HERO OR OUTLAW
It was television at its best—gripping, in formative and sensational. For four days
marine with six rows of decorations, two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star pinned to his olive-drab uniform had electrified TV viewers, outdrawing even the daytime soap operas his one-man show replaced. Breaking seven months of silence, Lt.-Col. Oliver Norththe self-confessed "fall guy" in the White House Iran-contra scan dal-had turned his or deal on the witness stand into an exercise in high drama and person al mythmaking. Defiant: North's lip occasionally quivered. His eyes at times misted over. In long, obviously
rehearsed answers, his boyish tenor al ternately rang with defiant indigna tion or broke with emotion. Defending his attempts to hide the $14,000 gift of a security system for his home, he at tempted to tug on public heartstrings by invoking the spectre of a threatened terrorist attack against his 11-year-old
daughter. Besting his interro: gators with cocky quips or lec tures on foreign policy, he pulled off what Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales ranked as "a new classic in the annals of melodramatic politi cal rhetoric." Indeed, it ap peared to be no accident that North began his public testimo ny with a reference to Clint Eastwood's classic western film about a loner who dispensed his own brand of frontier justice, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the political drama that has crippled Ronald Rea gan's fading presidency, North cast himself in a similar star ring role: the fearless action man willing to risk self-de struction in carrying out secret
foreign policy initiatives that he be lieved should not have been restrained by law. Lies: North's civics lessons grated on congressmen's nerves, and as the com mittees' lawyers pointed out, his testi mony was riddled with contradictions and admissions of past lies. But it be-
came clear that North was playing to a wider audience than the one in the wood-panelled cau cus room: American public opinion. And as fans deluged Capitol Hill with bouquets and 50,000 telegrams of sup port, there were lineups of people bused in from as far away as Florida demanding "Ollie For President." Clearly his tactics had paid off. Newspapers proclaimed the consecration of a new American folk hero in a phenomenon head lined "Olliemania." And North's interrogators bowed before the popu lar ground swell, muting their criticism. Some Republican congressmen even defended North de spite his stunning last minute revelations that
former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Casey had wanted to use Iranian arms-sale prof its to establish a secret overseas agen cy to carry out an ongoing series of covert operations. Indeed, the panel left North to wind up the week with a calculated pitch for his favorite cause, ______ aid to the contra rebel forces in
Nicaragua. Concluded ABC TV commentator Britt Hume: "Oli ver North will go down in his tory as the marine who took Capitol Hill." Covert: At the end of the week disturbing questions re mained about the White House's attitude to law, secrecy and covert operations, and whether Congress can control American foreign policy. Said committee chairman Senator Daniel Inouye, who was skepti cal about North's testimony: "The creation and maintenance of a secret government within our government is very serious." North's rave reviews initially brought elation at the White
House. North succeeded in protecting Reagan, leaving unanswered what some still consider the key question of the affair: what did the President know and when did he know it?
North testified that he never heard Reagan directly approve of the diversion of profits from the Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels. But that assurance was promptly undercut when the congressional panel released a memorandum from then-national security adviser Admiral John Poindexter quoting Reagan as saying that he was so frustrated by congressional opposition that he wanted “to figure out a way to take action unilaterally to provide assistance” to the contras. Indeed, in the May 2, 1986, memo, Poindexter noted that Reagan had been reading a book on terrorism which cited examples of other U.S. presidents acting without congressional approval.
Memos: In fact, North had testified that he “never carried out a single act, not one, without the authority of my superiors”—even writing five hitherto unknown memos asking for a presidential go-ahead for the diversion. And although he could not recall seeing any of the memos come back signed, his repeated assertion that he “assumed” that the President knew about the plan led some analysts to what seemed an inevitable conclusion. Said former Democratic national committee chairman Robert Strauss: “When he keeps saying, ‘I assumed the President knew,’ a lot of people may carry that to the next stage—that he did know.”
Other parts of North’s testimony stopped just short of laying responsibility for the diversion at the door of Reagan. North continually expressed his loyalty—in fact reverence—for the President. As he declared under questioning about why he had not protested his own firing, “If the commander-in-chief tells this lieutenantcolonel to go stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so.” When House Republican counsel George Van Cleve asked if, in the light of all the lies North had confessed to telling in the past, he was “not here now lying to protect your commander-in-chief,” North replied: “I am not lying to protect anybody, counsel. I came here to
tell the truth . . . the good, the bad and the ugly.”
