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TURNING THE TABLES. North slams Congress for its `fickle' contra policy

Displaying some of the steely determination that served him so well as a marine, Lt. Col. Oliver North sought to turn the focus on the Iran-contra hearings onto Congress itself. It remains unclear, however, whether that determination served him well as a public servant.

In three days of hearings, Colonel North has attempted to shift part of the responsibility - and much of the blame - for the Iran-contra affair onto others.

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North admitted that he had been willing to accept much of the blame for the Iran-contra affair himself, in order to give the Reagan administration ``plausible deniability'' in the event the affair ultimately came to light.

But, he said, he changed his mind once an independent counsel, or special prosecutor, began investigating possible criminal violations of the law.

``I know that when I heard the words ... criminal investigation ... then my mind-set changed considerably.''

In sworn testimony, North continued to widen the circle of those in the Reagan administration with knowledge of the secret arms sales to Iran and clandestine support for the contras.

And he blamed Congress for failing to support the contras, claiming that legislative-branch indecision forced others to take extraordinary measures in support of the contras - measures that, North claimed, were ultimately in defense of freedom in the United States itself.

Although professing to hold Congress ``in awe,'' North blamed lawmakers for a ``fickle, vacillating, unpredictable'' policy toward the contras.

``I suggest to you that it is the Congress which must accept the blame in the Nicaraguan freedom-fighter matter,'' he charged.

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And, he told the 26 members of House and Senate committees jointly investigating the affair, ``Of one thing I am certain, [it] is that you will not investigate yourself in this matter.''

The tenor of North's remarks suggested that he was looking beyond the hearings and preparing to present himself as a sympathetic defendant in possible criminal proceedings that may be brought by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

North framed the Iran-contra affair - more starkly than anyone before him had - as an outright clash between the executive and legislative branches, between the imperative for acting and the proclivity to waffle, and, ultimately, between the East and the West.

Led through a morning of sympathetic questions by George Van Cleve, the House panel's minority counsel, North warned that the Soviets are intent on establishing a communist beachhead in Nicaragua that will later be used as a springboard against the US.

``The Soviets desperately want to achieve the consolidation of a Soviet client state on the mainland of this hemisphere,'' he warned. The consequences, he said, would be ``disastrous'' for the US.

The morning session yesterday was briefly disrupted when two young men, Michael Kreis and Michael Vardoff, tried to unfurl a bed sheet with the words, ``Ask about cocaine smuggling'' - a reference to allegations that aircraft used to resupply the contras in Nicaragua had also been used to smuggle drugs back to the US.

The two were hustled away by Capitol police, and are expected to be arraigned on charges of disrupting a congressional hearing and demonstrating within a Capitol building.

But North, by his lights, had never resorted to such extralegal acts of defiance. On the contrary, he claimed to have acted at all times within the law.

He testified that he was under the impression that congressional restrictions against ``direct or indirect'' support for the contras by any US intelligence agency did not apply to the National Security Council, where North was a staff member.

``I did not view, nor did my superiors view, that the National Security Council was covered by Boland,'' he said. ``Boland'' refers to the Boland amendments, the the web of congressional restrictions on aid to the contras.

That claim, however, is in stark contrast to the view of North's former boss, one-time national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, that the NSC was covered by the Boland restrictions.

That is only one of a number of contradictions between North testimony and that of other witnesses before the committees.

North has implied that among the senior administration officials who knew of his covert operations were Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. All have denied those claims.

North also claimed that ``there was no US government money involved'' in the sale of American weapons to Iran, by which he meant that profits from the arms sales beyond the amounts reimbursed to the Defense Department were not government funds.

That is a controversial point which in all likelihood will be challenged by special prosecutor Walsh. North, as even his attorney admits, is almost certain to face a criminal indictment as a result of the arms sales to Iran.

Asked yesterday if the White House has considered a presidential pardon for North, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, ``It's never been addressed.''

But he not rule the move out, adding, ``We have no comment one way or the other.''

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