Lt. Col. Oliver North stared straight ahead as the silence in the hearing room deepened. His face, so appealing in its range of expression, was unreadable. He had not been asked what he knew about what somebody else knew, or whether he had violated an obscure amendment. He had just been asked if he had done something wrong. ``Are you saying it wasn't wrong to misrepresent facts to the attorney general of the United States?'' repeated Senate counsel Arthur Liman, almost gently.
Colonel North did not directly answer. He said, ``I have testified as to what I believed.''
This exchange revealed for a brief moment the moral dilemma at the heart of Oliver North's past actions. Over four days he in so many words testified he had misled Congress, administration officials, and by inference the American people, and that to do so was right.
Foreign policy and hostages' safety were at stake. ``It was lies or lives,'' he said.
(Document shows Reagan was briefed on profit diversion to covert activites, Page 2.)
The orderly process of the US government versus North's belief in his higher responsibility: These two themes clashed repeatedly during the former National Security Council (NSC) aide's riveting week's worth of testimony before the Iran-contra committees. During the long, slow rhythms of questioning many members simply sat and stared, mouths agape. Previous witnesses had provided soap opera. This seemed literature.
It was gripping because it was presented as an individual's drama, not a political one.
North was captivating in a way mere actors must envy. He was alternately a defender of freedom, a loving father, a loyal subordinate, an impish schoolboy. After delivering a quick quip, he would sometimes slyly grin at his questioner, as if both were in on the joke.
Clearly it was a performance the American public enjoyed. By the end of the week telegrams of support were stacked a foot deep on the hearing room's witness table. In a USA Today phone-in poll respondents judged North honest by almost 60 to 1.
Even as North became the most memorable personality to appear before the Iran-contra committees, he was doing his best to appear less responsible for the whole affair.
At every opportunity he portrayed himself as the man who had agreed to take the rap for the Iran-contra affair but had changed his mind when it turned out that taking the rap included being the subject of a criminal investigation. In another brief, but telling, exchange, North was asked why he had taken from his secure office notebooks that contained sensitive information.
``I removed those notebooks for one purpose - to protect myself,'' North said.
Committee lawyers sought to exploit this admission to damage North's credibility as a witness. Their lines of questioning said, in essence, that the ex-NSC aide had admitted that he was once prepared to lie to cover up the operation, and that therefore there was good reason to suspect he might still be protecting higher authorities. North denied he was still protecting anyone.
But in the end it was the slow unraveling of the central character's motives and beliefs which made North's appearance good drama. It was his explanations of why he had to lie.
North freely admitted that on several occasions he had misled Congress about his role in aiding the Nicaraguan antigovernment contras, and that he had withheld information from Attorney General Edwin Meese III in the opening stages of the Iran-contra investigation.
He shredded documents, he said, to hide them not only from government investigators but from his NSC successor, who might not ``share his values.''
``Lies or lives'' was the catch phrase he repeated several times, meaning that he felt he could not tell the truth on those occasions because the lives of hostages and foreign intermediaries were at stake. He said weighing this choice was a difficult one for ``honorable men,'' that he and others in the White House ``suffered from internal discontent over what they were forced to do.''
In their public questions and in private asides committee sources tried to point out that this attitude was contemptuous of those that were misled. It assumed that only North and his fellow honorable men could keep secrets. It assumed that only they knew what was right in those situations.