Panels hear from contra supplier. Administration higher-ups also were kept informed, witness hints
Washington — Whose fingerprints are on the book? One of the continuing questions surrounding the Iran-contra affair may be answered in part by some straightforward detective work.
The question: Did high Reagan administration officials know of the private aid network set up by Lt. Col. Oliver North to aid the Nicaraguan rebels?
According to congressional testimony yesterday, Colonel North borrowed a photo album that documented the network and said he intended to show it to his ``top boss.''
The man who compiled the album, former Air Force Col. Robert C. Dutton, said his impression was that North was referring to President Reagan.
The album was recovered from North's office safe in the White House by investigators. A Federal Bureau of Investigation agent presented it to Colonel Dutton during testimony before the House and Senate panels jointly investigating the Iran-contra affair.
``It's very dirty,'' Dutton commented, ``Evidently their lab has been working on it.''
The clear implication: The FBI, at the instructions of special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, had ``dusted'' the album for fingerprints, to determine who might have perused it.
The White House has persistently denied that President Reagan was aware of the degree of North's involvement in the private aid network set up to aid the contras.
But witness after witness has testified that North was deeply involved, even down to the minute details of scheduling weapons drops to the contras.
And numerous witnesses have testified that North told them that his actions had the approval of higher officials within the administration.
Dutton's testimony buttressed that point. Dutton, a military specialist on ``special operations,'' went to work the day after his retirement from the Air Force with Richard V. Secord, an arms dealer involved in the contra supply network.
But Dutton said he quickly found out he had another boss - North. And North, said Dutton, ``indicated to me that we were working for the President of the United States.''
Dutton said that, after the effort to drop weapons to contra fighters in Nicaragua met with some success, North told him, ``You'll never get a medal for this. But someday the President will shake your hand and say `Thank you.'''
There still has not been any direct testimony, however, that the President knew of North's involvement in efforts to aid the contras - efforts that may have violated the law.
But Dutton testified that North said he had conversations about the effort with ``Bill'' - a reference to former central intelligence director William J. Casey.
Moreover, North told Dutton that Attorney General Edwin Meese III interceded to delay federal investigations of a Miami air-services company that assisted in supplying the contras.
Dutton also testified that Donald Gregg, a foreign-policy adviser to Vice-President George Bush, met with a Salvadorean Air Force officer who was deeply involved in the contra resupply efforts.
Dutton also testified that Fawn Hall, formerly North's secretary, accepted $16,000 in cash brought by a courier from Miami - funds that were apparently to be used for the resupply effort.
Ms. Hall is expected to testify later under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution. Dutton also was testifying under a similar arrangement.