WASHINGTON — A machine tucked away deep in the inner reaches of the White House office complex has done what federal and congressional investigators thus far have been unable to do: chronicle the activities of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter in the Iran- contra affair.
North and Poindexter, citing their constitutional rights against self-incrimination, have refused to answer questions from congressional committees or from independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, the court-appointed special prosecutor investigating the scandal.
But the Tower Commission, appointed by Reagan to review White House actions in the secret arms dealings with Iran and the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels, used computer records to reconstruct in detail the flow of electronic memos and messages between the key National Security Council officials.
The messages disclosed in the report included one sent Feb. 27, 1986, from North to Robert C. McFarlane, the former national security adviser, noting that his successor, Poindexter, was "under tremendous pressure."
"My part of this was easy compared to his," North said. "I only had to deal with our enemies. He has to deal with the Cabinet."
McFarlane, who maintained a home computer terminal linked to the NSC computer for a year after leaving the White House, messaged North the same day: "Roger Ollie. Well done--if the world only knew how many times you have kept a semblance of integrity and gumption to U.S. policy, they would make you secretary of state. But they can't know and would complain if they did--such is the state of democracy in the late 20th Century . . . . "
Last spring, North was complaining of fatigue. In a May 15 message to Poindexter, he urged that the CIA take over management of the contra aid program: "I am not complaining, and you know that I love the work, but we have to lift some of this onto the CIA so I can get more than 2-3 hrs of sleep at night."
By mid-July, Poindexter and McFarlane were exchanging messages expressing concern about pressures on North and the political consequences if his pro-contra role became known. "I don't (know) what to do about it," McFarlane wrote. "But in Ollie's interest I would get him transferred or sent to Bethesda for disability review board . . . . " By "Bethesda" McFarlane apparently was referring to Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
After a meeting with Poindexter in mid-July, North sent Poindexter a message saying: "I can understand why you may well have reservations about both my involvement in Nicaragua policy and even my continued tenure here . . . it probably would be best if I were to move on as quietly, but expeditiously as possible. I want you to know that it is, for me deeply disappointing to have lost your confidence . . . . "
On July 15, Poindexter replied: "Now you are getting emotional again . . . . I do not want you to leave and to be honest cannot afford to let you go."
North apparently dropped any thought of leaving, but he renewed it in a message on Oct. 29, just days before the first public disclosure of his activities. He wrote Poindexter:
"This is the damnest operation I have ever seen. Pls let me go on to other things. Wd very much like to give RR (Ronald Reagan) two hostages that he can take credit for and stop worrying about these other things."
In its report, released Thursday, the Tower Commission described only tersely the workings of the computer system: The "PROF" system, the Professional Office System, is an interoffice mail system run through an IBM mainframe computer and managed by the White House Communications Agency for the NSC. All NSC officers have personal passwords that enable them to send and receive messages to each other from terminals at their desks.
Hundreds of Conversations
But sprinkled through the report are voluminous references to hundreds of computer conversations involving North, Poindexter and other NSC officers and consultants, including McFarlane.
The communications range from detailed memos on the most sensitive aspects of the Iran and contras operations to brief personal messages giving glimpses of interoffice strife involving fatigued presidential aides.
The commission said these "conversations by computer" were "presumed by the writers to be protected from disclosure." But, officials say, the White House computer was storing all of the messages in a backup system--an electronic archive designed to provide a record in the event a catastrophe destroyed the main system.
The computer system was part of a larger crisis management center designed by Dr. Richard Smith, a systems analyst and presidential special assistant who died in 1984 after complications from open heart surgery.
The sophisticated center was publicly praised that same year by McFarlane, who wrote in a book on national security policy that it not only improved crisis management capability but "it represents an institutional memory for the policy-makers so that past decisions and events can be more comprehensively integrated into consideration of a current crisis."
Comes as a Surprise
Nevertheless, it was unclear whether McFarlane knew that the messages he was sending from his home terminal to North were being preserved. It is clear, however, that others who used the system were surprised to learn of the computer archive earlier this month.
"We were living under a delusion. We thought when we deleted them from our own files, that they disappeared," one Administration official said.