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Ollie oops: he says he's exonerated. The record says he's a crook.

He says be's exonerated. The record says be's a crook.

At least until the appearance of "Oliver NorthThe Movie" or "Oliver North-The Senate Campaign," it will be hard to top the absurdity of North standing on the marble steps of Washington, D.C.'s federal courthouse last September after the dismissal of all charges against him, proclaiming himself "totally exonerated." Exonerated? "It's as though Ernesto Miranda had claimed that the Supreme Court gave him a character reference when it threw out his famous confession for crimes because the police had not read him his rights," declared The New York Times. Indeed, because of the type of legal loophole that conservatives deride for springing common criminals, North has gotten off for crimes that he proudly admitted to carrying out. Ironically enough, the same balance of powers that he so heedlessly tampered with saved his neck in the end.

But when the charges against North were dropped, the forces of revisionism immediately went to work. The Washington Times celebrated the event as proof that the Iran-contra scandal was the result of a congressional fishing expedition to find something, anything, that could cut into then-President Reagan's popularity." The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal used the opportunity to bash Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh and to cast the prosecution of other Iran-contra actors as "a Kafkaesque ritual" comparable "to what used to happen to people in the Soviet Union." George Bush intoned that "the system of justice is working." In case you too are beginning to buy all this, it's worth recalling the ugly details once more-just for the record.

North was convicted in May 1989 of three federal crimes. In July he was fined $150,000 and sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service. But a year later, two Reagan appointees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit out-voted a Carter-appointed justice to rule that, because North had testified under immunity before Congress in 1987, Judge Gerhard Gesell had to conduct a witness-by-witness, line-by-line review of the testimony to determine if any of the 67 witnesses had been influenced by North's immunized statements. When Robert McFarlane, North's immediate superior and the senior official responsible for the Iran-contra initiatives, told Judge Gesell on September 14 that North's congressional testimony had had "a very powerful impact," Walsh reluctantly threw in the towel, dropping all charges. (That move made it all but certain that Admiral John Poindexter's 1990 convictions on five counts will be similarly overturned.) So by giving limited immunity for his testimony in 1987, Congress in effect let North off the hook for the crimes he testified about.

But North's own words allow history to judge him, even if the legal system won't. Out of 12 counts, the jury found North guilty on three: Count 6, "aiding and abetting" the administration's effort to deceive Congress by writing false chronologies about the arms-for-hostages initiative in Iran; Count 9, altering and destroying documents by shredding; and Count 10, accepting an illegal gratuity in the form of a $13,800 security fence paid for by Richard Secord with monies raised from the arms sales.

On each of these charges, North-the man designated as the principal "fall guy" in the Iran-contra scandal, the one who volunteered to "take the spears in my chest"-had been grilled during the 1987 hearings by the lawyers and members of the select committees conducting the Iran-contra investigation; in each case he had openly admitted doing all these things, albeit with various justifications. Later, during his trial, North called himself a mere "pawn" and pointed his finger at higher-ups in the Reagan administration-in fact, members of the jury later told the press that they acquitted him on nine charges not because he was innocent but because they believed he was authorized. As Denise Anderson, foreman of the jury, told reporters, "Basically, on the counts of not guilty,' he was following orders." But during the hearings North took personal responsibility for his own actions. "I am not here to make excuses for anything that I did. I have accepted the responsibility for those things that I did." Count 6: The chronologies

In November 1986, amid daily headlines about U.S. government arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, Reagan administration officials panicked. North, Poindexter, McFarlane (who continued to play a role in the Iran initiative after resigning from the National Security Council), and others frantically began to construct cover stories. The primary goal of the president's men was to keep the lid on the most sensitive chapter of the Iran operations-the November 1985 shipment of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles from Israel to Iran. The CIA was directly involved in that mission, providing a proprietary airline to ferry the weapons and interceding with Portuguese officials who had refused to grant transit rights to the plane until they knew its precise cargo. The shipment was illegal; the CIA's participation took place without a Presidential Finding, which, according to the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act, is required for any covert operation. To bury this political bombshell, U.S. officials put together a series of chronologies entitled "U.S./Iranian Contacts and the American Hostages" that included in the final version the patently false story that U.S. officials believed at the time that the shipment consisted not of missiles but merely of oil-drilling equipment.

During the hearings, North said that, in the middle of falsifying the chronologies, Secord grew exasperated.

"General Secord said, That's not true. I'm not going to help anymore in this. I'm leaving,' " North recounted. "And he got up and left. And I continued to work on this version because I believed that that's what needed to be put out, because that's what Mr. McFarlane had given me."

"Are you saying that you decided it was appropriate to put out a false version of the facts," North was asked, "or are you saying that you decided it was appropriate to follow Mr. McFarlane's instructions?"

"I am saying that I decided that I would continue to participate in preparing a version of the chronology ... that was not accurate. I did participate in that activity, wittingly and knowingly."

