the conflict a “roadblock” to continued testimony by Robert W. Owen, a former private courier for North, excused jurors in mid-afternoon but told them to return this morning.

The differences arose when defense attorney Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. wanted to identify an official whose identity the government sought to keep secret. Court officials declined to be specific but said the problem was resolved in Sullivan’s favor at a closed hearing late Monday.

The dispute was the first serious problem over use of classified information since jurors were sworn in last Tuesday. Before then, eleventh-hour arguments about Gesell’s ground rules for handling secret matters had delayed the trial for two weeks after jurors were chosen.


Threat to Drop Charges

Gesell has expressed determination to avoid “a cuckoo-clock trial,” in which government security experts continually object to disclosure of information, requiring jurors to leave the courtroom during legal arguments. He has threatened to dismiss the case or drop certain charges against North if such interruptions prove frequent.

The clash developed shortly after Owen, 35, in his second day as a witness, testified that North had once spoken of himself as “the fall guy” if the Nicaraguan Contra resupply mission ever failed. Under cross-examination by Sullivan, Owen said North made the remark in late 1984, when Owen, as a private citizen, first volunteered to help raise private money to resupply the Contras at a time when Congress had banned all U.S. military aid for them.

North, then a Marine lieutenant colonel and staff assistant assigned to the National Security Council, “told me he would be the point man to keep the Nicaraguan resistance alive,” Owen testified. “But if things went wrong, he said he would be the fall guy, that he would have to take the blame.”


Insistence on Secrecy

Owen, called as a prosecution witness, said Friday that North insisted the resupply efforts be kept confidential and that North told him in 1986 that he had misled a congressional committee about his secret help for the Contras.

North is being tried on 12 felony counts growing out of the Iran-Contra scandal, the most serious charges being alleged false statements and obstruction of a congressional investigation. Two major charges against him--conspiracy to defraud the United States and theft of government property--were dismissed last month when Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh certified that secret government documents needed for North’s trial on those charges could not be released on national security grounds.

The latest trial interruption occurred when Sullivan began questioning Owen about an August, 1985, report he had furnished to North on Owen’s trip to Costa Rica to inspect sites to build airstrips to help supply the Contras. Names of a CIA official and a Costa Rican official had been deleted from the report by government security analysts.

Sullivan requested a closed hearing to argue that at least one official’s identity should be revealed to jurors, court sources said. Although Gesell agreed to Sullivan’s request, one source who demanded anonymity said he expected the attorney to keep raising similar challenges with other documents in the days ahead.