From the moment he strode through the Russell Office Building door, flanked by his beefy navy bodyguards in civvies and sunglasses, North appeared to be relishing his week in the spotlight. In the course of explaining how he happened to have personally cashed traveller’s cheques drawn from a secret contra bank account at Washington area stores, including one called Park Lane Hosiery, he detoured to clear up rumors that he had been up to any “hanky-panky” with his beautiful secretary,
Fawn Hall (page 19).
Admitting that he had “phonied up” re-1 ceipts for his home se& curity system —“the grossest misjudgment of my life”—he volunteered a dissertation on terrorist Abu Nidal as a brutal murderer, then promptly brandished the challenge that he would meet him on his own terms anywhere. Denied permission to read his lengthy opening statement on the first day, he revelled in expounding it two days later. In it, North blamed much of the foreign policy debacle on Congress and its “fickle, vacillating, unpredictable, on-again, off-again policy toward the Nicaraguan democratic resistance.”
Duels: But not all the theatrics came from the star witness. North’s razor-tongued lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, threw himself into verbal duels with both the committee and its attorneys aimed at portraying his client as a put-upon victim. He accused them of stalling, hounding North and overloading him with a stack of documents “taller than he is.” When tempers had briefly died down, two demonstrators leaped up at the back of the caucus room, shouting and waving a banner that made allusions to charges of drug-dealing in North’s clandestine contra network. “Ask about cocaine,” it prompted committee members. But before the pair could unfurl the sheet, Capitol Hill policemen wrestled them out of the room.
North’s spirited self-defense increased White House apprehension over this week’s testimony by his former superior, Admiral Poindexter. An
owlish, uncharismatic figure, Poindexter is unlikely to pull off a similar public-relations triumph. But now that North has passed the buck to him, the former national security adviser remains the key figure who could refute Reagan’s assertion that he was not
aware of what his staff was doing. ‘Cowboy’: Already, North has made clear that he was not a lone National Security Council (NSC) “cowboy” running a covert foreign policy on his own, as initial White House leaks tried to depict him. “I realize there’s a lot of
folks around that think there’s a loose cannon on the gundeck of state at the NSC,” he interjected early in the hearings.
“That wasn’t what I heard while I worked there. People used to walk up to me and tell me what a great job I was doing.” One, he said, was Secretary of State George Shultz.
North testified that not only did Shultz know about the diversion of profits to the contras— contrary to the secretary’s previous testimony—but at a farewell staff party Shultz had put an arm around his shoulders to congratulate him on his good work. The state department immediately denied the charge.
Wizard: North also sketched out a plot line in which his mentor, Casey, who died last May, emerged as the shadowy wizard behind the complex clandestine network. According to North,
Casey took the role of a super intelligence case officer. He supervised him at the NSC instead of using a seasoned CIA agent in an effort to avoid congressional scrutiny. Not only had Casey lent North books and helped him set up secret bank accounts, he said, but when details began seeping out in early October, the CIA chief instructed North to start destroying his files. But it was North’s testimony about Casey’s proposed supersecret covert action
agency that stunned the hearings. Senate counsel Arthur Liman termed it “a CIA outside of the CIA.” And Maine Republican Senator William Cohen denounced it as “perhaps the most serious revelation” of the hearings so far.
Indeed, North’s startling revelations
revived suspicions that there was a widespread coverup of the scandal by the administration. He claimed that he shredded key documents while justice department investigators were sitting “not 10 feet away” in his office, examining his papers. Justice officials promptly issued a denial that North was shredding while they were in the room. But the charge raised doubts about the seriousness of the White House inquiry launched by Attorney General Edwin Meese last fall. As North explained it—provoking titters in the hearing room— the justice department investigators ignored his shredding because “they were working on their project ... I was working on mine.”
