The Washington Post Magazine

Hostile Witnesses
(Page Three)
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 1998











LIMAN: Now, Admiral, did there come a time in connection with this transaction when the CIA sent over to you a proposed finding for the president to sign?

POINDEXTER: Yes, Mr. Liman. This is the finding which I discussed with you earlier, on the second of May, which I destroyed.

LIMAN: Now, if we look at that finding . . . Did you receive the letter of November 26, 1985, from William Casey, addressed to you, which says, "Pursuant to our conversation, this should go to the president for his signature and should not be passed around in any hands below our level"?

POINDEXTER: I did receive that.

LIMAN: Admiral, when you saw the finding, am I correct that the finding itself was essentially a straight arms-for-hostage finding?

POINDEXTER: That is correct . . .

LIMAN: Did the president of the United States sign that finding?

POINDEXTER: As I have testified before, he did, on or about the fifth of December.

Poindexter said further that Reagan hadn't known he was destroying the finding. He described it for the committee as follows:

POINDEXTER: Later in the afternoon or early evening (of November 21, 1986), Commander Paul B. Thompson brought into my office the envelopes that I had given him earlier containing the material we had on the Iranian project in the immediate office, which was essentially the various findings, and he pulled out this November finding -- it was actually signed in December -- and my recollection is that he said something to the effect that, "They'll have a field day with this."

And my recollection is that the import of his comment was that up until that time, in November 1986, the president was being beaten about the head and shoulders, that this was -- the whole Iranian project was just an arms-for-hostage deal.

Well, this finding, unfortunately, gave that same impression. And I, frankly, didn't see any need for it at the time. I thought it was politically embarrassing. And so I decided to tear it up, and I tore it up, put it in the burn basket behind my desk . . .

LIMAN: Did you regard one of the responsibilities of the national security adviser to protect the president from political embarrassment?

POINDEXTER: I think that it's always the responsibility of the staff to protect their leader, and certainly in this case, where the leader is the commander in chief, I feel very strongly that that's one of the roles . . .

The implications were obvious. If Poindexter saw it as his duty to destroy an official record to protect the president from political embarrassment, where did that sense of duty stop? How could we believe anything he'd told us? How, in fact, could we credit his claim that he'd destroyed the finding without the president's knowledge? Suppose that, later, the president remembered having signed the finding and asked Poindexter for it. Would Poindexter really have put himself in a position where he would have to tell the president of the United States he'd shredded a signed written order and not bothered to tell him he was doing so?

Many members of the committees, Republicans included, were as skeptical of Poindexter's absolution of the president as I was. At the same time, we agreed, browbeating him in front of the television cameras wouldn't have done us the slightest good. Privately, however, I was less restrained in expressing my opinions. Once, during a recess when Poindexter was testifying, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and I were talking when a reporter approached and asked what I thought of the testimony. Out of sheer frustration, I said bluntly, "It's bull[expletive]." Unfortunately, we were close enough to a live network microphone, and my comment was broadcast. When the hearings resumed, the House Republicans launched such a vigorous counterattack that I leaned over to Nunn, who was sitting next to me, and commented that, while Reagan was safe, it looked like I was the one who was going to be impeached.

I share responsibility for making Oliver North into a national hero. In retrospect, I think it was almost inevitable. North, boyishly handsome and photogenic, sat in his Marine uniform with his medals at a simple table, alone with his lawyer. Arrayed against him, on an elevated two-tier platform, sat 11 senators and 15 members of the House committee, plus all their aides and staff. Steven Spielberg later told me that North was televised at the hero's angle, looking up as though from a pit at the committees, who resembled two rows of judges at the Spanish Inquisition. Spielberg called that the villains' angle. Unfortunately, the committees had built the platforms without any advice from a movie director.

Rudman tried to persuade Inouye, when North began testifying, to wear his Distinguished Service Cross along with the Good Conduct Medal he habitually wore in his lapel. But Inouye, who lost his right arm during the war, replied that he wore the latter medal because he'd earned it, whereas he'd only gotten the Distinguished Service Cross by being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- that is, in the line of enemy fire! For my part, if I had it to do over again, I'd hire a Vietnam War vet to examine North. As it was, the Marine lieutenant colonel could all too easily portray himself as a patriot and a war hero being bullied by politicians and their lawyers.

Before we even knew what had hit us, the most nonpartisan hearings ever held in the U.S. Congress came across on television as unfair.

With North, as with all the other witnesses, Nields and I divided the questioning. Nields's questions, like a direct examination at a trial, were designed to bring out North's basic story, including his lying to Congress, his shredding of documents, his creating the Enterprise, the diversion, and his accepting the role of fall guy. I, in turn, would examine North about allegations that he had misappropriated money from the Enterprise for personal use.

A Washington lawyer named David M. Lewis, who had contacted Nields, told us that he'd had professional dealings with one Willard Zucker, an American lawyer residing in Switzerland who had handled the Enterprise's bank accounts. In the fall of 1986, Lewis claimed, Zucker had asked him to arrange a fictitious real estate commission of $200,000 to Oliver North's wife. Lewis had refused. He'd had no contact with the Norths. Zucker, in turn, had refused to cooperate with us.

North's associate Albert Hakim, however, had testified that he asked Zucker to set up a $200,000 trust in Switzerland for North's family as an "insurance policy" for North if he was killed during his trip to Tehran. According to Hakim, however, he never told North about it.

