Excerpts from testimony yesterday by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, being questioned by Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine):

Q:You've said that covert actions require secrecy and deception. Our democratic process places a high value on the very opposite characteristics of openness and truth. So the real question, and the much more difficult question, is how to conduct covert operations in an open, democratic society in a lawful manner in which public officials are accountable for their acts.

And so my first question is, do you believe that the president has unrestricted power to conduct covert action?

A: Within the limits of the constitutional authority to prosecute the foreign policy of the United States, the president has a very wide mandate to carry out activities secretly or publicly, as he chooses . . . I do not believe that the things that we did in pursuing the two principal covert actions we've discussed and some of the subsidiary activities that were pursued as a consequence of the revenues generated were in any way prohibited.

And the fact is that the president, since the founding of the Republic, has always held that he could send his agents, he could discuss things and negotiate with foreign leaders, and to do so within the framework of the constitutional authority as the head of state and the commander-in-chief has widely been held to be within his presidential purview.

There are certainly those who can debate whether or not a certain period of time is appropriate for notification, given the constraints of Hughes-Ryan and the National Security Act, and I am certainly not going to sit here and debate them with you.

My sense is that we are going to agree to disagree at the end of this hearing on how wide and perhaps even how deep the presidential authorities go.

Q:Is it your contention that the president could authorize and conduct covert actions with unappropriated funds? Is that the point you're trying to make?

A: Yes.

Q: And in such event, to whom would the president be accountable?

A: To the American people . . . that elected him, senator . . . and that's one of the issues that came up the other day, that no elected official knew A, B or C and my point is that the president is the highest official in the land . . . answerable to the American people and ultimately under the Constitution answerable to the people through a variety of means. Reelection; they can vote him out of office. They chose not to do so.

Q: But of course, if, by definition, covert action is secret and he doesn't tell them about it, there's no way the American people can know about it to be able to vote him out of office on that basis, is there?

Mitchell continued the questioning later on covert activity.

Q: Since the law and President Reagan's written instructions required that before the National Security Council could conduct a covert operation, the president had to specifically designate the National Security Council for that purpose . . . . And secondly, since the law requires that before any covert action could be conducted, the president must specifically authorize it. Since you've testified that you conducted a covert operation, and since you've further testified that the president neither designated the National Security Council to conduct covert operations nor did he make a finding authorizing this covert operation, what was the legal basis for your activities with respect to this covert operation?

A: . . . The fact is, the president can do what he wants with his own staff. The National Security Council staff is not included within the constraints that are depicted in either the executive order or the NSDD {National Security Decision Directive} as an intelligence agency.

And thus, in neither case does the law provide that the president had to do what you are saying he had to do . . . . I would also point out again that that language right here in paragraph two of the NSDD extract that you have, is taken directly from the executive order . . . . If the president chooses to waive his own executive orders, or chooses to waive the provisions of his own NSDDs, which do not have the force of law, it is fully within his rights to do so.

Q: But the president told the Tower board, and I quote: "The president told the board on Jan. 26, 1987, that he did not know that the NSC staff was engaged in helping the contras." And, therefore, the president could not have waived the provisions of the orders as you've described, and could have not so designated the NSC if, as he said, he did not know that the NSC staff was engaged in helping the contras, could he?

A: You're asking me to speak for the president. What he said to the Tower board -- and I have not talked with the Tower board nor was I there when he did. The fact is, as I have testified for four straight days . . . kept my superiors fully apprised of just exactly what I was doing. They were and I was a member of the president's staff. The president has since said, I believe publicly, that he was aware of what was being done and that in fact, it was at least partially his idea. There is no doubt that the president wanted the policy of support for the Nicaraguan resistance pursued and I did so to the very best of my abilities.

Following his questioning, Mitchell delivered this speech:

You've talked here often and eloquently about the need for a democratic outcome in Nicaragua. There's no disagreement on that. There is disagreement over how best to achieve that objective.

Many Americans agree with the president's policy. Many do not. Many patriotic Americans, strongly anticommunist, believe there's a better way to contain the Sandinistas, to bring about a democratic outcome in Nicaragua and to bring peace to Central America.

And many patriotic Americans are concerned that in the pursuit of democracy abroad we not compromise it in any way here at home.

. . . Now you've talked a lot about patriotism and the love of our country. Most nations derive from a single tribe, a single race. They practice a single religion. Common racial, ethnic, religious heritages are the glue of nationhood for many.

The United States is different. We have all races, all religions. We have a limited common heritage. The glue of nationhood for us is the American ideal of individual liberty and equal justice. The rule of law is critical in our society. It's the great equalizer, because in America everybody is equal before the law. We must never allow the end to justify the means where the law is concerned.

