A wary and reluctant Oliver L. North testified Monday that he witnessed former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter destroying an Iran-Contra document in 1986 to shield former President Ronald Reagan from major political embarrassment.
The document, a presidential "finding" that bore Reagan's signature, depicted a straight arms-for-hostages trade with Iran.
In testimony that could prove damaging, North, who organized most of the undercover events that culminated in the worst scandal of the Reagan Administration, also implicated Poindexter as the superior who approved using profits from the Iran arms sales to buy weapons for the Nicaraguan Contras. He also testified that Poindexter instructed him to withhold from Congress key details of the Iran-Contra affair.
In his second day of testimony in the U.S. District Court trial of Poindexter, North was so hesitant and hair-splitting and elusive in his answers that he drew sharp rebukes several times from U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene, a veteran jurist who set aside his evenhanded manner whenever he lost patience with North.
"Almost every time you ask him a question he says he doesn't remember," Greene said. "It's like pulling teeth."
A few minutes later, the judge admonished the former Marine lieutenant colonel, who was convicted last year of destroying documents and obstructing Congress, for quibbling over minor points in his replies to the questions of special prosecutor Dan K. Webb.
"Let's not try to be verbatim," the judge lectured North. "Let's try to stick to the facts and answer the questions."
Poindexter, a retired rear admiral who is the highest-ranking Reagan Administration official to go on trial because of the Iran-Contra affair, has been charged with five counts involving a conspiracy to destroy documents, to obstruct congressional investigations and to lie to Congress.
Some of the most dramatic of North's testimony centered on a secret document known as a finding that President Reagan signed in 1985, approving the sale of arms to Iran in hopes of gaining the release of American hostages held by Islamic fundamentalists in Lebanon.
"You were present with John Poindexter in his office when he took the document and tore it in shreds, isn't that so?" Webb asked.
"No," replied North, "not the way you describe it."
Further questioning drew out the testimony from North that he had seen Poindexter tear up the document, but not in shreds, only in two.
North hesitated when asked if Poindexter had torn up the document because of "the political embarrassing language in it." The question referred to a paragraph justifying an arms-for-hostage exchange at a time when the Reagan Administration vowed it would never deal with terrorists.
Only after he was confronted with a transcript of his testimony about the document at his own trial would North agree that politics was the motive for the destruction.
In an apparent effort to thwart North's penchant for splitting hairs about the details of almost every question, the youthful-looking Webb led North simple step by simple step through every issue, like a patient teacher with a dull schoolboy. At times, he would call out: "Are you with me, Col. North?"
North would usually respond slowly and warily, "Yes, counsel."
Using his step by step technique, Webb drew from North the testimony that he had received full authority from Poindexter for each arms shipment sent to Iran and for diverting the profits from the sale of these arms to the Contras fighting in Nicaragua.
But North also testified that "I thought it was a significant enough initiative to have the authority of the President of the United States."
"You always assumed that Adm. Poindexter had gotten that authority?" Webb asked.
"Yes," North replied.
"And you eventually found out that he had not gotten the authority?"
North also testified that Poindexter had instructed him in a general way to conceal facts from Congress and had sent him a note praising him for a job "well done" after he had lied to Congress about the Reagan Administration's involvement with the Contras.
Webb questioned North closely about the panic in the White House and the National Security Council after the scandal erupted in the press.
"I took steps to perpetuate the cover story of a year--the cover story that we had nothing to do with this," North said.
North testified that Poindexter's predecessor as national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, came to see him in November, 1986, and asked him to alter nine National Security Council documents. One was a memo by North proposing that the United States covertly arrange for the sinking or seizure of a ship carrying arms to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1985. Two approving comments, written by Poindexter when he was McFarlane's deputy, were removed by North in altering the document.
In his testimony, North said he saw nothing wrong with changing documents at McFarlane's request since they had originally been prepared for McFarlane when he was the adviser.
This drew a sarcastic comment from Judge Greene.
"McFarlane said change these documents, you said OK. You didn't find that bizarre? These were not Mr. McFarlane's personal papers, his mortgage. You didn't think this was bizarre, strange? Is this what goes on in the National Security Council all the time?"
"No, sir," replied North. "Generally, when we change a document, we stamp it, REDO."