Ethics and Public Officials

Following Orders

Col. North was the most important government operative in the Iran-Contra Affairs. He had a reputation for getting things done. But North made it clear in the congressional hearings that he sought Presidential approval for all of his actions and that he clearly had the approval of Admiral Poindexter. North resented the implication that there was “a loose cannon, a cowboy” in the White House because he was implementing policies that had been formulated by his superiors. In other words, North was following orders. North certainly portrays himself in that light, testifying at one point: “I am not in the habit of questioning my superiors. If [Admiral Poindexter] deemed it not to be necessary to ask the President, I saluted smartly and charged up the hill.” North also testified : “I was given a mission and I tried to carry it out.”

Whether North's orders came directly from President Reagan was never entirely clear. It was clear, however, that creating “plausible deniability” for the President was always part of the plan. It should be noted that North never defended his actions solely on the ground that he was following order. To the contrary, he made it clear that he was proud of his actions. But Senator Inouye, in his closing statement [ON22: need to check], raised the issue of whether North should have refused to obey “unlawful” orders. North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, took great offense to the implication that the Nuremberg Code would have any possibly application in Col. North's situation.

North's secretary, Fawn Hall, testified that she “felt uneasy” about the shredding done in anticipation of the Attorney General's staff coming to inspect documents.  Hall famously said “sometimes you have to go above the written law,” arguing that she believed in North and thought “there was a very solid and very valid reason he must be doing this.” 

Discussion Questions

  • Is “following orders” a sufficient moral justification for Oliver North's actions? What about Fawn Hall?
  • Do you agree with Senator Inouye that North should have refused some orders? If so, which orders and why? If not, what are the limits of the requirement to follow orders? What factors help you determine whether that should be considered an adequate defense in this case?

Additional Resources

  • The Nuremburg Trials
  • U.S. v. William Calley, Jr. (United States Court of Military Appeals 22 U.S.C.M.A. 534) (1973). Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in connection with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Calley has testified in his defense: “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children.” In upholding the convictions, the military court acknowledged Winthrop's Military Law and Precedents (2d ed., 1920) for the proposition that: “Except in such instances of palpable illegality, which must be of rare occurrence, the inferior should presume that the order was lawful and authorized and obey it accordingly, and in obeying it can scarcely fail to be held justified by a military court.” None of Calley's subordinates were convicted and Calley was eventually granted clemency, ultimately serving 3½ years.