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Hall Breaks Down on Witness Stand : Tearful Secretary Tells of Changing Memos, Her Regard for North

Times Staff Writer

Former White House secretary Fawn Hall, who wept repeatedly on the witness stand Thursday, said she was “very upset” by the 1986 firing of her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, and by “very confusing” recollections of altering and removing sensitive documents in the Iran-Contra scandal.

As she testified a second and final day at North’s federal court trial, Hall first broke down when she was pressed by prosecutor John W. Keker about how she had altered National Security Council memos at North’s direction. She answered rapidly in an exasperated tone and overrode an effort by U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell to calm her down.

An annoyed Gesell then told her: “Please keep your mouth shut when I’m talking.” Hall bit her lip, asked for a break and began weeping as the judge called a 10-minute recess.

Tears Come Again

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But, an hour later, her tears came again when Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North’s attorney, gently asked her about working for North and whether she knew North’s family.

After brushing her eyes, she said that North had been “a very inspirational, tireless boss” and that she had met his wife, Betsy, one Easter. When she was unable to continue, Gesell said that jurors could take their morning recess a few minutes early.

Her eyes filled with tears a third time--but she regained her poise and continued--in telling the jury that former President Ronald Reagan’s firing of North on Nov. 25, 1986, “was very unfair and I was very upset.”

Hall added that she has been through “very confusing” times in trying to answer questions about how she altered and shredded documents and removed other files in response to inquiries from Congress, from a federal grand jury and now from trial attorneys.

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Did Not Lock Doors

“We didn’t lock the doors and pull down the shades or anything,” she said of what has been called her “shredding party” with North shortly before his firing as a National Security Council official.

“It was no big deal. But, in hindsight, it was a very stupid thing to do.”

When she said that “I was concerned about security . . . protecting the operations for rescuing hostages” in which North had been involved, Hall was brought up short by Keker. The prosecutor forced her to acknowledge that all the documents she altered, shredded or removed under her clothing had to do with North’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras, which he was seeking to conceal, rather than his past efforts to free American hostages in Lebanon.

Gesell later reminded jurors that there are no charges of illegality involving the White House efforts to free hostages in which North took part.

North is being tried on 12 felony charges, including false statements to Congress to conceal his efforts to assist the Contras with money and military advice at a time when Congress had prohibited direct and indirect U.S. military aid. Other principal charges are that he destroyed documents and obstructed congressional and presidential inquiries.

Draws Packed Courtroom

Wearing a strand of pearls and a belted blue dress with large polka dots, Hall, who became an instant celebrity when she testified at nationally televised congressional hearings two years ago, drew a packed courtroom for Thursday’s testimony. At least another 100 spectators were waiting in the corridor.

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After finishing her testimony, which was given under a promise of immunity from prosecution, a defiant Hall told reporters outside the courthouse: “Hopefully, the good guy will win.”

“Why was it so tough in there?” a reporter shouted.

“It’s tough when people portray you as a witness for the prosecution, when you’re a witness for the truth,” she replied.

Gesell recessed the trial until Tuesday morning, giving jurors a four-day holiday that includes Good Friday as well as Easter Monday.


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