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What Oliver North’s Trial Means to US

A look at the relevence of the Iran-contra scandal

Oliver North, Iran-Contra

Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North

CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images

Two Years Earlier, when Congress first investigated the Iran-contra scandal, Colonel Oliver North had charmed the nation on TV. He seemed gutsy and principled, a brash patriot in a marine uniform, staring down his inquisitors with nothing-to-hide answers. Now, however, dressed in civilian blue pin stripes, testifying in his own behalf as a criminal defendant, Ollie did not look so heroic. His starchy righteousness went limp. His answers retreated to niggling legalisms; his pained tone sounded whiny.

“I was raised to know the difference between right and wrong,” North kept reminding the jury. “I knew it wasn’t right not to tell the truth on these things, but I didn’t drink it was unlawful.”

The prosecutor, John W. Keker, pounced on Ollie’s sanctimonious distinctions. “Didn’t any moral bell go off in your head?” Keker asked. “Wasn’t there anything from your upbringing, your moral training, your marine background, that told you, ‘This does not seem right’?”

Ollie fidgeted. “Sure,” he said. “I’m not proud of this.”

Oliver North’s many lies were, in fact, the heart of the criminal charges against him. The evidence shows that he lied to Congress about the secret war he was running from inside the Reagan White House long after Congress had legislated a halt to it; that he lied to his associates about his own derring-do; that he lied to the attorney general when he came around to investigate the rumors of scandal. Once caught, North destroyed official records and altered documents, hoping to keep the lies alive.

Even Gerhard A. Gesell, the elderly federal judge who presided over the nine-week trial, was moved occasionally to tweak the famous defendant about his dubious sense of principle. “Did you at any time consider just not doing it?” the judge asked.

Ollie didn’t understand the question.

“Just say, ‘No, I won’t do it’?” the judge said.

Ollie said that option had not occurred to him.

But is it a crime to tell a lie? In his self-pleading, North sounded like a cold-war bureaucrat updating the Nuremberg defense: He was only following orders. President Reagan, he claimed, had directed him to keep the war against Nicaragua going — in spite of the congressional restrictions and the strong opposition reflected in public-opinion surveys. His superiors had insisted that he keep his activities secret, even if that meant promulgating official lies. He was only doing his sacred duty.

In response, the prosecutor made the simple but valuable point that a government of representative democracy cannot function in an atmosphere of deceit – when one branch is lying to another and lying to the sovereign citizens as well. That straightforward moral standard has been badly abused during the cold-war era, when gross lies have been told in high places under cover of “national security,” and cynics assume that truthfulness is probably too much to expect from government. Unfortunately, the cynics may be partly right — the trial also demonstrated that this standard has not yet been applied to people at the very top, such as George Bush and Ronald Reagan. But at least the trial of Ollie North resurrected an important idea that lying in government is not only morally wrong but potentially criminal.

This time around, Colonel North did not get away with the patriotic bilge that had intimidated his congressional interrogators. North’s defense lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., trotted out the rhetoric of marine loyalty to explain his client’s behavior, but the defendant himself wisely laid off the hero talk. Indeed, it was North who seemed a bit intimidated this time – knowing, as he did, that the prosecutor himself was also a Vietnam veteran, also a marine infantry commander, also wounded in combat, also decorated for heroism. Unlike North, John Keker does not wear Semper Fi on his sleeve.

“Being a marine is an honor — not an excuse,” the prosecutor declared in his opening statement to the jury. “Being a marine is a responsibility – not a defense.”

As Keker bore down on the facts of the case, it became increasingly difficult to recall exactly why the nation had fallen for Ollie in the first place. The prosecutor was relentlessly focused and cool, while North was flamboyant and self-dramatizing. If you ever got stuck in a foxhole under hostile fire, it is fairly obvious which man you would want to have as your commander.

