Of all the questions that have been asked about Lt. Col. Oliver North in the past few months, no one has yet raised what should be the most obvious one. Why was a man with North's record of erratic judgment, self-delusion, and outright lies allowed to play a major role in U.S. foreign policy for the past six years? Perhaps people have been reluctant to question publicly North's conduct because discussion of a person's personality should be handled with the utmost care. Perhaps, too, the questions have been slow to arise because so many high-ranking Reagan administration officials respected North, admired him, and cooperated with him. But if North is in fact the unbalanced figure he appears to be, the implications of his role in the Reagan administration become not merely unsettling but alarming.
If White House accounts are to be believed. North, while operating under the title of NSC deputy director for political-military affairs, assumed responsibility for nearly every U.S. foreign policy initiative since 1981, According to White House and NSC sources (some of whom were undoubtedly North himself). North masterminded the following events:
The Iran arms sales.
The contra war.
Private fund-raising for the contra war.
The mining of Nicaragua's harbors.
The bombing of Libya,
The invasion of Grenada.
The interception of the Achille Lauro hijackers in Italy,
The U.S. response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon,
The sale of AWACS to the Saudi Arabians,
The reduction of death squad activity in El Salvador,
Plans to rescue passengers from the hijacked TWA airliner.
The management of millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts for anti-Communist guerrillas the world over.
U.S. participation in the toppling of Haitian dictator Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier,
The drafting (God forbid) of a long-range blueprint for U.S. political and military policies through the end of the century.
But was North actually involved in all of these operations? Early in the scandal President Reagan praised North as a "national hero" and credited him with all sorts of accomplishments. Lately the White House staff has shifted tactics and adopted a "blame Ollie first" strategy in an effort to distance itself from his misdeeds. Given the self serving leaks from top administration officials, it is difficult to determine just what is fact and what is myth when it comes to North's exploits.
It seems likely that North did have an important role in the Achille Lauro interception and the mining of Nicaragua's harbors. Other stories, though, seem to depend on unknown sources, who, once again, may be North or his friends. For example, the New York Times reported in November that, according to a "government official," North led a supersecret team of Marines to the remote mountains of eastern Turkey in April 1980. Their mission: to help out, if needed, with Jimmy Carter's ill-fated rescue mission of the Iranian ho stages. The story of the " can-do" colonel standing by while the Carter team fumbled is appealingly ironic, and it may even be true. But Gary Sick, then principal NSC aide for Iran, NSC adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance have no recollection of North's involvement in the rescue mission.
Other stories about North's background have been verified. Just before Christmas the Miami Herald revealed one of the most startling ones. In 1974, after a 29-day period in command of the Company A, First Battalion, 4th Marine Division in Okinawa, North was relieved of duty and hospitalized for emotional distress at Bethesda Naval Hospital for three weeks. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times reported that North was found by a superior officer "babbling incoherently and running around naked, waving a .45 caliber pistol," apparently ready to commit suicide. North reportedly told the officer that "he didn't have anything to live for and was going to shoot himself." Neither North nor his lawyer denied the stories when asked to comment.
These reports raised as many questions as they answered, not only about North, but about the competence of the people who hired him. Richard Allen, the NSC director who brought North into the White House, has said he would not have done so if he had been aware of the incident. North apparently felt no need to raise it on his DD-398 form, the Statement of Personal History that every Marine with a top secret clearance or higher must complete. One of the questions is whether the applicant has been "hospitalized or treated by a doctor for nervous disorders." Failure to fill out the form accurately constitutes perjury—something that Congress should keep in mind if North ever agrees to testify under oath.
The FBI, which conducts background investigations of NSC appointees, was also in the dark about North's treatment. A spokesperson for the bureau has explained that medical records are not normally included in such investigations, "unless on their application they stated they have a problem." North failed to make such a statement. All mention of the incident was purged from North's military record — apparently by a supporter in the Marines — before North joined the NSC in 1981. While a Marine Corps spokesman was unaware whether North had disclosed his prior treatment in his NSC background check, the Washington Times reported that North "bragged" to a Marine acquaintance about having the incident expunged from his record.
North's 1974 breakdown is not conclusive evidence that he was unfit to hold a sensitive White House position; his seeming addiction to lying is.
In 1985 North testified as a character witness in the securities fraud trial of Thomas Reed, a former colleague at the NSC. North's sworn testimony, much of it irrelevant to Reed's character, can only be called surreal. North said that he began his college career as a premed student at the University of Rochester. In fact, he was an English major at the State University of New York at Brockport. North told the court: "I was an infantry platoon and company commander in the Special Operations Force, team commander." Marine officials contacted by the Washington Post say they know of no such outfit. Nor is there any record of his duty as a company commander. North told the court that he served in Vietnam "from 1968 through the early part of 1970 and then again in 1971." "There is no record of an extended or second tour" in 1971, the Post reported.
