WASHINGTON — Former White House aide Oliver L. North, the chief operative in the Iran- contra affair, appears to have taken his orders directly from William J. Casey, the late CIA director, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane testified Wednesday.
McFarlane, who sometimes responded with angry outbursts and rambling discourses during his third day before congressional committees investigating the affair, said that North had "more contact than I realized" with Casey, who died last week.
Committee members agreed. "I think it's rather clear that Oliver North was acting under the aegis of Mr. Casey," Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) said.
Some committee members said that Casey may have channeled his orders through North as a means of escaping a ban imposed by Congress on CIA support for Nicaragua's contra rebels . But Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) speculated that it could have been the other way around: The Marine officer may have gone to Casey seeking authorization for his possibly illegal activities.
Strong Backer of Policy
The CIA director was one of President Reagan's closest confidants and one of the strongest backers of Reagan's policy of supporting the contras.
He is also the one principal in the Iran-contra affair who will not be able to tell his side of the story. Only hours before he was scheduled to discuss the scandal before a congressional panel last December, Casey suffered a brain seizure stemming from a cancerous tumor that left him disabled until his death from pneumonia.
As evidence of North's central role in the Iran-contra affair has mounted, committee members said they have begun to have misgivings about their original plan to offer North limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
June Appearance Scheduled
The panels are currently scheduled to consider approving the grant of immunity on June 4 and to take his public testimony as early as June 23. So far, North has refused to testify before congressional investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
McFarlane testified that Administration officials were under orders from President Reagan to help the Nicaraguan rebels "hold body and soul together" during the period when official U.S. aid was banned.
He said that North's activities appear to have stretched the law's vague boundaries. Several versions of the law banning military aid to the contras were in effect from mid-1984 until late last year.
The law prohibiting aid to the contras applied specifically to U.S. government agencies involved in intelligence activities. Some Republican members of the investigating committees said it was unclear whether that included the NSC, the White House office designed to advise the President on national security matters.
Admits Congress' Intent
But McFarlane, who as the President's national security adviser was the director of the NSC staff, admitted to the committees that the law's intention was clear: Congress "didn't want anybody in the U.S. government assisting the contras."
McFarlane, who will return to the witness table today, said that Reagan was "conscious of everything that I did that was close to the line." He noted, however, that he did not inform Reagan or Congress of his suspicions that North was breaking the law.
"I could not prove that it was violated and I accepted Col. North's personal certification that he had not done so," McFarlane said. But he added: "It seemed to me that it was likely that he had . . . provided assistance to them (the contras) that went beyond the law."
McFarlane also said that he had been "periodically concerned about the almost certain temptation to raise money that would come up whenever Ollie would go out and talk to groups throughout the country. . . . That (fund-raising) was proscribed, and we had to be very careful not to do that."
'More Liberal Interpretation'
But he added that when he informed the President of his concerns, Reagan "had a far more liberal interpretation of that than I did, I think."
McFarlane testified that North had told him of the diversion of funds to the contras in May, 1986, five months after McFarlane had resigned as Reagan's national security adviser. McFarlane, who at that time had been pressed back into service to assist in the Iran arms sales, said that North had assured him the transfer of funds had been authorized, although he said North had not told him by whom.
Cohen said in an interview that he and other committee members suspect that when North told McFarlane he had obtained higher "authority" for diverting funds from the Iran arms sale to the contras, he was referring to permission from Casey--not Reagan.
Notes North's Rank
Cohen noted that North acted with an apparent authority that extended far beyond what would be expected from a relatively low-ranking Marine officer.