The House and Senate Iran-contra panels yesterday pressed for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North to undergo questioning in private as attorneys for the former White House aide and the congressional panels sought a compromise over North's refusal to be interviewed before testifying publicly.
The initial, closed-door questioning of North, scheduled to begin yesterday, was abruptly canceled after attorneys for North told the panels Wednesday that North would not discuss his role in the Iran-contra affair before his public appearance before the committees, now anticipated in mid-July.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House select committee, said conversations with North's attorneys yesterday indicated there was "some flexibility," which might lead to a compromise. Hamilton and a Republican member of the Senate select committee said that attorneys for the panels are trying to persuade North's lawyers to permit some limited, private interrogation of North.
The Republican Senate committee member said that Senate committee chief counsel Arthur L. Liman "wants to know the answers to some major questions" before North begins his public testimony. "I think we can negotiate that," said the Senate member, who added that House Democrats are especially adamant on this issue.
Hamilton, along with Rep. Dick Cheney (Wyo.), the ranking Republican on the House panel, met with reporters yesterday after a closed session of the House panel. Hamilton said "we think the private testimony is very important." The House panel decided to postpone until next week a decision on how to respond to North in hopes that a compromise can be reached.
Cheney, one of the Reagan administration's top supporters on the panels, said that North's public image would suffer greatly if his latest move is part of an overall strategy aimed at avoiding all testimony to the congressional committees.
Cheney said that any attempt by North to evade all congressional testimony would also "do serious damage to those who have tried to defend the president"; he said that North's refusal to testify in public would likely result in a virtually unanimous vote to charge him with contempt of Congress.
In other action yesterday, new details emerged about the role North and retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord played in running a secret Nicaraguan contra air resupply operation as the committees released the testimony of retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Richard B. Gadd.
Gadd, a Secord associate who was recruited to help run the operation, told congressional investigators that North told him he had asked the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to help persuade the Venezuelan air force to sell some planes to the contra air operation. Congressional sources said that they have not been able to determine whether North contacted the embassy.
Gadd also testified that Secord told him that he had urged then-Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey to have the agency purchase the operation's planes and other assets after Congress resumed U.S. military aid to the contras. Secord had testified that he did not plan to sell the operation's assets to the CIA and that he told Casey that the agency was welcome to take possession of the planes and other materiel.
The secret air resupply operation was exposed last October when a cargo plane ferrying arms to contra troops was shot down over Nicaragua, leading to the capture of crewman Eugene Hasenfus.
Gadd, a covert operations expert in the Air Force, said that he met Secord in 1980 while both worked on Defense Department plans to attempt to rescue U.S. hostages held in Iran. After they retired from the service, Secord asked Gadd to help arrange arms flights for the contras between Portugal and Central America.
Gadd said that he coordinated five or six such arms deliveries between 1985 and 1986. He said he arranged for the shipments through Southern Air Transport Inc., a Miami air cargo firm.
In September 1985, Gadd said, Secord asked him to purchase planes and devise a plan for the contra air resupply operation, which got under way in 1986. Gadd said that two months later North directed Secord to provide Gadd with an advance of $150,000 to purchase planes for the operation.
Gadd also testified that North asked him in October 1985 to look into building a secret air strip in Costa Rica, which was to be a refueling point for the contra resupply operation. North showed him on a map where he wanted the airstrip to be built, Gadd said.
Through Secord, Gadd said, one of his firms received $100,000 for supervising construction of the airstrip.
Other highlights of Gadd's testimony were:
Around the time Gadd was involved in arranging arms deliveries to the contras, one his companies received a contract from the State Department to deliver nonlethal aid to the contras in Central America. Gadd said he got the contract after North arranged a meeting with Ambassador Robert Duemling, the head of the State Department humanitarian aid office overseeing the deliveries.
In April 1985, North and Secord flew to El Salvador where they met with contra leaders and a Salvadoran general to discuss the resupply operation, which was located at the Salvadoran air base at Ilopango. Secord and North told Gadd that a contra official tried to say that the operation's planes belonged to the rebels. But, Gadd said, Secord and North told him they informed the rebel leader that the planes were owned by a private group.