Why Congress didn't get the full story of the Iran-contra affair

The congressional investigation into the Iran-contra affair ``did not come anywhere near getting the full story,'' says Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, a member of the Senate committee that investigated the affair. His reasons: The death of former CIA director William Casey. The lack of his testimony leaves ``an enormous gap that will never be filled,'' says Mitchell.

The destruction of documents. Lt. Col. Oliver North testified to having shredded many papers - hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. One ``shredding party'' lasted from 11 p.m. one Sunday night until 4:30 a.m. Monday morning.

The inability of witnesses to recall events. ``I've observed a lot of witnesses in court,'' says Mitchell, a lawyer and former US district court judge. ``I cannot recall an aggregate of witnesses with as faulty memories as occurred in these hearings. I'm trying to say it as nicely as I can.''

Conflicting testimony. There were ``numerous, important conflicts'' between the accounts given by Colonel North and national security adviser John Poindexter, for example.

Mitchell also indirectly faults the size of the investigating committee. It was too big - 26 members - and the resulting time constraints blunted effective questioning. A witness could easily outlast a questioner by resorting to a speech. ``It is truly remarkable how many speeches were made - some of which were wholly unrelated to the question.''

In general, congressional hearings are ``a dream vehicle for an effective witness - not to mention one who's charismatic and appealing, as was Colonel North.''

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