Trial Clarifies Reagan, Bush Role. Documents in North case imply both were involved in seeking third-country aid to rebels. IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR
WASHINGTON — COURTROOM 6 on the second floor of the US District Court in Washington is quiet now. Lt. Col. Oliver North's jury - which for 11 weeks has listened to more than 48 witnesses - has heard closing arguments and received Judge Gerhard Gesell's final instructions.
Now the fate of a man they have heard called both savior and American hero, as well as liar and thief, is in the hands of these 12 ordinary Americans.
Charged with 12 felony counts, including lying to Congress and obstructing an inquiry into the Iran-contra affair, Colonel North admits to some of the charges, but maintains he is innocent because he acted with approval from higher-ups in the Reagan administration.
His attorney, Brendon Sullivan, told the jury that North ``was doing his duty as he understood it.'' The evidence would show, he assured them, ``that [North] acted at the direction of his superiors.''
Many were surprised that a man portrayed by some as the perfect soldier, and who repeatedly declared his willingness to be ``the fall guy,'' would base his defense on a claim that he was, as he stated dramatically in the trial's final weeks, ``a pawn in a chess game being played by giants.''
Before the trial began, popular wisdom - bolstered by official reports - held that a closely knit group of operatives free-lancing out of the White House basement - known but to a few high officials - carried out a series of rogue operations and caught the White House inner circle, including President Reagan, largely by surprise. The congressional Iran-contra committees called them ``a cabal of zealots.''
The ``cabal of zealots'' theory has unraveled considerably as a result of several disclosures in the last two weeks of the trial.
Papers submitted to the court by North's lawyers, and acknowledged as factual by Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, provided a rich vein of new information about the Iran-contra affair.
These documents portray a president and vice-president - alongside a large supporting cast of former Cabinet officers - working out ways to obtain third-country funding for the contras, and discussing ways to hide their activities from Congress and the public. The Cabinet officials included Secretary of State George Shultz; Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinburger; Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the late CIA Director William Casey.
The documents show that President Reagan approved a plan to offer Honduras increased aid (eventually amounting to $114 million) in exchange for supporting the contras on Honduran territory, and offered that aid in telephone calls to two successive Honduran presidents.
Mr. Reagan also authorized a North plan for US mercenaries to airdrop weapons to contras inside Nicaragua. Quid-pro-quo bargains like that struck with Honduras were also discussed, and possibly carried out, with El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries.
Scott Armstrong, a former Watergate investigator, now director of the National Security Archive, a liberal research organization which followed Iran-contra closely, says: ``My hope for the trial has been that the independent counsel would be able to put North in a position so he would have to tell stories about Reagan and Bush and potentially unconstitutional covert activities, and that's what he did. If Reagan were still president, he'd be impeached now. The stipulations released last week are just spectacular.''
Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, co-chairman of the congressional Iran-contra committees, believes the North trial documents showed ``a president engaged in policy and implementation of policy. It's a different president than was portrayed in the [Iran-contra] hearings.''
ON the other hand, Bruce Fein, a lawyer and columnist who was minority research director for the congressional Iran-contra committees, does not believe that anything new or significant emerged from the North trial. Of the so-called quid-pro-quo arrangement with Honduras, Mr. Fein cautions that not enough is known yet and, even then, may not be important. ``That sort of silent quid pro quo is there every time a president negotiates with a foreign country,'' Fein says.
Those disclosures that have grabbed headlines for the past three weeks - and are most likely to absorb public attention in the future - concern the role of then-Vice-President George Bush, who acted as a messenger in 1985 to Honduran President Roberto Suazo C'ordova, and later to his successor, Jos'e Azcona Hoyo, to offer increased aid. The documents do not prove Mr. Bush knew the aid was in exchange for their continued contra support, but some observers question why else he would have done it.
High-level officials from several national security agencies formulated the Honduran exchange plan at a Crisis Pre-Planning Group meeting in February 1985. This group was the action arm of the National Security Council's highest level crisis-management group, the Special Situation Group, which Bush chaired.
While it isn't known whether Bush was in direct contact with crisis group about the Honduran plan; it is known that he was sent a copy of the President's written authorization of it, as well as a memo outlining the Reagan conversation with President Suazo. Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, in a memo to the State Department discussing the Honduran arrangement, wrote: ``We want VP to discuss this matter [with Suazo].'' In addition, before Bush met with President Azcona in January 1986, his national security advisor, Donald Gregg, received a State Department memo detailing Honduras's expectations of economic aid in return for its support of the contras. Another document shows Bush supported a plan approved nine days before his March 1985 meeting with Suazo to increase CIA aid to Honduras as one of several incentives for that government to support the contras.
Trial documents also show Bush at a meeting where Secretary of State Shultz and CIA Director Casey discussed soliciting contra aid from Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, and South Africa. Bush also encouraged Admiral Poindexter to OK a private planeload of medical aid from Guatemala to contras in Honduras at about the same time he was to deliver the message of increased aid to Suazo.
This new evidence appears to contradict Bush's repeated statements that he did not know that administration officials were involved in providing weapons to the contras. It also casts doubt on the conclusions reached by both the Tower Commission and the congressional Iran-contra committees about the extent of Reagan's and Bush's involvement.
The President has refused comment on the newly released information, saying it would interfere with North's right to a fair trial. ``I might have something to say about it when the trial is over, but let me put it this way: My conscience is clear,'' Bush told reporters late last week.
Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, an Iran-contra committee member and now Senate majority leader, believes that Reagan was far more deeply involved in Iran-contra than previously realized. He has ordered a staff investigation of whether the Reagan White House knowingly withheld those documents released for the North trial from the congressional committees in 1987.
If that happened, Senator Mitchell warns, he would treat it as ``a matter of the utmost gravity,'' and an act that would raise congressional doubts about their ability to trust President Bush.
The White House, responding to letters from several congressmen, has admitted that the Iran-contra committees did not see some of the documents submitted at the trial. Bush, however, said last week that ``we'll cooperate fully'' with Congress in the matter of the documents.
Regardless of what Oliver North's jury decides, the Iran-contra affair is far from over.
Several congressional aides, who asked not to be named, say that a number of congressmen, both Republicans and Democrats, are discussing the possibility of reopening Congress's Iran-contra investigation.
The trials of the three others indicted by the special prosecutor - Poindexter, arms dealer Albert Hakim, and retired Gen. Richard Secord, - have not yet been scheduled. But Poindexter's trial, is expected to begin this fall. Two Bush ambassadorial nominees currently up for Congressional approval - Mr. Gregg (South Korea), and John Negroponte (Mexico) are expected to come under severe congressional questioning as a result of the trial disclosures. (Mr. Negroponte was US ambassador to Honduras at the time of the 1985 quid-pro-quo deal.)