I JUST happened to run into Richard Allen early the other morning in the lobby of the Sheraton Carlton Hotel. He, as everyone knows, was President Reagan's first national-security adviser, who was pushed out rather abruptly after about a year on the job. ``How could this Iran-contra affair have gotten so much out of control?'' I asked Allen. ``It couldn't have happened on my watch,'' he replied.
``For one thing,'' Allen said, ``I was the one who brought Ollie North over from the Pentagon - Ollie and a couple of other officers. They were doing little chores for me. You know what Ollie was doing? He was helping me with my briefings, moving easels around. In fact, he was due to go back to the Pentagon on Jan. 1, 1982 - and he would have gone back.''
As I reconstructed my notes afterwards, the persuasive Mr. Allen was now fully launched on a thesis he seemed anxious to present. ``Additionally, and most important,'' he said, ``I knew I was dealing with a President who knew very little about foreign affairs and who needed a lot of homework to get the information he needed for making decisions. So I loaded him with homework. And he was doing it.
``That is, he was doing it until Mike Deaver lit into me. He was angry. He said I was loading Reagan down with work, that 75 percent of the President's reading each night came from me and that this had to stop. I refused to stop. And this feeding of needed information kept going to Reagan as long as I was there.
``And then it stopped. I was out and William Clark was in. And Clark, who had worked as an aide to Reagan in Sacramento, gave Reagan the one-page memos each night on foreign-affairs that Deaver was calling for. That set the stage for what happened later, a President out of touch and with a loose cannon like North.''
What Allen was saying made a lot of sense. And there was so much credibility in this source of information. This was no liberal. This was a conservative Republican who gives his full support to the United States providing arms to the contras, legally.
On the strength of this hotel lobby conversation, I invited Richard Allen to meet with the Monitor breakfast group. Allen expanded on his thesis as follows, with reporters:
``Did something go fundamentally wrong in this whole Iran-contra affair?''
``Something did go fundamentally wrong with the National Security Council, and in my view it was when the NSC was taken operational after I left. When this administration came into office in 1980, I took the NSC back down to the basement. And you guys wrote that the NSC had been defanged and demoted to the basement. The idea wasn't to reduce its stature; the object was to make the NSC more of a coordinating body and less of a body that would drive foreign policy.''
``You brought Ollie North over from the Pentagon?''
``Yes, he was to move charts. When I wanted to brief Senator X., I would say, ``Next chart, Major.'' He was supposed to go back to the Pentagon on Jan. 1, 1982. The difference was that I was gone by that time. And along came a new national security adviser and his deputy, who happened to be a marine. The rest occurred that way.''
``And John Poindexter?''
``Poindexter I hired as a military aide. His job was to carry the briefcase - not mine but the other one [the President's]. And he was to do any liaison work that needed to be done on a mechanical, administrative level with the Pentagon. He was not brought in as an analyst of foreign policy or national security problems.
``The idea of using the NSC in this way [operational] didn't just develop last year. It developed several years before that, when the office got moved upstairs again. I've developed a theory that having the office upstairs breeds trouble, that the office downstairs is more appropriately located.''
``But how did the NSC get itself involved in Iran-contra?''
``Well, most of the premises of the NSC's policies were flawed. And when you are driven by a particular goal or by an interpretation of what the President wants, you can go off the deep end.
``And that's what I think happened in this case.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.