. . . Now, you've addressed several pleas to this committee, very eloquently. None more eloquent than last Friday when in response to a question by Rep. (Dick) Cheney, you asked that Congress not cut off aid to the contras, for the love of God and for the love of country.

I now address a plea to you. Of all the qualities the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressive than your obvious deep devotion to this country. Please remember that others share that devotion and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do.

Although He is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism. I want to repeat that.

In America, disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.

Indeed it's the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.

Now, I have one final plea. Debate this issue forcefully and vigorously as you have and as you surely will, but please, do it in a way that respects the partiotism and the motives of those who disagree with you as you would have them respect yours.

Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) questioned North about how he came to be in charge of supporting the contras.

Q: Did you understand that that was an instruction which was being passed on directly from the president, or Mr. McFarlane's decision as to who should be the operations officer for that?

A: I clearly understood that to be what the president's desires were, sir.

Q: That he singled you out through Mr. McFarlane . . . .

A: No, I don't necessarily mean to infer that the president said, "Look Bud, I want Ollie to do this and nobody else." I clearly understood that Mr. McFarlane wanted me to be the person who was the point of contact.

Q: . . . Did Mr. McFarlane ask you specifically to do these things -- to provide for financial assistance, to provide for military delivery of weapons . . . ?

A: I would guess that the very first requirement was to go down and establish discreet contact with the resistance, and I did so at a period in time when the CIA was still the authorized entity of U.S. government to provide that kind of contact. I was introduced to the leadership of the resistance by the CIA and there came a time when the CIA began to wean itself away as a consequence of reduced funding availability. And by the time the Boland proscriptions of October . . . came into effect, I was the person left to contact. Mr. McFarlane was the person who turned to me to establish the initial resistance account offshore to which money was sent by a foreign government.

Q: . . . He specifically directed you to do that?

A: Yes sir.

Here are portions of a speech given by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.):

Now we've heard that a free nation cannot operate in a shroud of secrecy. That is one of the great testaments that we've learned from these hearings. A little bicentennial note again . . . our Constitution was fashioned in secrecy. It was shrouded in secrecy. Nobody was permitted to the debates. And the Bill of Rights was born in secrecy.

That's one of the problems. We don't really have many notes. We've got Madison's notes, which are incomplete, about what really went on in the constitutional convention. And the greatest triumph in diplomacy since I've served in Congress was Camp David -- was Jimmy Carter bringing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together, putting them in a room, locking the door -- secrecy, secrecy . . . .

Let me give you a quotation that you might carry with you, and I quote: "A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving country when in danger are of highest obligation." And that same person said said quote: "On great occasions, every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going behind the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it." Now the person who said those things had a little bit to do with the founding of this country. We have a monument to him called the Jefferson Memorial. So, I think it's worth understanding that.

Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) questioned North regarding the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

The act was passed in an effort to prevent White House documents from being shredded or burned in fireplaces or removed from history in other creative ways . . . . Certainly the loss of the documents that you shredded has altered our understanding of our nation's history, if not the course of history itself. And I would ask you, would you retrieve those documents from the shredder today if you could?

Congressman Brooks, I have testified to the facts as to what I have done, to those who told me to do what I did, to those with whom I was involved throughout. I have answered every question about those facts that I possibly could have in the last 5 1/2 days. I have now been told we're going to extend it further. And I don't think it's appropriate now, nor is it at any point in this for me to answer hypothetical questions about things that can never be.

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) summed up his questioning of North this way:

Col. North, finally everyone else has had something to say to you. I have something to take -- take some difference of opinion with you on, and it's in your statement that you delivered here last Thursday morning. You said about the Congress, "I suggest to you that it's the Congress which must accept the blame on the Nicaraguan freedom-fighting matter. Plain and simple, you are to blame because of the fickle, vacillating, unpredictable on-again, off-again policy towards the resistance." You're entitled to your view, but I . . . want to share some of my views with you.

It's interesting that national polling data over the course of the last three years have shown that -- in the latest Harris poll in June, 74 to 22 {percent of the} people in this country oppose aid to the contras . . . . And that is why this Congress has been fickle and vacillating.

Now you may suggest that some of us voted anyway, even though it's against what our constituents believe. But I want to point out to you, Col. North, that the Constitution starts with the words, "We the people." There is no way you can carry out a consistent policy if we the people disagree with it, because this Congress represents the people . . . .

I guess the last thing I want to say to you, colonel, is that the American people have the constitutional right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks or what Oliver North thinks or what I think or what anybody else thinks makes not a wit, if the American people say, "Enough." And that's why this Congress has been fickle and has vacillated -- that is correct. But, not because the people here necessarily believe differently than you do. But there comes a point that the views of the American people have to be heard.