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" I thought using the Ayatollah's money to support the Nicaraguan resistance was a neat idea."


Oliver North


The Washington Post

Hostile Witnesses
By Arthur L. Liman
Sunday, August 16, 1998

When John Poindexter And Oliver North took the stand in the Iran-Contra hearings, they kept the lid on a Presidential scandal far more serious than today's.

At a time when Washington is saturated with scandal,
special prosecutors are at work and the president is under investigation, it may be useful to look back a decade to the last time people were talking seriously about impeaching a chief executive.

The Iran-contra scandal burst upon the scene in November 1986 when it was first reported in a Lebanese newspaper that President Ronald Reagan had approved the sale of missiles to Iran in exchange for American hostages in Lebanon. Later, Justice Department lawyers found evidence that proceeds from the arms sales had been diverted to illegally fund the contra anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua in circumvention of the Boland Amendment banning U.S. aid to the rebels. It was an audacious, covert scheme -- known by its participants as "the Enterprise" -- carried out largely by a small group of top administration officials and private operators without the knowledge of Congress. And when it began to unravel, the foremost question congressional investigators faced was the classic one echoing from the days of Watergate: What did the president know and when did he know it?

    Arthur L. Liman
Arthur Liman, in his role as chief counsel to the Senate select committee, questions North.
(James K. Atherton)
Arthur L. Liman, a renowned New York corporate lawyer who had been involved in many big-time cases, was brought in as chief counsel for the Senate special committee set up to investigate. Liman helped conduct 40 days of controversial public hearings that made Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North a household name but were inconclusive about Reagan's role. Liman's memoirs, which are being published posthumously next month, recall those days when a president's fate hung in the balance.

Liman died last year before Whitewater metamorphosed into Monicagate, but he almost certainly would have stuck to the view expressed in his memoirs that the high crimes and misdemeanors alleged in Iran-contra posed a far more serious threat to American democracy and our system of checks and balances. Even Watergate -- a bungled burglary followed by a White House-orchestrated coverup -- was less threatening, Liman argued. He saw Iran-contra as a deliberate effort to conduct foreign policy in secret by using a private organization motivated by profit and accountable to no one. Whitewater, by contrast, involved mainly pre-presidential financial activities that posed no constitutional issue or question of presidential accountability, according to Liman, who said the country could not afford to incapacitate a president by a drawn-out investigation that questioned his legitimacy.

While 28 witnesses appeared, it was the testimony of Vice Adm. John Poindexter and North in July 1987 that was the most dramatic and crucial, as Liman recalls in the following excerpt:

FROM THE FIRST DAY I MET HIM, I knew it was John Poindexter, not Oliver North, who held Ronald Reagan's fate in his hands. North was the more colorful by far, but I wanted Poindexter as a witness.

Poindexter served as national security adviser to the president from December 1985 until his dismissal when the Iran-contra story broke a year later. Before that, he was the assistant national security adviser under Robert "Bud" McFarlane. He had briefed the president every morning on matters affecting national security. Among the topics were the missile sales to Iran and the secret support of the contras. More than anyone, indeed even more than Reagan himself, he knew what the president was told and what the president had authorized.

Questioning Poindexter was the decisive moment of our investigation. If he implicated Reagan -- in the diversion or in the later coverup, or both -- impeachment proceedings were a virtual certainty. Because of this, I wanted to hear his story before we began the public hearings in May 1987. But examining Poindexter, even in private, presented a problem. Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel, wasn't finished with his investigation of Poindexter by early May, and he said he needed several more months. If Poindexter's private testimony were somehow leaked and became public, it could taint what the independent counsel took subsequently from other witnesses and make it impossible for him to prove that his evidence against Poindexter didn't derive, even indirectly, from the private testimony.

''From the first day I met him, I knew it was John Poindexter, not Oliver North, who held Ronald Reagan's fate in his hands. North was the more colorful by far, but I wanted Poindexter as a witness.''

The Senate select committee came up with an ingenious solution.

In order to prevent leaks, I would take Poindexter's testimony in private before the public hearings and share the results only with John Nields, chief counsel for the House select committee. No member of the Senate or House committees would be privy to what Poindexter said, unless I concluded that his testimony gave us evidence warranting the impeachment of the president.

In this case, and this case only, I was to report to Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) so that the impeachment process could begin promptly. On the other hand, if I concluded, after listening to Poindexter, that there was insufficient basis for impeachment, no member of the Senate or the House would be told the contents of the deposition.

