Oliver North has always stood foursquare for the law, so it makes perfect sense that as a private citizen, he might find a line of work that services his friends in the law enforcement community. The retired lieutenant colonel's new business, Guardian Technologies International, makes ballistic protective garments: bulletproof vests.
North drove out to one of those industrial parks west of Dulles yesterday to hawk his line of missile-deflectors. His appearance at the Blue Ridge Arsenal, a shooting gallery and arms merchant, drew a noontime mob evenly divided between media and what the colonel called "real people." Those men, for men the "real people" mostly were, in turn were evenly divided between gun enthusiasts and North enthusiasts. The overlap is considerable.
Standing before a display of his protective outer- and under-wear ("When your life is on the line ... Guardian is your shield"), the former National Security Council operator and congressional-hearing idol talked briefly about "the product" and the lightweight "raw material" that makes it special: Spectra, a rugged fabric, and Spectra Shield, a laminate, manufactured by Allied Signal. Married to one another in protective togs designed and tested by Guardian, these miracle substances could save lives.
"The other products will stop the bullets too," North allowed. "It's just that our vest stops more, with less."
Such a vest saved his own life once, North said, and made him a permanent believer. "I have one on," North declared, baring that memorable smile that parts down the middle.
Others who wear them, if all goes according to North's plan, will be police officers and sheriff's deputies, SWAT teams, drug-bust brigades, private security forces, foreign security forces, armies, you name it.
By way of business motive, North cited his "great affection" for the law-enforcement community, praising the local police officers who had helped the North family "through our long travail" of press inquisition.
Accordingly, North's company is not in the business of saving just any human life. "We don't want the wrong people wearing them," he said. "Someone who would be a risk to those officers is not going to be able to get one of these vests." North did not say, a number of times, how retailers like Blue Ridge Arsenal would be able to distinguish between the law-enforcing and the villainous among their clientele. But he seemed confident that "agreements" with retailers would do the trick.
North and his partner, Guardian President Joseph Fernandez, didn't name any particular clients, either. North deployed one of those sly smiles in telling people that several foreign "heads of state" wear the vests. "Nobody likes to advertise that," he confided, though he was certainly trying.
North and Fernandez, as businessmen won't, also wouldn't discuss their financial situation, even to confirm that they are making a living at the trade yet. Fernandez pointed out, with a warm smile, that he is "under full annuity from his former employer," presumably meaning the Central Intelligence Agency.
As "Tomas Castillo," Fernandez was CIA station chief in Costa Rica during the contra resupply operation that got North, and Fernandez, in trouble during the second Reagan administration. A federal judge last year dismissed a four-count criminal indictment against Fernandez after the CIA refused to disclose classified material he would have needed for a proper defense of his actions.
North, whose name and face adorn the brochures for Guardian products, wanted to dispel any notion that he might be a mere figurehead. "I'm the CEO of the company, brother. I run it," North said, in answer to a question. The company has nine employees. He said he works 50 hours a week at it.
In other hours of the week, North heads the Freedom Alliance, a patriotic foundation and his political organization, which his relentless speechifying underwrites in part. He still has obligations to perform what remains of 1,200 hours of community service, under terms of his three-year suspended sentence for obstructing Congress and other federal crimes committed during the now largely forgotten Iran-contra affair.
After the television people got their footage, North mingled with the crowd, squeezing hands and God-blessing everyone. A shy-looking fellow stepped forward with a manila folder protecting his copy of the December 1987 Soldier of Fortune, and asked the man pictured on the cover to sign it.
"Sure, partner," said the genial ex-Marine. "Turn around and I'll use your back."
A woman produced an "Ollie North for President" T-shirt, by now surely a collector's item, and had the man sign that. He used not her back but a Guardian mannequin.
People hovered even closer, eyeballing each signature, palpably envious of the autograph-holders. No problem. North had brought along a stack of color photos to give out. He used a nail-hard sample of Spectra Shield as a platform for his autographing.
"Doug, All the Best, Oliver L. North," he wrote on Doug Tabbot's photo. "He's different," Tabbot said afterward, politely finding something to say that everyone could agree on. "He's very calm, very calm. Nothing seems to faze him at all."
On the periphery of the crowd, quietly eyeing the proceedings, stood a gentleman distinguished in appearance and years, Eugenio de Sosa. Cuban-born and Castro-jailed for 24 years, he was in town to do business with North and Fernandez, hoping to broker the sale of Guardian vests to law enforcers in Mexico and Venezuela. Their lightness is most suitable in torrid climates, he said. Asked if he thought he could sell them, de Sosa pursed his lips and dipped his chin in the international nod of quiet certainty.
Presently the throng drifted into the Blue Ridge Arsenal's firing range for a demonstration. North said a few more words and then watched from the sidelines, yellow plugs in his ears, while well-barbered young men in dark suits pointed firearms at a Guardian vest on a clay mount and fired round after punishing round.
The shooting stopped and then, John Cameron Swayze-style, North held the vest aloft for everyone to see. On close inspection of its Spectral innards, they saw squashed bullets and bullet fragments embedded in the layered material, with protection to spare.