Profiles » Oliver North
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North served as the deputy director of political-military affairs for the National Security Council staff. Although he reported directly to National Security Adviser John Poindexter and to his predecessor, Robert McFarlane, he was seen as the mastermind behind the Iran-Contra Affairs.
The Independent Counsel won a joint indictment against North, Poindexter, retired Air Force Major General and businessman Richard Secord, and Secord’s business partner Albert Hakim in March 1988. However, because the four claimed the need for the testimony of the others in their trials, which was a problem because of their Fifth Amendment right to protect against self-incrimination, their cases were separated. Accordingly, in February 1989, North stood trial on 12 counts.
Although extensive in nature, the crimes at issue during the trial can be summed up briefly. First, North was charged with obstruction of Congress and for making false statements because he denied, to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that he gave the Contras financial aid and military advice. He was further charged with obstruction for writing a false timeline of the Iran arms sales and for hiding and destroying official NSC documents.
In addition, North was charged with accepting illegal money in exchange for government services because he allowed Secord to pay for his home-security system. Finally, he was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States since he used a tax-exempt organization, the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty (NEPL), to raise money for weapons, which is illegal under U.S. tax laws.
Even before a jury was selected, the case faced legal hurdles. North made a request for a wide range of classified documents as relevant to his defense, and the presiding judge, Gerhard Gesell, was forced to sort through his requests and decide which were truly needed. Ultimately, in order to win the cooperation of the intelligence agencies that had the power to continue classifying documents if they so chose and thereby make trying the case impossible, Walsh dropped the charges of conspiracy and theft that dealt with the diversion of funds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras.
North had given nationally televised immunized testimony before Congress, which meant that it was inadmissible in court. The Independent Counsel and his staff could therefore not see, listen to, or hear from friends about the famous hearings. Before the trial began, Judge Gesell held that Walsh and his office had not been inappropriately exposed to testimony, that the grand jury did not use that testimony in approving its indictments based on the orders of the Independent Counsel, and that Walsh’s office had leads to all of its witnesses independent of the hearings.
Because of this self-imposed ignorance, the trial was crucial to Walsh’s investigations. It was here that he learned of Poindexter's destruction of Reagan’s covert-action Finding, which retroactively authorized a November 1985 shipment of arms to Iran, something that Poindexter had already admitted to doing before Congress.
Once the trial started, the prosecution established that North had performed the acts with which he was charged. North claimed in defense that his superiors approved his actions, that they were justifiable due to the need for covert action to combat communism, and that he had believed his actions to be lawful. North also stated that Reagan had even approved the diversion of Iran arms sales proceeds to the Contras, but he was unable to provide any evidence that this was the case. Indeed, Poindexter and McFarlane claimed either that they did not know of North’s actions or that they hid them from Reagan. Because no proof existed, Judge Gesell did not allow subpoenas to be served on then-President Bush or on former President Reagan.
Ultimately, a jury found North guilty of obstruction of congressional inquiries, destroying NSC documents, and receiving an illegal gratuity. North received two years probation, $150,000 in fines, and 1,200 hours community service. He was also ordered to serve as an administrator for an inner-city youth-counseling program.
However, North appealed his convictions, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with him. The court ruled that although the Independent Counsel’s staff shielded themselves from testimony, and the grand jurors were instructed appropriately, the presiding judge did not adequately ensure that prosecution witnesses has not used the immunized accounts “to refresh their memories, or otherwise to focus their thoughts, organize their testimony, or alter their prior or contemporaneous statements….” When Walsh sought additional hearings in the trial court on this matter, McFarlane stated that he had been affected by North’s congressional testimony. The convictions were dismissed.