WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Oliver L. North warned the FBI in early October that its investigation of Southern Air Transport, a former CIA company then linked to arms deliveries to the Nicaraguan contras , could blow the lid off secret U.S. arms shipments to Iran, government officials said Tuesday.
On Oct. 8, shortly after the crash in Nicaragua of an American plane carrying supplies to the contras, North telephoned Oliver B. (Buck) Revell, executive assistant director of the FBI in charge of investigations, to caution him about the FBI's investigation of Southern Air Transport.
North reminded Revell that an anti-terrorism task force on which they both served had been told the previous summer of the Iran arms sales, sources said.
Linked to Arms Shipments
After U.S. arms sales exploded onto front pages in early November, Southern Air Transport also was linked to those arms shipments. And North, who was fired in November from the staff of the White House National Security Council, was revealed as a chief operator of both the Iran arms sales and efforts to direct private aid to the contras at a time when Congress had banned U.S. government aid.
North's call reached Revell in Nashville, where he was attending a meeting of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police. Revell informed FBI Director William H. Webster of the call.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 30, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III received a request from North's boss, National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, to delay the FBI's investigation of Southern Air Transport. Less than a month later, Poindexter resigned on the same day that North was fired.
Meese, as previously reported, ordered such a delay, which was communicated to Webster by Associate Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott. At the time, Southern Air Transport was involved in arms supply efforts to Iran that are believed to have led to the freeing of American hostage David P. Jacobsen, who had been held by pro-Iranian Muslim extremists in Lebanon.
Counsel Probing Delay
North's call to Revell and the investigative delay ordered by Meese are being scrutinized by Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel now handling the investigation of U.S. arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits to the contras, government sources said.
Revell, who normally would have responsibility for the work of the FBI agents assisting Walsh, has taken himself out of the matter because of his contacts with North. He did so in November after discussing the question with Webster, an FBI spokesman said.
It could not be established how North learned of the FBI inquiry into Southern Air Transport early in October. The investigation began after the crew of the American plane shot down over Nicaragua while carrying supplies to the contras was linked to Southern Air Transport.
A Justice Department source said he understood that North first heard of the FBI's investigation when Cable News Network aired a report Oct. 8 showing agents leaving the Miami office of Southern Air Transport.
The eventual delay in the investigation of Southern Air Transport was extended from the 10 days sought by Meese to 26 days. The investigation resumed after Meese made public his finding that millions of dollars of Iranian arms funds had been diverted to the contras.
FBI officials, attempting to minimize the importance of the delay, noted that it was only "field interviews"--questions of Southern Air Transport crew members--that were postponed. "Internal review" of information gathered by the investigation continued during the delay, an official said.
At the end of the 10-day period, the FBI raised the matter with Justice Department officials, an FBI source said, "but they were slow in giving the green light."
A Justice Department official attributed the longer-than-expected holdup to bureaucratic inertia.