Former President Ronald Reagan intervened to help the Nicaraguan Contras get a shipment of ammunition during a period when Congress had prohibited direct or indirect U.S. military assistance to the rebel forces, a federal court jury was told Wednesday.
Reagan’s intercession with former Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova in April, 1985, was disclosed at the trial of former White House aide Oliver L. North during cross-examination of Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan’s former national security adviser, by Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North’s attorney.
U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell loosened his rules governing the use of classified information to allow Suazo’s name to be revealed. Previously the judge had forbidden the names of most past or present Central American officials to be mentioned in open court on grounds that such disclosure might embarrass U.S. allies and thus harm national security.
But Gesell decided to give Sullivan more leeway in cross-examining McFarlane to further protect North’s right to a fair trial. The judge also questioned the credibility of McFarlane, a key prosecution witness who pleaded guilty last year to misleading Congress and who recently was sentenced to two years’ probation, 200 hours of community service and fined $20,000.
With jurors excused from the courtroom, Gesell said that McFarlane “has given equivocal and confusing testimony which makes full disclosure desirable so that his credibility may be tested under cross-examination.”
Specifically, McFarlane’s testimony over the previous three days has raised questions as to “whether he or his subordinate North was officially and knowingly responsible for specific activities attributed to North in the indictment,” Gesell said.
Sullivan used his wide-ranging cross-examination to try to persuade jurors that Reagan’s power to act on behalf of the Contras, despite passage of the restrictive Boland Amendment on U.S. aid, also applied to North.
The defense lawyer elicited testimony from McFarlane that Reagan--at McFarlane’s request--made a personal phone call to Suazo in Honduras to facilitate an ammunition shipment to the Contras which Honduran military authorities had held up in their country. The problem arose because the Hondurans, while allowing the Contras to live in Honduran camps near the Nicaraguan border, were uncertain whether the United States would continue to support them after Congress had cut off military assistance in October, 1984, according to a memo from McFarlane introduced by Sullivan.
In a note on the bottom of McFarlane’s memo, Reagan wrote he had made the call.
“The President (of Honduras) expressed his respect for me,” Reagan’s note said. “He will call his military commander to tell him to deliver the ammunition.” The note added that Suazo “believes we must continue to oppose Communism.”
McFarlane testified that the National Security Council, as part of a secret policy to solicit aid for the Contras from U.S. allies to compensate for the congressional cutoff, decided to expedite $110 million in economic and military aid to Honduras.
McFarlane had said on Friday he was unaware at the time of North’s wide-ranging activities on behalf of the Contras, including fund-raising and providing military advice. He said he had felt it might be improper under the Boland Amendment for North to take direct actions to assist the Contras’ military effort.
But under questioning by Sullivan, McFarlane said he thought the President’s action was permissible.
“What makes you say that?” Gesell interjected.
“Well, people involved in intelligence activities were covered by the Boland Amendment,” McFarlane replied.
“The President was not in any way a member of the intelligence community. His ability to conduct the foreign policy of the United States could not be limited by a law limiting the activities of members of the intelligence community.”
“So, if the President told the secretary of state or Col. North to do it, that would be proper, right?” Sullivan asked.
“Yes,” McFarlane replied.