Count 9: The shredding

No one disputes that a "shredding party," as North described it to McFarlane, took place in the Old Executive Office Building, Room 302, as the Iran-contra operations began to unravel. Fawn Hall, North's secretary, testified that on November 21, after Attorney General Edwin Meese initiated what he called an "informal inquiry," massive shredding began: "To the best of my recollection it was early evening. I believe I probably-Colonel North probably opened the five-drawer safe and began to pull items from it, and I joined him in an effort so that he would not have to-wast[e] his time shredding. As he pulled documents from each drawer and placed them on top of the shredder, I inserted them into the shredder. At the same time, I asked him if I could go ahead and shred the PROF notes and phone logs. He acknowledged I should go ahead and do that, and I did so."

The quantity of documents was so great, Hall testified, that the shredder jammed and a technician from the NSC's Crisis Management Center had to be called in to fix it so the destruction could continue.

North claimed that he shredded documents almost every day" as part of his covert operations. But under questioning by Chief Counsel John Nields, he stated: "I do not deny that I engaged in shredding on November 21." North explained that his shredding had begun in October, after an airplane carrying illicit weapons for the contras was shot down over Nicaragua. [A]t that point I began to, one, recognize that I would be leaving the NSC, because that was a purpose for my departure, to offer the scapegoat, if you will, and, second of all, recognizing it was coming down, I didn't want some new person walking in there opening files that would possibly expose people at risk."

Count 10: The security fence

In the summer of 1986, a colleague of Secord's, Glenn Robinette, a retired CIA technical expert, installed a $13,800 security fence around North's home in Great Falls, Virginia. When North was fired from the NSC on November 25, 1986, he realized, as he later explained to Congress, that "I had accepted something that I had not paid for" and that this just didn't look right." North called Robinette, who sent him two backdated invoices. North then attempted to create a false paper trail about payment for the fence by twice driving over to a Best Products store at a nearby mall to type letters on a display model typewriter. North subsequently gave those letters to Robinette.

Of all the issues of impropriety that came up during North's Iran-contra testimony, the security fence scheme is the one to which he most readily admitted. True to form, he offered a lengthy justification for his actions: Abu Nidal had "targeted me for assassination" and the U.S. government wouldn't expeditiously install a security system, so North turned to Secord for help.

"The security system . . . was installed by Mr. Robinette with General Secord's money, or the Enterprise's money, or Mr. [Albert] Hakim's money," North admitted to the committee. He confessed to "making a serious, serious judgment error in what I then did to paper it over. I did probably the grossest misjudgment that I have made in my life. I then tried to paper over that whole thing by sending two phony documents back to Mr. Robinette.... I have admitted to that. I am here to tell the truth, even when it hurts. Okay? They are phony."

True North

Toward the end of his appearance before the Iran-Contra committees, North was questioned by Republican Counsel George Van Cleve, who reviewed his transgressions:

VAN CLEVE: "And you've admitted that

you've lied to the Congress; is that correct?"

NORTH: "I have."

VAN CLEVE: "And you've admitted that you

lied in creating false chronologies . . . is that

correct?"

NORTH: "That is true."

VAN CLEVE: "And you've admitted that you

created false documents that were intended to

mislead investigators with respect to a gift that

was made to you; is that correct?"

NORTH: "No."

VAN CLEVE: "I think I understand the reason

for your hesitation. You've certainly admitted

that the documents themselves were completely

false; is that correct?"

NORTH: "That is correct."

VAN CLEVE: "And they were intended to create

a record of an event that never occurred; is

that correct?"

NORTH: "That is correct."

Oliver North got away with a lot; he emerges from the scandal legally guiltless, a national celebrity able to rake in $25,000 for a short speech. And North was not the only one to slip by. In the end, no one culpable in Iran-contra is likely to spend a day in prison, except possibly Thomas Clines, a former CIA operative who was sentenced to 16 months for tax evasion-reinforcing the Al Capone rule that you can get away with anything as long as you don't screw with the IRS. "No one," notes Jeffrey Toobin in Opening Arguments, his book about the North prosecution, "was convicted of diverting money from the Iran arms sales. . . . No one even stood trial for providing illegal assistance to the contras." Thanks to Congress's ineptitude, the lesson of Oliver North's case for future would-be government crooks is this: Just do it. Oh-and get a good agent.

It now appears that none of the government actors in the Iran-contra scandal will be significantly punished for his crimes. Consider the recent plea bargain of former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Here is a man whose testimony before Congress in 1986 on illicitly raising money for the contras reeked of perjury-"I've heard [your testimony] and I want to puke," Senator Thomas Eagleton told Abrams at the time. But although the senator predicted "slammer time" for Abrams, he is unlikely to spend a day behind bars. Instead, when Abrams is sentenced on November 15 for two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, he will most probably join former NSC Adviser Robert McFarlane as another Reagan administration official who pled guilty to deceiving Congress and received only a manageable fine, probation, and a sentence of community service.