In fact, a lot of what Ollie did inside the White House looked like old-fashioned petty crime — the land of routine chiseling one might expect from a junior-grade clerk buried deep in the bureaucracy not from a national hero. While Ollie was raising money to finance the contra army in Nicaragua, he was cycling a lot of loose change through his own pocket – “like it was his personal piggy bank,” as Keker put it. Contra money was used to buy Ollie’s groceries, to pay for a family trip and new tires and to make the down payment on a van, although North insists that he did not misuse any funds.

When North insisted that he had kept a meticulous record of the thousands of dollars he handled in contra funds, Keker asked if the ledger was available for inspection.

“No, it is not,” Ollie replied. “It was destroyed.”

“You make it sound like it might be an earthquake or something,” Keker snapped. “Do you know who destroyed it?”

“I did,” Ollie answered.

Small facts such as these brought Ollie down to his true size. He is a familiar type – the phony tough guy everyone knew in junior high school, the kind that was always hyping his own exploits and agitating for “action,” the kind that often slipped away when trouble started. Not good hero material.

The trial of Ollie North also leaves a troubling cloud, a sense of incompleteness or, even worse, a feeling that a cover-up has been successful. The accumulated evidence in North’s trial clearly raises questions about the role of higher government officials in the Iran-contra scandal – men who will never stand trial, men who for all intents and purposes got away. Aside from Ollie, there is a long list of other, more important characters from the Reagan administration who should also have been in the dock but were given a pass.

Heading the list, of course, is Ronald Reagan, our former president. But next in line is George Bush, former vice-president and now our nation’s chief executive. And there are also assorted cabinet officers, such as former secretary of state George Shultz and former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, and other high-ranking officials who may have been culpable. It is awkward but obviously true: If Ollie North broke the law, then so did those who handed down the orders. As Ollie declared at one point, “I felt like a pawn in a chess game being played by giants.”

When the scandal broke in the fall of 1986, the press focused on the question of presidential and vice-presidential guilt – whether Reagan and Bush knew that Ollie and friends were diverting millions from Iranian arms sales to finance the contra army. It still seems to me entirely plausible that Reagan did know and perhaps even authorized the money transfer. But this was never established as fact during the hearings, and the president claimed that he too had been kept in the dark about North’s activities. Given the Gipper’s weak grasp of facts, his ignorance was taken as proof of innocence.

But whether Reagan had specific knowledge of the Iran-contra deal may have been the wrong question. In Ollie North’s trial, much damning evidence was heard about White House efforts to raise millions from other countries to provide military aid for the contras. This was an important element of what North was lying about in order to keep the entire operation secret. But Ollie was not alone in his lies or his fund raising.

The North defense put into the trial record exhaustive material derived from government documents showing the extraordinary range of people high and low in the Reagan administration who were working the same territory – finding cash for the contras after Congress had ordered the United States to disengage from the proxy war. In all, nineteen foreign countries were solicited by various U.S. officials for aid to the contras. Saudi Arabia sent $32 million. Israel sent millions in rifles and ammo it had captured from the PLO. Everyone from the secretary of state to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got involved in the secret fund raising.

The vice-president (the one named Bush) played a direct and pivotal role in early 1985. He called on the president of Honduras and delivered a reassuring message: U.S. aid would be increased for Honduras (which was providing hospitality to the contra army camped in its southern region). According to a National Security Council memorandum, the vice-president’s meeting with President Roberto Suazo Cordova was intended to “ensure that our appreciation manifests itself in more than words.”

Another trial document, a stipulation of facts based on classified records, described the transaction this way: “When Vice President Bush met with President Suazo, Bush told Suazo that President Reagan had directed expedited delivery of U.S. military items to Honduras. Vice President Bush also informed Suazo that President Reagan had directed that currently withheld economic assistance for Honduras should be released; that the United States would provide from its own military stocks critical security assistance items that had been ordered by Honduran armed forces; and that several security programs under way for Honduran security forces would be enhanced.”

