IN THE SPOTLIGHT. Parade of witnesses: reacting differently under pressure

Fawn Hall visibly stiffened in her chair. A senator had just said that her former boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North, might be guilty of wrongdoing, and she did not agree, in any way, shape, or form. ``We have our separate opinions there, sir,'' she snapped at the lawmaker who had raised the subject, Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine.

If the Iran-contra panels expected Ms. Hall to be a docile witness, they were disappointed. In two days of testimony the former National Security Council secretary was largely unapologetic, ``a tough customer,'' according to one panel member. She argued, testily, with a number of questioners.

Somehow her peppery appearance was a fitting end to the first phase of hearings. After more than 100 hours of testimony from 19 people, perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Iran-contra investigation to someone who has sat through it all is the way witnesses have reacted to what is probably one of the most pressured experiences of their lives.

The words that ``pop out of people under pressure are often what they truly believe,'' one member of the panel said during a break early this week.

This lawmaker was referring in particular to a sentence of Hall's, that ``there are times when you have to go above the written law.''

Though Hall quickly said she did not really mean this, many panel members clearly felt she did believe it, and that they had been given a glimpse of one of the attitudes that prevailed within the Iran-contra enterprise.

Likewise, many members felt Hall's answers unwittingly disclosed a deep distrust in North's office, not just of the press or Congress, but of other executive branch agencies. Why else would she have sneaked documents out of North's office after it was sealed by security officers? Who was she trying to protect the Iran-contra enterprise from?

``That wasn't the KGB coming, that was the [Federal Bureau of Investigation],'' complained Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire.

Along with Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Hall was one of the most combative witnesses to appear before the congressional investigating panels.

But many others were far from contrite about their roles, and were given the opportunity to present themselves as motivated by something positive: dedication to the cause of the contra fighters in Nicaragua.

By framing the debate in this manner - ``we were for something, what was Congress for?'' - witnesses may actually have helped the public image of official United States government aid to the contras, some observers of the hearings speculate.

Richard Secord, the retired Air Force general who was the first witness, went so far as to offer on national television to donate millions of dollars left in the Iran-contra enterprise accounts to a charity established for the contras in the name of the late William Casey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director.

At the time of his appearance, General Secord came across as forceful, many panel members thought. However, as subsequent witnesses added details that called into question Secord's proclamation of selfless motives, members began to have second thoughts. Of all the witnesses who have appeared, Secord is by far the most likely to be recalled for further questioning.

If the Iran-contra panels took a vote on who was the most forthright major witness, the winner would probably be Albert Hakim, the Iranian-born US businessman who was Secord's partner in the enterprise. Cheerful, bedecked in fine clothes and a ring with a jewel the size of a dinner roll, Mr. Hakim admitted from the start that he had been interested in making money as well as helping out in US foreign policy. He freely said that he alone had negotiated the release of one hostage with Iranian representatives, leading one panel member to refer to ``The Hakim Accords.''

The head of the Senate investigating panel, Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, however, cautioned at the end of Hakim's appearance that the entertainment value of his testimony should not overshadow its disturbing nature. Hakim embodies one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole affair, according to panel leaders: the involvement of private citizens in the most intimate aspects of foreign policy making.

The major witness who appeared to struggle the most during the ordeal of testifying was Robert McFarlane, the former head of the National Security Council. At times, Mr. McFarlane seemed to be trying to explain his actions to himself, instead of to congressional investigators or the US public.

He talked about the need for placing the affair in a larger context, and delivered a long monologue on the need to better educate US citizens on the reality of geopolitics.

Hearings will resume in late June. After a series of less important witnesses, sometime in July will come the testimony of the man who now appears to have been at the center of almost every aspect of the affair - Oliver North himself.

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