I doubt that any counsel to any congressional committee had ever been entrusted with such responsibility, and it weighed heavily on me. Not that I was unused to pressure. I'd tried cases in which huge amounts of money were at stake, and I'd defended clients facing the loss of liberty. But nothing prepares a lawyer for conducting an examination in which the impeachment of a president turns on the outcome.

I had no idea, either, what Poindexter would say. Would he distance himself from North? Would he claim he was out of the loop on North's activities concerning the diversion of funds, that it was all North and CIA Director William Casey? And what of the president? What of the shredding of documents and the coverup? McFarlane, for example, had maintained that he was unaware of how far North had gone. Wouldn't Poindexter try to do likewise, particularly since he could be prosecuted if he'd participated in any criminal activity?

We scheduled Poindexter's examination on a Saturday, May 2, to ensure secrecy. The questioning itself took place inside the "bubble," a special high-security, eavesdropping-proof metal shell that the government had required us to install in our office. The bubble supposedly couldn't be penetrated even by the most sophisticated electronic listening devices.

To keep the very fact of his examination secret, we arranged for Poindexter to be spirited in and out of our offices with his attorney. I would arrive at 7 a.m., three hours before.

Inouye was out of Washington that weekend, so it fell to Rudman, as vice chairman of the committee, to administer the oath to Poindexter and read him an order granting him limited immunity in exchange for his testimony. Rudman came to our office shortly before the scheduled start of the deposition, and we waited together.

Then Poindexter arrived with his lawyer. We greeted one another stiffly and without pleasantries. Poindexter was dressed in civilian clothes and held a pipe in his mouth throughout. With his rimless glasses and his pipe, he was bookish-looking -- more professorial than military. He never once smiled, never exhibited the slightest warmth.

(continued on Page 2)

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© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

The Oliver North File:
His Diaries, E-Mail, and Memos on
the Kerry Report, Contras and Drugs

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 113

February 26, 2004

For further information Contact
Peter Kornbluh: 202/994-7116

Washington D.C., 26 February 2004 - Diaries, e-mail, and memos of Iran-contra figure Oliver North, posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive, directly contradict his criticisms yesterday of Sen. John Kerry's 1988 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee report on the ways that covert support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s undermined the U.S. war on drugs.

Mr. North claimed to talk show hosts Hannity & Colmes that the Kerry report was "wrong," that Sen. Kerry "makes this stuff up and then he can't justify it," and that "The fact is nobody in the government of the United States, going all the way back to the earliest days of this under Jimmy Carter, ever had anything to do with running drugs to support the Nicaraguan resistance. Nobody in the government of the United States. I will stand on that to my grave."

The Kerry subcommittee did not report that U.S. government officials ran drugs, but rather, that Mr. North, then on the National Security Council staff at the White House, and other senior officials created a privatized contra network that attracted drug traffickers looking for cover for their operations, then turned a blind eye to repeated reports of drug smuggling related to the contras, and actively worked with known drug smugglers such as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to assist the contras. The report cited former Drug Enforcement Administration head John Lawn testifying that Mr. North himself had prematurely leaked a DEA undercover operation, jeopardizing agents' lives, for political advantage in an upcoming Congressional vote on aid to the contras (p.121).

Among the documents posted today are:

  1. Mr. North's diary entries, from the reporter's notebooks he kept in those years, noting multiple reports of drug smuggling among the contras. A Washington Post investigation published on 22 October 1994 found no evidence he had relayed these reports to the DEA or other law enforcement authorities.
  2. Memos from North aide Robert Owen to Mr. North recounting drug-running "indiscretions" among the contras, warning that a known drug-smuggling airplane was delivering taxpayer-funded "humanitarian aid" overseen by Mr. North.
  3. Mr. North's White House e-mails recounting his efforts to spring from prison a Honduran general who could "spill the beans"on the secret contra war, even though the Justice Department termed the Honduran a "narcoterrorist" for his involvement in cocaine smuggling and an assassination plot.
  4. Mr. North's White House e-mails and diary entries on his personal meeting on 22 September 1986 with Noriega, following up Noriega's offer to "take care of" the Sandinista leadership if the White House would help "clean up his image."
  5. The text of the Kerry subcommittee report. Pages 145-146 directly quote 15 North notebook entries related to drug trafficking.


Also in the posting is Peter Kornbluh's detailed critique - the January/February 1997 cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review - of news coverage of the contra-drug allegations, including the controversial San Jose Mercury News series.

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Read the Documents

Documentation of Official U.S. Knowledge of Drug Trafficking and the Contras

Evidence that NSC Staff Supported Using Drug Money to Fund the Contras

U.S. Officials and Major Traffickers

Kerry Report - Iran/Contra North Notebook Citation Bibliography


Documentation of Official U.S. Knowledge of Drug Trafficking and the Contras

The National Security Archive obtained the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 1989 with Public Citizen Litigation Group. The notebooks, as well as declassified memos sent to North, record that North was repeatedly informed of contra ties to drug trafficking.

