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A COUNTRY UNDER COVER : On Teaching North: Far Too Many Grays

December 21, 1986|Nathaniel Davis | Nathaniel Davis is a former U.S. ambassador and author of "The Last Two Years Of Salvador Allende" (Cornell)

CLAREMONT — I taught Ollie North at the U.S. Naval War College, just before he went to the White House staff. Even then he was very sure and very smart. He also had the qualities of style, gallantry and confident patriotism that characterized so many top-flight professional military officers. I could tell that I, the old fud of an ambassador, was not getting through. I was presenting too many ambiguities, too many shades of gray. I was too skeptical, had seen too many foreign-policy failures and had too little faith that resolute action, ideological commitment and the willingness to smash constraints could turn the world around.

My vision of the "evil empire" was not clear enough for Ollie North. Perhaps mine is the regret all teachers feel. I had my chance and did not teach my student much--or at least not enough. But we live in a free country, and no teacher can impose his view on a student. The best he can do is open the door and encourage the student to walk through.

Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was a can-do National Security Council staffer who tried to accomplish things his President wanted. His problem was that he went too far, too far for an appropriate White House role--and too far, perhaps, for the law. At the heart of the current crisis is a reluctance in the White House to accept the constraints on policy that Congress--for better or worse--has imposed by law.

In a related episode, a few days ago came reports that Ambassador John H. Kelly had bypassed Secretary of State George P. Shultz in sending "back channel" messages from Beirut to the White House through Central Intelligence Agency facilities. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), commented: "I don't think I have ever heard of that happening before--totally bypassing an American secretary of state."

But it has happened before. In 1970, the CIA's Track II operation in Chile--looking for a preventive coup against Salvador Allende's leadership--was carried on behind the backs of the secretaries of state and defense and also the U.S. ambassador in Santiago. When this situation came to light in 1974, Congress passed Public Law 93-475 to require that "any department or agency (read the CIA) having officers or employees in a country shall keep the . . . ambassador . . . fully and currently informed of its activities and operations." Neither the CIA leadership nor Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger much liked this requirement; they effectively blocked implementation of the legislation for about a year, until the Senate finally prodded the White House into issuance of instructions that put the law into practical effect.

Repeated efforts and recommendations have been made over the years to nail down the ambassador's right to inspect CIA message traffic to and from his post. The CIA has always resisted, as have habitual users of back-channel traffic, including most national security advisers. Last week, State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman revealed that President Reagan, in 1981, sent a message to all diplomatic envoys, directing them to take orders only from himself or the secretary of state--no back-channel communications unless approved by the President or secretary. If followed, that directive would have prevented Shultz's problem with his ambassador in Beirut. Legislation would be an even better way to prevent back-channel messages and it would further strengthen an ambassador's ability to act as the President's representative, which is what he is supposed to be.

What else might be done to end the disarray in NSC-State Department relationships? The President should instantly fire any secretary of state he doesn't trust or cannot work with. That was what Harry S. Truman did to James F. Byrnes, and it did not prevent reelection in 1948 nor mar Truman's place in our national history.

Next, the President should make clear that the NSC adviser is his intimate staff officer but not his public spokesman. Every President, particularly when beleaguered, has been tempted to send his NSC adviser off on the talk-show and speechmaking circuit, and most have succumbed to the temptation. As the old saying goes, nothing propinques like propinquity, and a harassed President turns to his own people. I have seen the phenomenon at close range, when serving as a senior NSC staffer during Lyndon B. Johnson's beleaguered days. An NSC adviser working the PR circuit does not have the time or energy to coordinate the foreign-affairs agencies, advise the President thoughtfully and anticipate policy needs and options. A sense of his role and mission as a staff officer was what made Gen. Brent Scowcroft so widely admired as a national security adviser, perhaps our most successful one in recent times--and the least known by the U.S. public.

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