WASHINGTON — If official Washington was left with mouths agape by word that the White House opened a secret arms pipeline to its sworn enemies in Iran, the identity of the Reagan Administration insider said to oversee it surprises almost no one.
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, friends and observers say, is something of a cult figure even among hard-to-impress co-workers at the National Security Council--a lean and graying career Marine known for unexplained disappearances, 18-hour stretches behind closed doors and tireless, tight-lipped devotion to his job.
"No one is neutral about Ollie North. You'll either walk off a cliff for him or you think he's a hot dog," says one admiring associate.
"He's one of a kind--a complete believer," says another. "Whether you like it or not, a government needs the kind of people who get on a plane and fly into a Central American jungle, no questions asked. Ollie's perfectly suited for the job."
What that job involves is not always clear. North is known publicly as White House point man for the Nicaraguan rebels, or contras , a shadowy role that has exposed him to charges--never proven--of illegally directing a secret U.S. war against Nicaragua. Americans there jokingly dubbed him "Knight Rider," after the TV hero, for his dashing, frequently unannounced missions to confer with the beleaguered rebels.
But Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, calls that misleading. "The only problem I have with Ollie is that he spends too little time on Central America," he said.
In fact, North--by title a mid-level bureaucrat, as deputy director of the National Security Council's political-military affairs branch--has a White House role beyond his job description. He is reported to have drawn the plans for the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada; other duties have ranged from working on the sale of sophisticated airborne warning and control system (AWACS) radar-equipped surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia to helping to draft a long-range political and military blueprint for U.S. policy through the end of the century.
Most recently, he has helped orchestrate the Administration's policy against international terrorism--a policy that appears to have included a top-secret effort to bolster Iranian moderates--and to free American hostages--by supplying crucial spare parts for U.S. weapons in Iran's war with Iraq, according to U.S. sources.
Closes Ties to McFarlane
North's rise to those heights is partly rooted in a genuinely close relationship with his onetime boss, former national security adviser Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, a Marine lieutenant colonel who has been identified as another key figure in the Iranian arms pipeline. Neither man could be reached for comment, and National Security Council press officials did not return calls requesting biographical information on North.
But critics and admirers alike say the 43- or 44-year-old North has advanced mostly on the strength of his ability and his sheer passion for the battle against communism.
They say that passion has probably killed his prospects for advancement in the Marine Corps, which frowns on long-term civilian assignments such as National Security Council service. North was offered a command in the Marines about two years ago, observers say, but turned it down despite an understanding that the offer would not be repeated.
Huge Strains on Family
And they say it has probably placed huge strains on his family, which has borne North's repeated and lengthy absences and a string of public abuse related to his controversial White House role.
Vandals poisoned and killed the North family's mixed-breed dog last year shortly after his link to the contras was made public, and a stream of pickets and threatening phone calls later forced the family to move temporarily from their northern Virginia home to a military base.
Critics say North has become the target of such abuse precisely because his passion--they say zealotry--in pursuing the Reagan Administration's goals has led him to advocate politically explosive policies--such as the reported Iranian arms deals--that inevitably plunge him into controversy.
Under Intense Scrutiny
In recent months he has come under intense scrutiny by the press and congressional critics for his purported role in aiding the contras in their war against Nicaragua--a role that appears to have brushed the limits of a now-defunct ban on spending federal money for that war or otherwise directing aid to the rebels. Telephone records and other documents appear to chart an intense involvement by North in privately sponsored efforts to supply the contras, but White House officials and McFarlane say his work on the cause has scrupulously followed the law.
The controversies that follow North, they contend, spring instead from his bearing. He is not a bureaucrat, but a Marine--a straight-talking, no-nonsense type whose ability to do the impossible is both his biggest advantage and his Achilles heel.
"Zealots are people who believe deeply in a policy someone isn't in accordance with," Abrams said. "It's a pejorative term. Ollie believes deeply in the Administration's Central America policy, but, I'd wager, no more than myself or George Shultz. He's not a zealot."
Oliver North is Texas-born, a Naval Academy graduate and Vietnam veteran who holds two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for battle deeds that included both "conventional and unconventional" warfare.
His career took a crucial turn after he attended the Naval War College's command and staff school, from which he graduated in 1981, and authored a paper on battleships that caught the eye of Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. A Navy spokesman said Lehman approved North's nomination to the National Security Council staff.
Times Staff Writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.