Document 1
In his entry for August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Robert Owen ("Rob"), his liaison with the contras. They discuss a plane used by Mario Calero, brother of Adolfo Calero, head of the FDN, to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in Honduras. North writes: "Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S." As Lorraine Adams reported in the October 22, 1994 Washington Post, there are no records that corroborate North's later assertion that he passed this intelligence on drug trafficking to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Document 2
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. (The contras did eventually buy the arms, using money the Reagan administration secretly raised from Saudi Arabia.) According to the notebook, Secord told North that "14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs."

Document 3
An April 1, 1985 memo from Robert Owen (code-name: "T.C." for "The Courier") to Oliver North (code-name: "The Hammer") describes contra operations on the Southern Front. Owen tells North that FDN leader Adolfo Calero (code-name: "Sparkplug") has picked a new Southern Front commander, one of the former captains to Eden Pastora who has been paid to defect to the FDN. Owen reports that the officials in the new Southern Front FDN units include "people who are questionable because of past indiscretions," such as José Robelo, who is believed to have "potential involvement with drug running" and Sebastian Gonzalez, who is "now involved in drug running out of Panama."

Document 4
On February 10, 1986, Owen ("TC") wrote North (this time as "BG," for "Blood and Guts") regarding a plane being used to carry "humanitarian aid" to the contras that was previously used to transport drugs. The plane belongs to the Miami-based company Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer's long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to a Michigan indictment on drug charges, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) -- an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers -- to ferry supplies to the contras.

Document 5a and Document 5b
State Department contracts from February 1986 detail Palmer's work to transport material to the contras on behalf of the NHAO.

Evidence that NSC Staff Supported Using Drug Money to Fund the Contras

In 1987, the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, launched an investigation of allegations arising from reports of contra-drug links. One of the incidents examined by the "Kerry Committee" was an effort to divert drug money from a counternarcotics operation to the contra war.

On July 28, 1988, two DEA agents testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel. The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5 million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and give it to the contras. DEA officials rejected the idea.

Document 6 [90 pp. / 9.47 MB - For best results, Right click and select "Save Target As..."]
Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, A Report Prepared by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations of the Committtee on Foreign Relations, 100th Congress, 2d Session
The Kerry Committee report concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems." (See page 41)

U.S. Officials and Major Traffickers

Manuel Noriega

In June, 1986, the New York Times published articles detailing years of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's collaboration with Colombian drug traffickers. Reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that Noriega "is extensively involved in illicit money laundering and drug activities," and that an unnamed White House official "said the most significant drug running in Panama was being directed by General Noriega." In August, Noriega, a long-standing U.S. intelligence asset, sent an emissary to Washington to seek assistance from the Reagan administration in rehabilitating his drug-stained reputation.

Document 7
Oliver North, who met with Noriega's representative, described the meeting in an August 23, 1986 e-mail message to Reagan national security advisor John Poindexter. "You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega in Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship," North writes before explaining Noriega's proposal. If U.S. officials can "help clean up his image" and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force, Noriega will "'take care of' the Sandinista leadership for us."

North tells Poindexter that Noriega can assist with sabotage against the Sandinistas, and suggests paying Noriega a million dollars -- from "Project Democracy" funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran -- for the Panamanian leader's help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.

Document 8
The same day Poindexter responds with an e-mail message authorizing North to meet secretly with Noriega. "I have nothing against him other than his illegal activities," Poindexter writes.

Document 9
On the following day, August 24, North's notebook records a meeting with CIA official Duane "Dewey" Clarridge on Noriega's overture. They decided, according to this entry, to "send word back to Noriega to meet in Europe or Israel."

Document 10
The CIA's Alan Fiers later recalls North's involvement with the Noriega sabotage proposal. In testimony at the 1992 trial of former CIA official Clair George, Fiers describes North's plan as it was discussed at a meeting of the Reagan administration's Restricted Interagency Group: "[North] made a very strong suggestion that . . . there needed to be a resistance presence in the western part of Nicaragua, where the resistance did not operate. And he said, 'I can arrange to have General Noriega execute some insurgent -- some operations there -- sabotage operations in that area. It will cost us about $1 million. Do we want to do it?' And there was significant silence at the table. And then I recall I said, 'No. We don't want to do that.'"

