The Washington Post Magazine

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

My colleagues urged me to think of my questions not as a cross-examination in a trial but as a redirect, as though I were the lawyer who had put the witness on the stand in the first place. Redirect isn't a hostile examination. Its purpose is to highlight facts already brought out in direct examination, facts favorable to the questioner. Rather than attacking North, I would focus on how the Iranian arms sales, the covert contra support and the Enterprise had subverted our constitutional system of checks and balances. Reshuffling my papers, I went back into the caucus room to question the hero.

    Oliver North photo
North confers with lawyer Brendan Sullivan.
(James K.W. Atherton)
I chose the most dramatic and damaging parts of North's story in terms of the rule of law. I brought out again that Casey had told him to be the fall guy, to take the responsibility for any illegal or embarrassing acts. Above all else, the president had to have deniability. Once the story of Iran-contra began leaking out, North testified, Casey had warned him that Poindexter might also have to take the fall, since North was not senior enough.

North, however, hadn't been willing to go to jail. When, on November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese had announced the appointment of an independent counsel, North was, as he put it, "the only person on the planet Earth" named in the independent counsel's order. That wasn't part of his deal, was it? No. And that had made him resolve to tell the whole story.

I had North repeat his testimony that the diversion was Casey's idea, that Casey had been proud to get the Ayatollah Khomeini's money to support American interests in Nicaragua, that North had written the five memoranda to Poindexter, and that they were intended for the president. He also repeated his testimony about lying to Congress and shredding documents, and he blamed Congress for creating Iran-contra by passing laws against aid to the contras, not the administration for evading those laws. His testimony, whatever he thought and whatever the television audience thought at the time, was a stark rejection of basic constitutional principles.

When I began, North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, tried to disrupt my examination with many objections. North, however, was a perceptive witness, and once he sensed I wasn't out to attack him, he started overruling his own lawyer. He was reassured further by a small incident. On that day in November 1986 when he was fired from the NSC staff, he had written a rather intimate entry in his diaries in which he'd listed his "priorities," first and foremost of which was his family. At one point, I began to question him about it, although I had some misgivings because the tone of the entry was so personal and anguished. North paused when I asked him a preliminary question, then engaged in a long discussion with Sullivan. When they'd finished, North looked back at me, and I could see he was on the verge of tears. I decided instead to move on to another topic. From that point on North was noticeably less belligerent and more forthcoming. The next day I got a handwritten note from him, thanking me for not having pressed him on the matter.

The spotlight and all eyes are on North on July 7, 1987, the lieutenant colonel's first day as a witness.
(Rich Lipski)
In fact, I finished my examination as quickly as I could, knowing that it stood no chance of changing the public's opinion of North. I was able to use his testimony to emphasize that Iran-contra had never been the escapade of a single, out-of-control loose cannon of a Marine lieutenant colonel, but instead a policy, and one that, whichever side one was on, went all the way to the president. And I was able to reinforce what Nields had brought out earlier -- that we were dealing with activities of a constitutional dimension, inconsistent in every way with our principles of accountability and a government under law.

When it was all over -- after 40 days of public hearings -- the public and the media tended to believe that Congress somehow had "lost" and the witnesses "won." Perhaps, in some senses, this was so. But Iran-contra wasn't about winning and losing. An attempt had been made to undermine our Constitution. What the investigation accomplished was to bring all of it, in all its details, to the national attention. In this sense, I believe we all won.

From the forthcoming book Lawyer: A Life of Counsel and Controversy by Arthur L. Liman. Copyright 1998 by Ellen Liman. To be published by Public Affairs next month. All rights reserved.

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