`Is it right?' went unasked by many Iran-contra participants

At the end of the first phase of the Iran-contra hearings this week, the chairman of one of the congressional committees that are jointly conducting the probe noted that among the ``depressing'' disclosures had been the absence of ``personal responsibility'' of many of the witnesses. The problem, however, may be more fundamental than that.

So far, it appears that not a single key figure in the affair could rely upon what might be called a moral compass - an internal sense regarding the fundamental integrity of his or her actions.

That is not to say each lacked such a compass; however, it may have been thrown off by the magnetic North - former White House aide Oliver North.

The attraction of Lieutenant Colonel North - his vigor, his ``can do'' attitude, and his enthusiasm for aiding the Nicaraguan contras - may have been one of the compelling influences guiding the actions of key participants.

There were others: a belief that a commitment to help the contras was more important than a commitment to the law, and a belief that Congress, the public, and the press could not be trusted with information.

At some point, their private beliefs, allegiances, and commitments brought them into conflict with some bedrock questions of integrity and morality.

The questions are fundamental. Is it right to lie? Is it right to steal? Notable is the degree to which those questions were avoided, obscured, or rationalized. Fawn Hall, North's secretary, testified that he was the perfect boss, and she was ``one of the team.''

She helped North alter National Security Council documents. She shredded sensitive papers. She smuggled papers out of NSC offices to prevent them from falling into the hands of investigators, then turned them over to North.

Those are serious, perhaps criminal offenses. Their disclosure, under a grant of immunity from prosecution, prompted Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia to ask, ``Did you ever tell him that anything was either right or wrong, that you felt he was getting into an area of grayness or anything that was uncertain?''

``No, sir,'' she replied.

``Never had any doubts about right or wrong in what you were doing?'', Senator Nunn pressed.

``Absolutely not,'' she replied. Even now, she continued, the only thing she regrets is carrying the documents out of the building.

Another government employee, faced with a similar moral dilemma, seems not to have fully appreciated the severity of it at the time. Or, if he did comprehend it, he seems to have made the wrong choice.

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, testifying before the committee, admitted that he had misled Congress in earlier hearings concerning the solicitation of funds on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras.

That was, he said, a ``mistake.'' With the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Abrams acknowledged that he could have asked for a recess in the hearings or admitted that he was not authorized to talk about certain aspects of contra fund raising. Instead, when confronted with the choice, he chose to mislead the lawmakers.

Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma asked Abrams, ``Could you explain to me the difference ... between knowing that you've left a false impression or a wrong impression and lying, to use an old-fashioned term?''

Here is how Abrams, a man praised for his facility with language, replied: ``I think [by] `lying,' we really mean - I mean - a deliberate effort to mislead people, a deliberate effort to leave them with a misleading impression.''

Abrams added, ``What I hoped to do was to avoid the question and duck the question.'' Later, he said, ``it became clear to me that I had gone far beyond that. But, well....'' He did not finish the explanation.

At one point during the hearings, Senator Boren said he had written on the legal pad before him ``again and again ... about a confusion of ends and means.''

That may well come to be one of the dominant themes of the hearings in the weeks ahead - how the pursuit of what some saw as a principled end led to highly questionable means.

Before the hearings began, two committee staff members were asked if any heroes would emerge from them, whether any single individual, faced with a choice, drew the line on questionable conduct.

``I don't think so,'' said one. It was not, the other said, the kind of activity that summoned up the best in people.

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