Document 11
Senior officials ignored Fiers' opinion. On September 20, North informed Poindexter via e-mail that "Noriega wants to meet me in London" and that both Elliott Abrams and Secretary of State George Shultz support the initiative. Two days later, Poindexter authorized the North/Noriega meeting.

Document 12
North's notebook lists details of his meeting with Noriega, which took place in a London hotel on September 22. According to the notes, the two discussed developing a commando training program in Panama, with Israeli support, for the contras and Afghani rebels. They also spoke of sabotaging major economic targets in the Managua area, including an airport, an oil refinery, and electric and telephone systems. (These plans were apparently aborted when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.)

José Bueso Rosa

Reagan administration officials interceded on behalf of José Bueso Rosa, a Honduran general who was heavily involved with the CIA's contra operations and faced trial for his role in a massive drug shipment to the United States. In 1984 Bueso and co-conspirators hatched a plan to assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Córdoba; the plot was to be financed with a $40 million cocaine shipment to the United States, which the FBI intercepted in Florida.

Document 13
Declassified e-mail messages indicate that Oliver North led the behind-the-scenes effort to seek leniency for Bueso . The messages record the efforts of U.S. officials to "cabal quietly" to get Bueso off the hook, be it by "pardon, clemency, deportation, [or] reduced sentence." Eventually they succeeded in getting Bueso a short sentence in "Club Fed," a white collar prison in Florida.

Document 14 (See page 76 of Document 6, the Kerry Report)
The Kerry Committee report reviewed the case, and noted that the man Reagan officials aided was involved in a conspiracy that the Justice Department deemed the "most significant case of narco-terrorism yet discovered."

Kerry Report - Iran/Contra North Notebook Citation Bibliography

The text below is taken from page 146 of the Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy report prepared by the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations ("Kerry Committee"). Click on the links to view the relevant passages from Oliver North's notebooks.

Case Study: The Drug-Related Entries

Among the entries in the North Notebooks which discernably concern narcotics or terrorism are:
May 12, 1984…contract indicates that Gustavo is involved w/ drugs. (Q0266)
June 26, 1984. DEA- (followed by two blocks of text deleted by North) (Q0349)
June 27, 1984. Drug Case - DEA program on controlling cocaine- Ether cutoff- Colombians readjusting- possible negotiations to move on refining effort to Nicaragua- Pablo Escobar-Colombian drug czar- Informant (Pilot) is indicted criminal- Carlos Ledher- Freddy Vaughn (Q0354)
July 9, 1984.
[NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Call from Clarridge- Call Michel re Narco Issue- RIG at 1000 Tomorrow (Q0384)- DEA Miami- Pilot went talked to Vaughn- wanted A/C to go to Bolivia to p/u paste- want A/C to p/u 1500 kilos- Bud to meet w/ Group (Q0385)
July 12, 1984.
[NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Gen. Gorman-*Include Drug Case (Q0400) Call from Johnstone- (White House deletion) leak on Drug (0402)
July 17, 1984. Call to Frank M- Bud Mullins Re- leak on DEA piece- Carlton Turner (Q0418) Call from Johnstone- McManus, LA Times-says/NSC source claims W.H. has pictures of Borge loading cocaine in Nic. (Q0416)
July 20, 1984. Call from Clarridge:-Alfredo Cesar Re Drugs-Borge/Owen leave Hull alone (Deletions)/Los Brasiles Air Field-Owen off Hull (Q0426)
July 27, 1984. Clarridge:-(Block of White House deleted text follows)-Arturo Cruz, Jr.-Get Alfredo Cesar on Drugs (Q0450)
July 31, 1984. -Finance: Libya- Cuba/Bloc Countries-Drugs. . . Pablo Escobar/Federic Vaughn (Q0460)
July 31, 1984.
[NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Staff queries re (White House deletion) role in DEA operations in Nicaragua (Q0461)
December 21, 1984. Call from Clarridge: Ferch (White House deletion)- Tambs- Costa Rica- Felix Rodriguez close to (White House deletion)- not assoc. W/Villoldo- Bay of Pigs- No drugs (Q0922)
January 14, 1985. $14 million to finance came from drugs (Q1039)
July 12, 1985. $14 million to finance came from drugs
August 10, 1985. Mtg w/ A.C.- name of DEA person in New Orleans re Bust on Mario/ DC-6 (Q1140)
February 27, 1986. Mtg w/ Lew Tambs- DEA Auction A/C seized as drug runners.- $250-260K fee (Q2027)

Numerous other entries contain references to individuals or events which Subcommittee staff has determined have relevance to narcotics, terrorism, or international operations, but whose ambiguities cannot be resolved without the production of the deleted materials by North and his attorneys.

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