Washington — The Man Who Isn't There is becoming a stronger presence at the Iran-contra hearings with each passing session. It seems as if almost every answer by every witness touches in some way on the actions of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the former National Security Council (NSC) aide who played a key role in American arms sales to Iran and diversion of proceeds to the contras. Colonel North himself will not testify before mid-June. For now, his evidently complex character is being outlined by what others say of him, like a picture blocked out by filling in the background.
He is being portrayed as a quick man with a phrase - ``shredding party'' being one of his most memorable. He cracked jokes as he dispensed thousands of dollars in traveler's checks for the contras from his office safe, then grew so tired from overwork that he had trouble reading his interoffice mail.
Above all he now seems to be someone who believed that more action would solve every problem. When waters turned rough, North never favored heading for shore - he proposed paddling harder. Among the telling stories that have emerged:
In mid-November 1986, as the Iran-contra affair was crashing down around their ears, members of the NSC staff had a crisis management meeting in the office of their chief, Rear Adm. John Poindexter. When former NSC head Robert McFarlane walked in, he heard North concluding ``...I think that'll be fine and we don't have a problem.''
As the meeting broke up, Mr. McFarlane buttonholed North, who was standing next to fellow aide Howard Teicher. ``You have a problem with the channeling of money to the contras,'' McFarlane said.
North winced. He wandered out the door, then ducked back in, alone. ``Howard doesn't know about that,'' he told McFarlane.
Finding out what North told whom is central to establishing responsibility for the enterprise. His once-boss McFarlane said it was possible North would not have told his superiors everything, to protect them.
A year earlier, in early December 1985, the United States had almost ended its complicity in sending arms to Iran. At that point a number of high officials felt that what had begun as a gesture of friendship had become the payment of ransom, ineffective at that, as only one hostage had been released. After a meeting in President Reagan's private quarters on Dec. 7 at which the secretaries of state and defense, Mr. Reagan's then chief of staff, Donald Regan, and the national-security adviser argued against the initiative, a tentative consensus to cut off contact was reached.
Two days later North struck back. In a ``Next Steps'' memo he argued that the sales continue, and suggested the US might take over control of the operation from Israel.
``US reversal now in midstream could ignite Iranian fire - hostages would be our minimum losses,'' he wrote.
In January 1986 President Reagan signed an official piece of paper that allowed the arms deals to continue. Though congressional investigators have not established what caused the turnaround, their questioning of witnesses clearly shows that they consider North's appeal for the hostages a major factor.
Similarly, North was there to push for private aid to the contras at one of the guerrilla fighters' darkest hours. In mid-1985, as Congress debated whether to cut off government aid to the contras, North is said to have drawn up a ``fallback plan'' memo. In it, he proposed that President Reagan publicly plead for private donations to the contra cause.
``Send your check or money order to the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters, Box 1776, Gettysburg, Pa....,'' North suggested that the President say, adding that the process of requesting that post office box number was already under way.
McFarlane approved backing such a private foundation, under the name Nicaraguan Freedom Fund. Members of its board include well-known Republicans, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the UN.
Though North is an obvious suspect, the question of who was the mastermind of the Iran-contra affair is still far from answered. At one point McFarlane admitted it had occurred to him that North, ostensibly an NSC staff member, was taking orders from the then-head of the CIA, the late William Casey.
Whoever it was who had the idea, the strength of North's personality was apparently one of the main forces behind the Iran-contra operation. When questioned about the legality of what he was doing, he assured a number of bit players that his actions were authorized by higher authorities.
``I had - I have no reason to question his honesty and integrity,'' said Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state, who arranged for North to meet representatives of Taiwan so he could request contra donations.