Disturbing questions haunt the recent trial of Oliver North. Was it really necessary? Did it justify all the effort and expense put into it? Was the right person tried?
If one considers the circumstances that brought it about, the answers are far from clear or obvious. Thanks to the trial, however, we know a great deal more about those circumstances than we did before.
We now know that North was put on trial as the result of a panic that seized the men around former President Reagan in the last week of November 1986. On the 22nd, two of Attorney General Edwin Meese’s lawyers examined documents in North’s office and discovered the lengthy “diversion memorandum.” In it a single paragraph incidentally revealed that North had planned to use profits from the arms sales to Iran to support the Nicaraguan contras. On the 23rd, Meese called in North, who admitted that the diversion of funds had been carried out, not merely planned.
This revelation set off a political panic. At the North trial, Meese said that he had been most troubled by the unexpected merging of the Reagan administration’s problems with the Iran and contra affairs. He was then questioned by North’s lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr.:
Sullivan: In fact, your assessment at the time was that unless something was done, a strong response, that the merging of those two factors could very well cause the possible toppling of the President himself, correct?
>Sullivan: And there was discussion, in fact, that on the days November 23rd and 24th that unless the administration, unless you and the President himself, put out to the public the facts of the use of residuals [North’s favorite term for the profits] for the Freedom Fighters, unless you got it out the door first, it could possibly lead to impeachment by the Congress, correct?
Meese: Yes. That was a concern, that political opponents might try that kind of tactic.
To get the facts out the door first, President Reagan and Meese held a joint press conference on November 25. North said he was shocked when he heard Meese on television imply that North could be subject to a criminal investigation by an independent counsel.
On December 8, the Justice Department applied for the appointment of an independent counsel. The only name mentioned in its petition as subject to investigation was that of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North. A few days later, Lawrence E. Walsh was chosen by a special court of three federal judges to head the prosecution.
These circumstances show that North’s trial had its roots in the political panic and demoralization that had seized the Reagan administration in the face of a sudden revelation of the “diversion.” What Reagan’s men feared most was the charge of “cover-up” that had doomed former President Nixon in the Watergate affair. Since Reagan would accept no blame, it was necessary to find a surrogate to prove that there was …