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Witness Hints of North Link to Reagan

Times Staff Writer

Lt. Col. Oliver L. North told a retired Air Force officer who helped him resupply Nicaragua’s rebels that “someday the President will shake your hand,” the officer told a federal court jury Monday.

Retired Col. Robert C. Dutton said that North made the remark to him in September, 1986, after Dutton had solved tactical problems that prevented the Contras from receiving airdrops of weapons and medical supplies purchased with private donations.

Dutton became the sixth prosecution witness at North’s trial to link the former National Security Council aide with the resupply mission, despite North’s repeated denials of his activities to members of Congress at that time.

The most serious of 12 felony charges against North are that he gave false statements to Congress in 1985 and 1986 in response to questions about his assistance to the Contras and that he obstructed congressional inquiries. During this two-year period, Congress had voted repeatedly to prohibit U.S. military aid to rebel forces fighting the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

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North’s defense is that his superiors in the Ronald Reagan Administration approved his activities but instructed him to conceal them from others, including Congress.

On cross-examination of Dutton, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North’s attorney, elicited testimony that Dutton and two others who had helped North in the Contra resupply mission--retired Air Force officers Richard V. Secord and Richard B. Gadd--all had taken part in a high-risk covert mission authorized by former President Jimmy Carter nine years ago.

That was the unsuccessful secret mission to Tehran to rescue 52 American hostages in the spring of 1980. The mission had to be aborted when Iranians discovered it in its final hours. The hostages were released in January, 1981, after 444 days in captivity.

Oath of Secrecy

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Dutton said that because of an oath of secrecy, he was unable to describe his exact role, but that his military specialty had been “penetrating hostile territory.”

Gadd, like Dutton, previously had testified that he helped North assist the Contras as a tactical expert. Secord is a co-defendant of North’s who will be tried separately later this year.

Dutton said that North, in referring to a possible future handshake from Reagan, said that he intended to show his “top boss” some photos that Dutton had made of successful airdrops to the Contras.

“Whom do you think he was referring to?” Sullivan asked.

“The President,” Dutton replied.

Dutton said that the incident occurred soon after Congress had voted to begin funding the Contras again with a $100-million appropriation.

Sullivan, meanwhile, told U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell that the judge was unfairly limiting Sullivan’s attempts to show jurors that Dutton and Secord also had worked with North to trade weapons to Iran to obtain the release of other American hostages in Lebanon in 1986.

Sullivan was able to elicit a brief reference to the 1986 operation from Dutton. But Gesell said that detailed testimony about Iranian arms sales no longer is relevant to the trial, because the alleged diversion of arms-sale profits to the Contras by North was one of two central charges that the government dismissed in January.

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The charges were dropped after Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh determined that evidence needed by North to defend himself would require disclosure of top-secret government information.

With jurors absent from the courtroom during a noon recess, Sullivan protested that “we’ve got to go back to basics. The indictment (against North) makes specific reference to the Iran initiative,” he said. “The government’s opening statement discusses the Iran initiative.”

But Gesell told Sullivan that he was giving him wide enough latitude on cross-examination and “I think you’re being oversensitive. I’m just trying to move this along so we can end this trial while I’m still alive,” said the 78-year-old jurist.


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