The two biggest fish to get away in the Iran-contra affair were Ronald Reagan and George Bush. According to the documentary record, both men supported the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran and both solicited third-country support for the contras. But neither man penned Nixon-like directives to his subordinates, leaving a convenient gap in the historical record. Instead, both engaged in a sort of Book-of-the-Month Club decision-making process: Their assistants regularly presented a catalog of deceptions and deals-and the president and vice president simply never returned the rejection card.

According to the record, some 40 top- and mid-level officials, including George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger and decisionmakers from every agency in the national security bureaucracy, share responsibility for various facets of the Iran-contra affair. Most escaped legal action, in part because of the decision by investigators to focus on the relatively narrow diversion issue, instead of broader questions of deceiving and evading the will of Congress. Still, so far a dozen individuals have faced criminal prosecution as a result of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's ongoing probe, and more indictments are possible.

What has happened to those who actually stood in the dock? The following is a status report, based largely on information from the independent counsel's office, on the criminal defendants-some former government officials, some private citizens-in the Iran-contra scandal:

GOVERNMENT

* Robert C. McFarlane: Pleaded guilty on March 11, 1988, to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, after a plea-bargain agreement with Walsh. Walsh hoped to obviate a difficult trial against a high-level official who had tried to kill himself, apparently as penance for his misdeeds, and use the deal to turn McFarlane into a witness against North. But according to Jeffrey Toobin, a former attorney in Walsh's office, the deal was one of the independent counsel's worst blunders. McFarlane proved a virtual apologist for North on the stand. Then, at North's post-trial hearing on whether his congressional testimony had tainted his trial, McFarlane may have single-handedly cost Walsh's office the case. Thus, in exchange for a sentence against McFarlane of two years' probation, a $20,000 fine, and 200 hours of community service, Walsh succeeded only in getting his most important case blown out of the water.

* John M. Poindexter: After a jury found him guilty of five felony counts, including conspiracy and obstruction of Congress, McFarlane's successor as national security adviser was sentenced on June 11, 1990, to five concurrent six-month prison terms and a $250 court fee. Poindexter has appealed and, given the outcome of North's case, appears likely to win a reversal of his convictions on a similar technicality.

* Joseph Fernandez: On November 24, 1989, this former CIA station chief in Costa Rica had his four-count case of making false statements to official investigators thrown out after Attorney General Richard Thornburgh refused to allow classified information needed for his defense to be used in open court. (Walsh warned that this action "created an unacceptable enclave [the CIA] that is free from the rule of law.") On September 6, 1990, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.

* Alan D. Fiers: On July 9, 1991, the former chief of the CIA:s Central America Task Force pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain to two misdemeanor charges involving withholding information from Congress. No sentencing date has been set.

* Clair E. George: Based on information obtained from Fiers, Walsh indicted George on September 6, 1991. The former head of covert operations at the CIA faces 10 counts of perjury, false statements, and obstruction, to which he pleaded not guilty on September 12.

* Elliott Abrams: On October 7, 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.

NONGOVERNMENT

* Carl "Spitz" Channell: The first person brought to justice in the affair, Channell pleaded guilty on April 29, 1987, to a single charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States by improperly using a tax-exempt organization to buy arms for the contras. He was sentenced on July 7, 1989, to what would become a standard punishment for Iran-contra defendants (two years' probation) plus a $50 fee.

* Richard R. Miller: Channell's co-defendant, Miller entered a guilty plea on May 6, 1987, and on July 6, 1989, received a sentence of two years' probation, 120 hours of community service, and a $50 fee.

* Richard V. Secord: North's principal agent in the field, Secord struck a deal with Walsh reducing his original multicount indictments to a single felony charge of making false statements to Congress. He pleaded guilty on November 8, 1989, and on January 24, 1990, received a sentence of two years' probation and a $50 fee.

* Albert Hakim: Secord's financial partner, Hakim pleaded guilty on November 21, 1989, to supplementing North's salary, a misdemeanor. In addition, Lake Resources, one of the main companies in the Enterprise," of which Hakim was principal shareholder, pleaded guilty to theft of government property in connection with the diversion of the Iran arms-sales profits to the contras. Hakim's sentence, handed down on February 1, 1990, was two years' probation and a $5,000 fine; he was allowed to keep $1.7 million of the illicit proceeds. Lake Resources was dissolved.

* Thomas G. Clines: Although deeply involved with Secord in efforts to arm the contras, Clines ultimately faced four felony charges, not for those activities themselves, but for filing false income tax returns; he had omitted his income from the arms deals, along with other financial information. He was found guilty on September 18, 1990. Ironically, for these tax offenses Clines faces the longest prison term-16 months-of any Iran-contra defendant to date. His sentence, delivered on December 13, 1990, included $40,000 in fines, a $200 special assessment, and the full cost of prosecution. He has appealed the conviction.

P. K., M. B., T B.
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Title Annotation:Oliver North of the Iran-Contra scandal; includes related article on people involved in the scandal
Author:Blanton, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:3020
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