WASHINGTON — Fired White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North confessed last year that he attempted to destroy every official document that could have revealed the diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras-- but that he missed one, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane said Monday.
McFarlane told the House and Senate investigating committees that North realized last November, as the Reagan Administration's secret arms deals with Iran began to unravel, that the diversion of money to Nicaragua's rebels could damage President Reagan if it were revealed.
Before other officials discovered the diversion, North told him that he planned to hold a "shredding party" to destroy the evidence, McFarlane said.
"He thought that the President was in a very solid position, and that there was only one matter that concerned him--and it was the matter of the channeling of funds to the contras," he said.
"What did he tell you about a shredding party?" asked Arthur L. Liman, chief counsel for the Senate select committee on the scandal.
"Just that there had to be one," McFarlane answered.
Later, after Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III publicly disclosed the diversion of funds and Reagan abruptly fired North, McFarlane said he telephoned North and asked him what had gone wrong.
"Ollie, it was approved, wasn't it?" McFarlane quoted himself as asking.
"Yes, Bud, it was approved. You know I wouldn't do anything that wasn't approved," North replied, according to McFarlane.
"Then don't worry," McFarlane said. "You did the right thing. Just tell it like it was."
McFarlane then asked North how the diversion had been discovered.
"They must have found the memo," he quoted North as saying.
"Did he say, 'I missed one'?" Liman asked.
"Yes," McFarlane answered.
The document that disclosed the diversion was a memo that North wrote in April, 1986, proposing a sale of weapons to Iran to generate $12 million in "residual funds" for the contras.
The memo was discovered by Justice Department officials who searched the National Security Council files on Nov. 22--one day after North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, destroyed thousands of other documents in North's office, according to knowledgeable sources.
Hall has already told investigators that North ordered her to shred some documents and to alter others, the sources have said. McFarlane's testimony corroborated the secretary's account and appeared to strengthen any possible criminal case against North for obstructing justice through destroying the evidence.
Approved by Poindexter
McFarlane said he did not ask North who had approved the diversion of funds to the contras. McFarlane had left the government in December, 1985, before the diversion occurred, but his successor, Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, who was North's boss, has acknowledged approving the diversion, according to the presidentially appointed Tower Commission. Reagan has denied giving his approval.
McFarlane said he did not mention the diversion or North's reference to a "shredding party" to anyone else--even though he was interviewed about the scandal by Meese on Nov. 21, hours before North and Hall destroyed the documents.
"(Meese) was asking the questions," McFarlane explained. "Perhaps it was something I should have told him. We discussed it two days later"--after the documents had been destroyed.
McFarlane described North as a man who "ran very far with the ball" and sometimes exceeded orders in carrying out a mission.
He said North had devised several potentially illegal schemes for funding the contras, written "lurid" memos to promote his proposals and sometimes misrepresented his own wishes as coming from McFarlane or Reagan himself.
North "always responded to firm guidance," McFarlane said, but also would "probably, on occasion, go beyond. I could foresee that."
In 1985, North told McFarlane that he had not solicited any private funds for the contras--an assertion that has since been proven false. But on the basis of North's promises, McFarlane personally assured Congress that the NSC staff was not soliciting aid.
'More Probing' Needed
"Looking back, I think that . . . suspicions that I had ought to have led me to be more probing," a chastened McFarlane admitted.
But McFarlane still had warm words for his former protege. "I thought surely Ollie was probably the most mission-oriented, can-do professional on the staff," he said.
In 1986, McFarlane wrote to North: "If the world only knew how many times you have kept a semblance of gumption and integrity to U.S. policy, they would make you secretary of state."
When asked about that message Monday, McFarlane appeared to wince.
"Some of these communications were to build morale," he said. "It involves a certain amount of hyperbole."