‘Hero’: Faced with last week’s pivotal witness, White House staffers found themselves embroiled in a public relations miscalculation. Since November, Reagan had claimed that he was anxiously awaiting North’s testimony. But in an attempt to show that the hearings had not paralysed the White House, his spokesmen announced that the President was too busy to watch the man he had saluted as “a national hero” before firing him last fall. On the second day of North’s appearance, the President went to Connecticut to promote his new eco-
nomic bill of rights: there, Reagan joked that his visit was not a ploy “to divert attention from whatever, I don’t know.” But like the joke, the White House strategy fell flat. Realizing that Reagan risked appearing oblivious to one of his gravest tests, his aides said that he had finally tuned in on North’s third day on the stand.
Savage: Ironically, it was that day’s testimony that most seriously threatened the luster of North’s heroics. In anticipation of a savage crossexamination by Senate counsel Liman, the colonel’s wife, Betsy—a born-again Christian dressed in a prim highnecked blue dress and pearls—had defied her own lawyers’ advice and made her first appearance in the hearing room to offer a show of support. But instead Liman chose a paternal, sympathetic approach. Under it, North admitted that when he and Casey had dreamed up the clandestine operation, they had planned—if the scheme ever became exposed—that the colonel would be the one to “take the hit.” Liman asked for whom. Replied North: “For whoever necessary. For the administration, for the President, for however high up the chain that they needed someone.”
But North promptly undercut his own portrait of willing martyrdom. Last fall, when the Iran-contra plot became public, he said, he was stunned when Meese announced that he was the subject of a criminal investigation. Said North: “When I heard the words criminal investigation, my mind-set changed considerably.” With that, North and his secretary spirited hundreds of documents and 28 steno notebooks containing his personal diaries out of the White House “for one purpose, and that was to protect myself.” Last week those notes threatened the credibility of a handful of leading Cabinet officials. Said Republican Senator Warren Rudman: “He’s given a lot of people sleepless nights.”
Grilling: Most of all, North’s testimony threatened Meese. North testified that Meese—as the “President’s friend”—was present during plans to falsify a chronology of events and also to alter Casey’s testimony to Congress. Indeed, following his charges, the committee’s investigators spent a day grilling the attorney general, who is already under investigation for his relationship with a defence contractor. In questioning by Liman, North characterized himself as a loyal centurion—“willing to take the spear” for his superiors—only to find himself abandoned by them. As North said, “I do honestly believe that they expected that Ollie would go quietly. And Ollie
intended to do so right up until the day that somebody decided to start a criminal prosecution.”
That philosophical retreat seemed all the more hasty in a Vietnam veteran who wears the Silver Star, the U.S. military’s third-highest honor for gallantry in action. But North’s testimony
revealed other inconsistencies. A stern moralist, he admitted that he had often bent the law. Insisting that he believed he had done nothing wrong in contravening Congress’ Boland amendment— barring U.S. government aid to the contras—he seemed at a loss to explain why he and others had engaged in such elaborate subterfuge. He castigated Congress for failing to promote democracy in Central America as nine foreign countries had by secretly donating funds to the contras. But Democratic Representative Ed Jenkins of Georgia pointed out that the nine included Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China and South Korea. Said Jenkins: “I don’t see a single democracy on this list.”
For some observers,
North’s sudden elevation to folk-hero status is unsettling. But its very appeal may lie in its simplicity. Said Toronto media consultant Gabor Apor: “North did well on television because his reasoning is so streetwise. For the ordinary guy watching, to
whom the Iran-contra affair seems too complicated to follow, he makes things easy to understand. It’s just the bad guys against the good guys. It’s just like a movie.”
One person who may blunt North’s charisma is special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who reportedly is prepar-
ing an indictment against North and other figures for a wide-ranging conspiracy. In fact, last week North lost yet another bid to stave off criminal charges when U.S. district court Judge Aubrey Robinson ruled against the colonel’s attempt to have Walsh’s appointment declared unconstitutional.
Secret: But if Oliver North finds a more lasting place in the pop pantheon, some wonder if he will have longterm effects on U.S. foreign policy. As North revealed, he and his confederates still hope to continue their fund for those secret international adventures that the U.S. Congress may not care to approve. And his celebrity will make it more difficult to stop them. Said Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey: “If all who believed they’ve got a better policy took the law into their own hands, we’d be in a terz rible situation.” Agreed § Jenkins: “What I’m wor5 ried about is future
Ollies.” -MARCI MCDONALD in Washington