Former President Ronald Reagan, approving the solicitation of U.S. allies in 1984 for aid to Nicaragua’s Contras, directed that the project be kept secret from the American public and Congress, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane testified Friday.
Otherwise, McFarlane quoted Reagan, “we’ll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House.”
Appearing as the prosecution’s star witness in the trial of former White House aide Oliver L. North, McFarlane expressed his own doubts about the legality of the operation in which he and North took part.
McFarlane disclosed that James A. Baker III, then the White House chief of staff and now secretary of state, suggested to Reagan that he could be impeached for allowing the solicitation of allies for aid for the rebels.
But others in Reagan’s inner circle--including then-Vice President George Bush--unanimously concluded that Baker was wrong. They said that outside aid could be sought, despite a congressional prohibition against direct or indirect U.S. military assistance for Nicaraguan guerrilla forces, McFarlane said.
Wearing an almost perpetual frown and with his jaw thrust forward, McFarlane emphatically stated in nearly four hours of testimony that Reagan never told anyone to lie to Congress.
McFarlane, 51, a former presidential aide who pleaded guilty last year to misleading Congress about White House assistance to the Contras and who was sentenced a week ago to two years of probation and a $20,000 fine, was the first witness at North’s trial to testify about deliberations at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration.
McFarlane, near the start of his testimony, which will resume Monday, was asked by associate independent counsel John W. Keker, North’s chief prosecutor: “After committing these crimes, did you try to commit suicide?”
“Yes,” McFarlane said, his face reddening in reference to a drug overdose he took at home in February, 1987.
Asked About Lying
Later, in asking about Reagan’s instructions to his staff, Keker said to McFarlane: “Did you ever hear Ronald Reagan say: ‘We should lie to the Congress of the United States?’ ”
“No,” McFarlane replied firmly.
“About anything?” Keker pursued.
“No,” McFarlane repeated.
The principal charges among 12 felony counts on which North is being tried accuse the retired Marine lieutenant colonel of giving false statements to Congress and obstructing congressional inquiries by denying in 1985 and 1986 that he was aiding the Contras with military advice or with money from private donors.
North’s attorneys have said they will show that the former National Security Council aide, who worked under McFarlane, was instructed by superiors to conceal his activities from Congress as part of a policy decision.
Elaborating on his brief answers to Keker, McFarlane testified that Reagan “never said: ‘Lie to Congress.’ ”
Referring to aid solicitations from allies, Reagan “just said: ‘Do not share that information with the Congress,’ ” McFarlane said, acknowledging that the House and Senate intelligence committees normally have access to any classified information in government.
Once the top staff official of the NSC, McFarlane was asked by Keker--with the help of documents--to describe a meeting of the NSC on June 25, 1984.
“I recall Mr. Baker believed that if the President were to authorize procuring money from third countries that that would be a violation of law and the President could be so charged and impeached . . . removed from office,” McFarlane testified.
But he said Baker’s statement was “strongly countered” by others at the meeting, including Bush, “and the conclusion was reached that it was not true.”
NSC officials feared that if members of Congress learned of third-country solicitations, they might be reluctant to restore U.S. aid for the Nicaraguan resistance movement, McFarlane said.
When asked what instructions he had given North and other staff members in 1984, McFarlane said he repeated Reagan’s wishes that “we were to do all we could to keep the Contras alive and functioning until we could win a vote of the Congress,” which eventually came in 1986.
He said he never personally knew of activities to which previous witnesses at the trial have testified: that North was deeply involved in fund-raising for the Contras from wealthy U.S. citizens, that North conducted numerous conferences with Contra leaders to give them military advice and that North directed a covert weapons-purchasing and resupply effort for the rebel forces.
McFarlane acknowledged receiving reports from North about Contra activities, but he said he simply assumed that North, like others in the U.S. intelligence community, had his own information sources. “Perhaps I was derelict in my duties,” he said, asserting that “it didn’t occur to me” that North was deeply involved in operations.
But McFarlane said that on one occasion he asked North to find out the number of a foreign bank account maintained by the Contras after “the ambassador of a Middle Eastern country” (identified in 1987 congressional hearings as Saudi Arabia) volunteered to provide $1 million a month as a good-will gesture to the Reagan Administration.
He said that Reagan later had a private White House meeting with “the head of state of that country” (identified by Congress as King Fahd) and that the nation increased its donation to $2 million a month. At least $24 million of that money had flowed to the Contras by mid-1985, McFarlane testified.
In that year, he said, White House officials discussed the possibility of getting U.S. charities to provide food and medicine for the Contras and Reagan suggested forming a tax-exempt foundation to collect private money for weapons and military equipment. McFarlane, in response to a question, noted that Reagan is not a tax lawyer.