WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, acting as unofficial quartermaster for the Nicaraguan resistance, doled out tens of thousands of dollars to contra leaders from his White House safe at a time when the Reagan Administration was prohibited by Congress from assisting the rebels, the man who acted as North's courier told Senate and House investigating committees Thursday.
The testimony of Robert W. Owen, who was paid $2,500 a month to carry cash, secret memos and intelligence information between the White House and Central America, provided the first detailed glimpse into the shadowy cloak-and-dagger world that North created to sustain the contras in armed combat with the Sandinista army after the cutoff of U.S. aid in 1984.
The activities described by Owen, who will return to testify before the committee Tuesday, along with contra leader Adolfo Calero, occurred during the period between 1984 and 1985 when the Reagan Administration was strictly prohibited by Congress from providing any direct or indirect assistance to the contras, including intelligence information. It was not until 1986 that Congress lifted the ban on intelligence-sharing with them.
Calero Tied to Checks
Owen's most stunning disclosure was that North always kept several thousand dollars worth of travelers checks, supplied by Calero, in his safe in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. The money then was secretly relayed by Owen to forces in Central America or dispensed to contra leaders in Washington apartments, parked cars and--on one occasion--on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House.
Borrowing from the netherworld of spy novels, each man also had a code name: "Steel Hammer" for North, "Spark Plug" for Calero and "TC"--The Courier--for Owen. Owen testified before the panels under limited immunity from prosecution.
Until Thursday, North's role in this secret contra-supply network had been portrayed as that of planner, fund-raiser and confidant. But Owen, a former aide to Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), painted a more vivid picture of him as a hands-on "quartermaster" and tactician who supplied the contras with secret U.S. intelligence maps and photos, made cash payments, arranged for arms shipments and even provided pocket money to visiting contra leaders visiting the United States.
Johnathan Miller, White House director of administration, resigned only minutes after Owen told the committees that Miller had handled some of the contra cash from North's safe. Miller cashed about $3,000 of the travelers checks at North's request while he was an employee of the State Department, Owen said.
According to Owen, North several times gave him maps and photos to deliver to the contras that he said had been obtained from "across the river"--a reference to the Pentagon and CIA headquarters at Langley, Va. The prohibition on contra assistance laid down by Congress was specifically directed at participation by the CIA and the Pentagon.
In February, 1985, Owen was summoned by North to make a pickup directly outside the top-secret White House "Situation Room"--from which global crises are monitored for the President. But North was furious when he arrived because the maps he had hoped to send to the contras were blown up to 3 feet by 5 feet, the size usually used for display at White House briefings.
'Had Choice Words'
"He had choice words for the people who provided them," Owen said, adding that North had described his suppliers as "incompetent," among other things.
The maps showed Sandinista forces massed at the Honduran border, Owen said. Another packet of maps and photos carried by Owen the previous November were designed to help the contras in a highly risky mission to blow up Sandinista helicopters, an operation that apparently was never carried out.
The safe where North kept Calero's travelers checks was identified by Owen as the same one used by President Reagan's first national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, who resigned in 1982 after disclosures that he had kept in it $1,000 received from two Japanese journalists, though he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Owen said North joked that it was an "unlucky safe." He said he did not know for certain that it had been used by Allen but added: "It makes a good story."
Owen said that he did not know how much money North kept in his safe, but he assumed that the amount at any given time was modest because "there was always a concern about being short of cash." He said he knew that the money came from Calero because he was sent to see the contra leader on a couple of occasions by North to ask for more travelers checks.
First Such Testimony
It was the first testimony that North, a highly regarded presidential aide, handled cash himself. While the extent of the purchases made with this money is not yet clear, it is known that Calero had control over large sums of money received from Saudi Arabia in 1985.