One of North's favorite fibs involved his relationship with Reagan. One source told the New York Times that North frequently peppered his conversations with phrases such as "I just met with the boss," meaning the president. The source checked North's claim a few times and, "of course, he hadn't." North told a United Methodist Church group in 1986 that he briefed the president twice a week, once on terrorism, once on Central America. White House officials (admittedly not the most credible sources themselves) say that since January 1985 North met with the president less than once a month, and never did so alone. According to the White House log, Reagan called North during this period exactly once. The call took place on November 25, 1986, the day that Reagan told the nation about North's firing and the Iranamok scandal. Reagan reportedly comforted the fired aide with the observation that the entire adventure would make a great movie.
Of course, there is a real possibility that North did have numerous off-the-record meetings with his biggest fan, Ronald Reagan, and that it is White House officials, not the lieutenant colonel, who are being deceptive in this case. But why would White House officials be so eager to distance themselves from North unless they believe (or know) that his still-undisclosed actions will be seen as scandalous?
The gyrations of the Reagan officials over North call to mind the recent cartoon that shows two politicians shouting to a crowd, "Don't believe his lies, believe my lies." CIA officials, for example, have reportedly told congressional investigators that in order to secure their cooperation in the arms deal. North misled them about what was being sent to Iran. And unnamed White House officials informed the New York Times in early January 1987 that the chronology of events regarding the iran/contra connection provided by North was full of falsehoods. They said that North's account incorrectly implied that President Reagan knew about the arms sales earlier than White House aides say he did. In attempting to make North the scapegoat for Iranamok, administration officials only confirm how much power and faith they invested in him and how irresponsible they were in doing so.
Some of North's statements, true or not, reveal an individual whose judgment is clearly flawed. The strangest of these incidents involved the attempt to free the hostages via Iran. The day that the Lebanese magazine Al Shiraa broke the news about Robert McFarlane's cake- and Bible-laden trip to Tehran, North told his NSC colleague David Major that the story was "disinformation being leaked from the NSC." The real plan, North said, was not to trade arms for hostages, but to trade hostages for hostages. North explained to Major that he had ordered the kidnapping of relatives of Iranian public officials. The kidnapped Iranians were being held in cages throughout Europe until they could be "crated back" in exchange for American hostages. Major was flabbergasted, and queried North over the NSC's in-house computer network about whether or not the plan was serious. North responded simply, "Yes." A White House spokesman confirmed that North had indeed told the kidnapping tale, and felt obliged to add that it was not true.
The Los Angeles Times quoted a "friendly source" explaining that North "crossed the line from truth into fantasy long ago." Another source commented, "He would rather tell a good story than the truth, even if the truth serves his purposes better." A third source called the story "vintage Ollie."
Then there's North's dog. North used to claim that anti-contra activists had poisoned his family's dog shortly after his link to the contras was made public, a story that several reporters credulously published. But one of North's neighbors explained to the Los Angeles Times that "the dog died of cancer. It got old and died. Ollie told everybody it was poisoned for effect.
For all his top secret derring-do. North's lack of sensitivity about the handling of sensitive matters could be startling. At the Methodist gathering he said he had participated in two wars: Vietnam and Angola. (There's no public record of U.S. military involvement in Angola.) He also mentioned in passing that he was "just back from Beirut." If he was just back from Beirut, why was he telling the world about it? At the Thomas Reed trial. North testified that he had "just returned from overseas, where we are trying to effect the recovery of five Americans who are missing in Beirut." Is this any way to conduct secret negotiations?
Some of North's quirky behavior might seem endearing or at least harmless in another context. After a severe auto injury in 1964, the young Naval Academy midshipman went back to his hometown of Philmont, New York, and spent his time "jumping off the roof" of the garage in order to toughen himself. When North was serving as a counterinsurgency instructor he showed his prankster side. According to Newsweek, North jumped on a classroom desk and "accidentally" opened fire on his students with an automatic rifle—loaded with blanks. When North accompanied members of the Kissinger commission to Central America, he introduced himself to some of the politicians in the region as "the advance man for the U.S. invasion." But in the context of the conduct of American foreign policy. North's actions and his rise to unchecked power indicate a disturbing flaw in the political system that spawned and nurtured him.
In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Peter Maas explored the unsavory backgrounds of the men North recruited to help him fight his — and America's — secret wars. Maas wondered how North came to be a part of such a sleazy crew and closed his article with the question, "Was he really that dumb?" The same question might be asked of the president, the White House chief of staff, the NSC adviser, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a wide variety of Washington insiders. The stories about North's behavior have been well reported, officially confirmed, and widely available to any top government official or editorial writer who cared to look. There are two possible, equally damning, explanations for Oliver North's rise to power. One is that the administration was, in fact, that dumb. The other is that Oliver North was the right man for Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.
This article originally ran in the February 16, 1987 issue of the magazine.