Hearings fair? It's a matter of perception

The Iran-contra hearings have been dramatic and historic. But have they been fair? Polls have consistently shown a majority of the public sympathizing with Lt. Col. Oliver North. Some of that sympathy seems related to what they saw on their television sets: a panel of 30 senior members of Congress and two experienced litigators publicly skewering a highly decorated, telegenic officer of the United States Marine Corps.

Among more recent polls, a New York Times/CBS News sampling published Saturday showed 56 percent of the public viewing Colonel North favorably.

To some minds, North, Rear Adm. John Poindexter, and other witnesses put themselves in double jeopardy by appearing before the joint sessions of the select House and Senate committees, despite the fact that they were given limited immunity from prosecution.

Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh will not be able to prosecute witnesses granted limited immunity by Congress unless he is able to establish that his investigating committee did not glean any information from the Iran-contra hearings.

But Admiral Poindexter's attorney, Richard Beckler, has protested the setup. The government, he has argued, should pursue only one investigation. It should not ``try to hammer someone for four or five days in public and then follow up with a criminal indictment.''

Meanwhile, North's counsel has filed a court challenge against the constitutionality of the independent counsel under the Ethics in Government Act in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

But as far as public impressions are concerned, Congress may be left holding the bag. The committee has a fundamentally different mandate from the prosecutor: Its task is to find out what happened and why; the prosecutor's task is to determine whether laws were broken and, if so, prosecute those who broke them.

Many observers say the committee's first mistake was to allow committee counsels John Nields (House) and Arthur Liman (Senate) to dominate the questioning, and to thus blur the distinction between committee and prosecutor. ``They had an inquisitorial approach that played very harshly,'' observes Steven Hess, a media analyst at the Brookings Institution.

North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, put the committee on the defensive by raising repeated objections to the counsels' line of inquiry, says Mr. Hess.

``The [committee] counsels acted as if it were a court of law - which it was not,'' Hess points out. ``That helped shape a public opinion that the committee should be governed by the same questions of due process as a court - which it isn't and it shouldn't.''

All of which made the committee look unfair.

``The perception persists that the panel beat up on North,'' says Norman Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, ``But the fact is that [North] was able to answer questions pretty much the way he wanted - at length and often evasively.''

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