In other words – to put the case bluntly – George Bush was in effect buying Honduras and using American tax dollars to do it. In exchange, Honduras would continue its support for the contras. Surely, if it was wrong for Ollie North to run his games out of the White House, defying the will of Congress, it must have also been wrong for George Bush to do the same thing.

The true flavor of these transactions comes through in other documents that describe the Honduran government’s attempts to up the ante on the bribery – threatening to cut off the contras unless Washington provided even more dollars for the Honduran generals. In early 1986, Vice President Bush met with Jose Azcona Hoyo, the new president of Honduras, and was alerted in advance that Honduras “would insist on receiving clear economic and social benefits from its cooperation with the United States.”

The essence of these and other dealings with foreign governments is that the Reagan administration was doing what its officials had always denied – offering quid pro quo trade-offs of American aid in order to get those countries to provide their funds directly to the contras. In fact, according to an National Security Planning Group memo, during a 1984 White House meeting George Bush himself acknowledged the political risk: “The only problem that might come up,” Bush said then, “is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange.”

Yes – that is exactly what it looks like. And the evidence that is now visible would have provided ample basis for a congressional inquiry on impeachment back in 1987. But the full picture – especially concerning the veep’s role – has been blurred or ignored since the scandal erupted. The accusation amounts to this: Reagan, aided by Bush and others in the administration, failed the oath of office, in which he swore to uphold the Constitution and enforce the laws. In fact, they were actively subverting the Boland amendment, enacted by Congress to end the Nicaraguan war, and they were using the taxpayers’ money to do so.

The idea of impeachment proceedings was never given much public discussion when the contra scandal first unfolded two years ago. Ronald Reagan was in the final phase of his presidency, fast losing political clout, and there was no partisan urge to make such a nasty fight out of it. The congressional gossip held that – whatever the facts of the case might be the country could not stand another searing crisis like the Nixon-impeachment episode that grew out of the Watergate scandal in 1974. The Tower Commission report skillfully whitewashed the role of top administration officials in the Iran-contra affair (which perhaps explains why Bush was so anxious to reward John Tower with the secretary-of-defense appointment). The joint congressional inquiry was flabby and ill focused.

At the Reagan White House, however, the possibility of impeachment was taken very seriously. Former attorney general Edwin Meese testified at North’s trial that his principal fear, when he began investigating the scandal, was the potential for impeachment action against his old friend Ronald Reagan.

Reagan evidently was worried too. According to the minutes of a White House meeting on the secret contra fund raising, the president urged secrecy: “If such a story gets out,” Reagan said, “we’ll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House….”

The story did get out finally – but not before the Gipper had safely gone off to his retirement ranch. Confronted with these facts from his vice-presidential past, George Bush blusters his way around them, refusing once again to tell all he knows.

Certain Important Principles – For instance, that government lies may become indictable crimes – were established in the prosecution of Ollie North. His ordeal should be a useful warning to high-spirited officials of the future who assume that because they are on classified missions, they are also above the law. Likewise, they should not be deluded – as Ollie evidently was – into thinking that instant fame absolves all guilt.

Still, in a larger sense, the wrong lessons may be learned from the Iran-contra scandal. In hindsight, it looks like a case study in how to do a successful cover-up and get away with it. In the Watergate scandal, after all, the controversy and the evidence led eventually to the man at the top. Richard Nixon was compelled to resign the presidency; justice seemed fulfilled.

This time, it looks as though Reagan’s White House had learned from Nixon’s mistakes. Documents were swiftly destroyed – including the crucial papers that might have incriminated Reagan directly. Certain middle-level officers – led by the brash Ollie – were swiftly offered up to the public as the designated fall guys. Everyone stoutly defended the president. Ranking players like George Bush simply stonewalled about their own roles – and in some cases, as suggested by the evidence at the trial, out and out lied.

It will probably be many years before we know which precedent will guide government behavior in the future – the stubborn standard of honesty articulated by the prosecutor or the clever tactics of evasion that President Bush has so far followed so successfully.

In This Article: Coverwall, Politics

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