THOSE who see Lt. Col. Oliver North as a great American hero and patriot, hacking his way through the jungles of Central America and the political jungle of Capitol Hill, are outraged by his indictment and desperate for a presidential pardon. Those who see Colonel North as a gung-ho ``Rambo'' with little respect for law or propriety tend to view his case as Watergate revisited, a civics lesson administered through the medium of criminal law.
My own reading of the 101-page indictment against him - poor Rear Adm. John Poindexter and the two other co-defendants are veritable extras in this case - suggests a bit of restraint may be in order for both the friends and foes of North. The hard-chargers ought to worry about the sort of conduct they would let pass in a public servant, while civil libertarians should view the criminal dock as a poor forum for the settlement of political controversy.
The central charge against North is that he took part in the diversion of several million dollars in profits from the sale of arms to Iran to the contras, thus defrauding the US Treasury of funds justly its due. What allegedly made the diversion illegal was the so-called Boland amendment, which forbade the expenditure of ``funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities'' for the support of ``military or para-military operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.''
It is at once apparent that the Iran weapons profits, while part of a spicy story, are utterly irrelevant to the prosecution's case. Had North and company channeled other government funds available to the National Security Council, their use would have been just as ``illegal'' and the Treasury just as ``defrauded.''
It is also clear that Boland was a statement of congressional policy rather than a criminal statute. A search of White House statements back to 1985 suggests the administration interpreted its provisions as not applicable to the NSC.
That interpretation may have been wrong. But before rushing to indict and convict, one ought to ponder the precedent being established. Suppose a law forbade the payment of welfare assistance to a head of household who refused to accept a job and a caseworker then paid money to someone who took a job but quit after the first day. Should the caseworker whose wrong interpretation cost the government money be sent to jail? Or suppose the Pentagon shelled out a few million dollars to a contractor who had completed work, wrongly ignoring provisions requiring that the work be performed satisfactorily. Should the contract officer then face criminal penalties? Many would think not.
North's offense was political, and it may well be that the appropriate redress was also political. In fact, the political system did its job. Because of exposure of the Iran-contra ``scandal,'' North and others lost their White House jobs; lengthy and illuminating hearings were held by the Congress; the tide of opinion on contra aid turned against the administration; and the President himself suffered grievous, irreparable political harm. Criminal sanctions are thus not only a questionable precedent, they would appear to be totally unnecessary.
The same cannot be said for many of the remaining allegations against North. The indictment charges him, Mr. Poindexter, or both, with lying to Congress about NSC involvement in raising money and facilitating the delivery of supplies for the contras; with falsifying a chronology of the entire affair; with misrepresenting matters even to the attorney general acting on the President's orders; and with destroying evidence.
Conservatives ought to ponder how our system of government would work were such alleged conduct - which violates explicit criminal laws - to escape prosecution. Which government scam could ever be investigated? What content would the right to congressional oversight have if it were matched by the right of the executive branch to deceive? What public confidence would our laws enjoy if they rested on a foundation of distortion?
The right to demand the truth from officeholders is the exclusive prerogative neither of liberal nor conservative legislators, but an essential ingredient of government itself.
In one sense the meekest of the charges against North is perhaps the most revealing - that he accepted an illegal gratuity in the form of a $13,800 security fence around his Virginia home. When this embarrassing little item threatened to surface as the investigators moved in, North admittedly backdated a check to pay for the system.
When North found reality inconvenient, he simply created his own.
C. Robert Zelnick is Pentagon correspondent for ABC News.