I had also discovered, when examining Adolfo Calero, the head of the contras, that he had given some $100,000 in traveler's checks belonging to the contras to North. Finally, we had also established in the earlier part of the hearings that Richard Secord, one of the Iran-contra conspirators, used Enterprise funds to pay for a security fence around North's home and that North created false documents showing that he was the one who'd paid for the fence.

These subjects, not nearly as serious as the constitutional violations of Iran-contra, were to be explored during my second examination.

Nields's questioning of North, over a two-day period, elicited even more damning admissions than we'd expected. North acknowledged that he'd established the Enterprise -- at Casey's direction. He admitted the diversion of funds and said that Poindexter had authorized it. North testified that he believed the president had been aware of the diversion. At Poindexter's direction, he said, he'd written the five memoranda intended for the president that referred to the diversion. He admitted that he had shredded them when the scandal had broken, but he had missed one copy. He told of having lied to the Congress about the contras. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, he said, had been aware of his activities in supporting the contras and was involved in the coverup. (Abrams later pleaded guilty to lying to the Congress.) North admitted shredding all documents relating to his contra and Iranian activities -- at Casey's suggestion. He testified that McFarlane had asked him to alter official records to delete references to direct assistance to the contras and that he'd helped

McFarlane prepare the false chronology in November 1986, covering up the president's role in the missile sales through Israel. He testified that Casey, who died in May 1987, told him that he -- North -- was to be the "fall guy" for Ronald Reagan if the contra and Iranian operations ever became known, and that the president, after firing him, had called him and told him there were "some things a president doesn't know."

I had rarely, if ever, seen a cooperating witness in a criminal case who admitted more than North did. But there was one salient difference. Even when making these admissions, North acted like a hostile witness. He made all his illegal acts -- the lying to the Congress, the diversion, the formation of the Enterprise, the coverup -- seem logical and patriotic.

Somehow, it got to John Nields, some realization perhaps that whatever crimes he'd committed, North was nevertheless emerging a national hero. Normally a mild and gentle examiner, Nields became unexpectedly and unnecessarily acrimonious. Before the eyes of the nation, an old conflict was reprised, the Vietnam veterans against the protesters -- North, with his crew cut, pressed uniform and upright military bearing, Nields with his long hair -- and with it an old national perception, born out of the frustration of those years, that, even if the war had been wrong, somehow the protesters had been wrong, too.

The longer the examination went on, the angrier Nields grew. And then, suddenly, he started questioning North about possible misappropriations of money -- the very matters we'd agreed I would cover later.

The tactic backfired. In a bravura performance, North managed to deflect Nields's angry allegations and became the victim -- an unlikely switch but one that took place right before the cameras. The result overshadowed all that Nields had accomplished in bringing out North's story. In response to Nields's probing, North testified that he'd built the security fence to protect his family against a terrorist threat, and that Calero's traveler's checks had merely reimbursed him for money he'd laid out of his own pocket for the contras.

Essentially a spectator to Nields's examination, I also got my first glimpse of how the networks were covering it. At least one of the network anchormen kept describing the hearing like a sporting event -- and clearly he had North way ahead on points. It didn't seem to make a particle of difference that North was describing a deliberate and systematic operation to subvert the Constitution. The anchorman couldn't have cared less.

But not even the television coverage prepared me -- or any of us -- for the extraordinary public response. A veritable tidal wave of telegrams poured in in support of North. We had no idea, at the time, that Western Union was offering a discount rate for a stock telegram supporting North, while telegrams supporting the committees were transmitted at regular rates, but at the same time, North's supporters were flooding the telephone lines of the members of the committees with calls. When I questioned North myself, I received thousands of threatening letters, including a number of ugly antisemitic ones, and for several days, Inouye and I received special police protection.

Nields questioned North for a full two days and finished at the noon break on the third day. I had an hour to decide what to do. My choices were few.

Not that I needed further proof, but the magnitude of North's popularity was also brought home to me by the Capitol Police. Many had served Congress for decades. They were proud employees. They respected and protected the senators and representatives, and they couldn't have been more cordial to me.

But they also were subject to the same emotional pulls and responses as the public. Maybe Oliver North had practically spit in the eyes of their employers, but he still came across as a patriot and celebrity. During one luncheon recess, while North was on the stand, I'd walked back into the hearing room to retrieve some papers. An embarrassed guard tried to stop me, but too late. In the room was a line of Capitol Police officers, maybe as many as 100, waiting for North to autograph some memento. For the first time, I felt disillusioned.

The senators, of course, were keenly aware of what was going on. All they wanted was for me to get North off the stand as quickly as possible. I myself knew I could only make matters worse by challenging him. Besides, I believed most of his story.

I'd prepared an examination that would focus on the attempts to launder money for North's family. Even if North were to deny knowledge of these efforts by Hakim and Zucker, I'd thought I could succeed in removing some more of the patriotic patina from the Enterprise. But after North's performance, the committees -- all of us -- would have been lynched if we'd made too much of the subject. So during that recess, after Nields had finished his examination, I cut out all my planned questions on money. I wasn't even sure I should conduct an examination at all, and several members of the committees had already suggested that I not do so. As I was working, though, Warren Rudman came in and told me that both he and Inouye wanted me to proceed, pointing up the constitutional issues, not the personal ones. I wasn't to worry about the reactions of the other members of the committees either. He and Inouye would take care of them.

(continued on Page Four)

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