Washington — Public funds and private dollars. Private priorities and the public agenda. Capitol Hill hearings have, so far, demonstrated the extraordinary degree to which the line between official conduct and private initiative was blurred by many of the key figures in the Iran-contra affair.
After a week of hearings, it's still unclear whether the millions of dollars raised from the Iran arms sales legally belong to the United States government or to private individuals, and whether efforts to get arms to the Nicaraguan rebels violated the law.
Much of the legal ambiguity that seems to have permeated the Iran-contra affair seems embodied in Richard Secord.
At times, General Secord claimed to be working on ``purely a commercial basis'' - as a broker of arms between the United States government and Iran, and as a weapons supplier to the Nicaraguan contras. At other times, he claimed to be acting to further US government policies, with official approval.
At times, Secord claimed that as a private citizen, he was exempt from the laws that prohibited certain government employees from aiding the contras. Indeed, he sometimes pointedly disobeyed directives from National Security Council officials.
But when pressed on whether some of his activities - such as starting negotiations with Iranian officials to facilitate arms sales - he claimed to be acting at the behest of the NSC staff, and, therefore, under the cover of law. At one point, he said, ``Our action was in furtherance of the President's policies.''
``My government,'' he said, ``asked me to undertake these projects.''
Yet, when pressed on whether the funds raised from the sale of weapons to Iran belonged to the US government, Secord insisted that they instead belonged to ``the enterprise,'' the loose confederation of public and private officials that masterminded the arms-to-Iran, guns-to-the-contras deal.
``It's my position that these are private funds,'' Secord said. Yet he testified that he intends to donate the money to a fund to aid the Nicaraguan contras established in memory of the late CIA director, William Casey.
The vice-chairman of the Senate committee investigating the affair, Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, said Secord had no right to determine how the funds would be spent. The Justice Department, he said, would decide that issue.
This byplay crystallized one of the central uncertainties that's emerging from the hearings: Was Secord doing the government's business, or acting as a private entrepreneur?
At times, Secord seemed to want it both ways. ``Can't I have two purposes?'' answered Secord, after Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland asked whether he arranged the deals to make money or to aid the contras.
The question is further complicated because foreign countries placed money in the Swiss bank account of one of the companies that Secord controlled, Lake Resources. But the money was donated at the urging of US officials, acting in their official capacity.
Secord also claimed that he paid the expenses of some Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who apparently tried to determine the whereabouts of US hostages in Lebanon.
There is evidence that even some key participants in the affair misstated the exact nature of what they were doing, and what official status they had.
In at least one memorandum, former NSC staff member Oliver North even referred to Secord as ``an agent of the CIA,'' a charge Secord denied vigorously.
At another point, Secord characterized weapons sales to Iran as ``a covert action through a private company.''
Secord, a retired Air Force major general, admitted that he had hoped one day he might return to government service as head of covert operations for the CIA. But he also insisted that ``I was not trying to create my own CIA. My purposes were a lot narrower than that.''
Meanwhile, Colonel North, a key figure in the affair, appeared in federal court Friday.
North and lawyers representing independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who is also investigating the affair, appeared before chief US district court judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr.
The hearing was held behind closed doors, and court records indicated only that it concerned a ``sealed grand jury matter.''
Lawyers for North were seen outside the room where Walsh has been presenting evidence before a grand jury, presumably seeking indictments.