For nearly four days, haggard and glassy-eyed, he recounted in a monotone the dramatic details of the affair that threatened Ronald Reagan’s presidency. So soporific was the drone of his voice that there was speculation that former national security adviser Robert McFarlane—who tried to kill himself last February with an overdose of Valium—was still taking medication. But McFarlane’s deadpan delivery, during last week’s televised hearings of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives joint committees on the Iran-contra affair, contrasted with his startling revelations. His testimony, given under the grilling of the 26-member panel, suggested a president much more deeply involved in soliciting secret funds to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels than either Reagan or his aides have conceded so far.
After those disclosures, the President was forced to admit that, during a February, 1985, meeting at the White House, he had personally thanked Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd for a $1.3-million-a-month contribution to the con-
tras. That conversation prompted the monarch to double his monthly donations to $2.6 million, for an estimated total of $42 million in 1984 and 1985. Much of the money was given at a time when Congress had forbidden “direct or indirect” U.S. aid to the insu r ge n t s. Indeed, spurning McFarlane’s repeated attempts to shoulder personal blame for the entire Iran-contra foreign policy fiasco,
House committee chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, pointedly directed the inquiry’s most damning indictment to date not at the witness, but at Reagan himself. Said Hamilton: “You cannot, it seems to me, accept responsibility for mistakes—as admirable as that may be—and thereby absolve the President of responsibility.” McFarlane testified that he had briefed Reagan “frequently” on what his staff was doing to help the contras. It was the first direct evidence that the President was kept current about his staff’s contra fundraising activities —although McFarlane did not link him with the diversion of funds from the Iranian arms sales.
But McFarlane was not alone in weaving an increasingly damaging web around the White House. As two other, little-known administration officials followed him to the stand, they fleshed out the picture of a government ob1 sessed with not “breaking faith” with the contras, as McFarlane put it. One of them, Robert Owen—a self-described “foot soldier” in the covert war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government-provided the most explicit details yet on how National Security Council (NSC) aide Lt.-Col. Oliver North directed that conflict from the White House under the code names Steelhammer or The Quartermaster.
The first witness to testify in exchange for limited immunity from criminal prosecution, the 32-year-old Owen described his role as a clandestine go-between who ferried cash, U.S. intelligence maps and weapons shopping lists between North and the contras. Code-named The Courier, he said
that he handed over envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars to contra leaders. To carry out one $9,000 payment to a former member of the rebels’ three-man directorate, Owen said, he had to cash so many travellers cheques from North’s office safe that another administration official, Jonathan Miller, was called in to share the task. Within hours of that statement, Miller quit his current White House post as deputy assistant to the President for management. His departure—reportedly against his will—underlined the threat that last week’s revelations posed to the President.
The White House was also clearly embarrassed by reports that Fawn Hall, North’s former secretary, would tell the hearings that she helped her boss shred documents before the scandal became public last November. According to Alabama Democratic Senator Howell Heflin, Hall smuggled documents out of the White House in her underwear.
But most disturbing to many congressmen and analysts was the picture that emerged from the Iran-contra hearings of U.S. foreign policymakers held hostage to the contras’ demands for funds. Bowing to a White House request not to embarrass foreign governments, the committee assigned numbers to the countries concerned. But the attempt backfired as, under questioning, witnesses gave clear hints about which countries were involved. In fact, after McFarlane revealed Reagan’s role in thanking the visiting ruler of “Country Two” for doubling his contributions to the contras, committee sources confirmed Saudi Arabia’s massive donation.
The committee also heard that McFarlane, North and then NSC official Gaston Sigur had sought donations to the contras from Taiwan and South Korea at a time when both countries were involved in trade disputes with Washington. Indeed, Sigur confirmed that “Country Three” (Taiwan) had contributed $2.6 million in “humanitarian” aid to the contras at the very moment it was fighting a protectionist textile import bill in Congress. Shortly after the contribution, Reagan vetoed the bill. Protested Georgia Democratic Representative Ed Jenkins, who helped draft the measure: “That ought to be disturbing to me, don’t you think?”
Last week’s hearings solved an early mystery of the Iran-contra affair: the missing $13-million contribution to the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. Donated after a visit from Secretary of State George Shultz, the money was finally located in the Swiss bank account of a Geneva-based shipping tycoon, who claimed not to have noticed that the sum had been deposited in error. But the committee also left many questions unanswered, and critics charged that it had failed to pin McFarlane down on many points.
One reason may be sympathy for a man, obviously still in anguish, who had been led, as Senate chairman Daniel Inouye put it, “down the garden path” in his notion of public duty. But in one of his rare outbursts, McFarlane offered an insight into the White
House mind-set that had prevented him from criticizing the Iranian arms sales. Said McFarlane: “To tell you the truth, if I’d done that, [former CIA director] Bill Casey, [former UN ambassador] Jeane Kirkpatrick and [Defence Secretary] Cap Weinberger would have said I was some sort of commie.”
When asked whom he was trying to protect in his testimony, McFarlane replied, “very likely myself, my reputation, my own record of performance.” But to many observers, it became increasingly clear that his efforts were aimed at shielding Reagan, who—contrary to the portrait of a detached and
uninformed leader that emerged from February’s Tower commission reportnow appears to have monitored events closely. Indeed, the President himself declared that he had known about and supported private efforts to help the contras. “I was very definitely involved in decisions about support to the freedom fighters,” he said. Still, he seemed to appreciate McFarlane’s attempts. McFarlane told the committee that Reagan phoned him after watching his televised testimony and commended him for what a White House spokesman later termed “doing a good job.”
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