After six years of magic, President Reagan broke the spell. By deceiving the nation, he and those around him badly damaged his presidency. This traumatic tale is still unfolding, with no end in sight. This is how it developed.
There was at least one more shipment of arms to Iran in 1985. And it got help from a man who, at first glance, seemed to be an unlikely conspirator. People called him Ollie.
Tousle-headed Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North occupied the sort of bureaucratic closet in the status-obsessed National Security Council that his comic nickname suggested would suit him forever.
In a staff of 63, North occupied one of the lower ranks. At the top was Robert McFarlane; below him were fully 14 special assistants to the President. North, by contrast, was merely the deputy director of the political-military affairs office. He did not have the privilege of eating in the "White House mess"--the dining room for presidential aides. Until late 1984, he parked in a first-come, first-served space in back of the White House.
He was the White House equivalent, one could say, of a bank teller.
At least that was what it looked like on the flow chart. Next door to the White House, in the halls of the Old Executive Office Building where North put in long hours of work, however, the view was different. North was the President's man on the contras. And by early 1984, this unheralded bureaucrat in his quiet office had become a very important person indeed.
The contras were perhaps the President's fondest cause. Others called them rebels or even mercenaries. Reagan called them freedom fighters. They were guerrillas bent on overthrowing Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. And they needed help, especially money to buy guns and ammunition.
Reagan asked Congress to send them $21 million in 1984, in addition to the $24 million that had been appropriated in 1983. But Congress, angry that the CIA had mined Nicaragua's harbors and carried out other covert operations without notifying the intelligence committees, said no. A year later, Congress appropriated $27 million for so-called humanitarian aid--such items as boots, clothing, food, medical supplies and transportation--but explicitly rejected sending weapons.
So it became North's job to encourage private Americans to funnel aid to the contras. He got help from, among other places, a loose network of contra supporters in the United States, such as retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who operated a private pro- contra organization.
The contras were not North's only adventure. He helped plan the 1983 Grenada invasion, the 1986 bombing of Libya and the 1985 interception of the Egyptian plane that carried the terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro. Like nature abhoring a vacuum, North had rushed in to handle all available assignments. By one account, he was much like a younger brother to McFarlane--and a son to Reagan, who called him "my Marine."
North could be disconcerting. Some said he had a taste for the dramatic. He told colleagues, for instance, that his family dog had been poisoned in retaliation for his contra support. But one source said: "The dog died of cancer. It got old and died. Ollie told everybody that it was poisoned for effect."
Perhaps not all of this was for effect. North took the trouble, for example, to move his family out of their home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and onto a military base for a time in 1984 because of anti- contra picketing and what he said were threatening telephone calls. And the White House finally gave him a parking place in a garage to prevent vandalism to his car.
In 1985, McFarlane gave North a momentous additional assignment: to help with the Administration's efforts to free the American hostages in Beirut. Eventually, this would generate the Oliver North story that would remind National Security Council colleagues of a tale from a Ken Follett novel. When news leaked in late 1986 about an arms-for-hostages swap, North burst into one colleague's office and denounced the stories as "disinformation." The real plan to free the hostages, he said, was to trade them for Iranian government officials' relatives whom he had ordered kidnaped and held in cages throughout Europe.
One source said North's tale came from an impulse to cover exposure of the truth with an even more dramatic fantasy. But another said North had "crossed the line from truth into fantasy long ago."