WASHINGTON — A retired Air Force colonel who managed the secret contra airlift last year said today that he believed he was working for President Reagan, and he even compiled a photo album for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North to show "the top boss."
Opening the fourth week of congressional hearings into the Iran-contra scandal, Robert C. Dutton revealed details of the operations that provided the Nicaraguan rebels with guns, uniforms and medicine at a time when Congress forbade direct U.S. military aid.
The photo album, containing color pictures of successful supply drops into Nicaragua, was displayed to committee members. It had been dusted for fingerprints by the FBI, said John Dowd, Dutton's attorney.
Although Dutton said North intended to show the album to Reagan, Arthur Liman, lawyer for the Senate committee, said there is no evidence that the President's fingerprints were found on it.
The airlift ferried supplies to the rebels until Oct. 5, 1986, when a C-123 cargo plane was shot down by the Nicaraguan army. Two Americans were killed and one, "cargo kicker" Eugene Hasenfus, was captured, convicted of espionage by Managua's Sandinista government and freed at Christmas.
Accepted Secord's Offer
Dutton, a 26 1/2-year Air Force veteran--the bulk of that career spent in military "special operations"--told the select House-Senate committees that on May 2, the day after he left the service, he accepted an offer from his old friend, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, to direct the fledgling resupply effort.
Dutton said he considered Secord and North his co-commanders on the job and, in turn, he thought "we were working for the President of the United States."
In addition, Dutton said, North spoke of direct conversations with CIA Director William J. Casey and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, which left the impression that North had "very broad access" to the highest levels of government.
Dutton said the airlift was much like other "special operations" with which he was involved in the Air Force--except that the contra supply was not paid for with any government money.
He spent a Central American summer trying to conquer miserable weather during the rainy season and clumsy coordination with forces on the ground. But by September, the airlift was running so smoothly that Dutton selected some photographs for the album that he later gave to North.
White House 'No Comment'
The Marine, a staff member of the National Security Council, told him that the album would go to "the top boss"--which Dutton said he believed referred to the President.
The color photographs showed aerial shots of what appeared to be a landing strip, dense cloud cover and interior shots apparently of a contra supply warehouse. Other photographs showed men in fatigues, some American and some Latino, holding machine guns, standing around aircraft and working on aircraft. In several pictures, the men are smiling and posing for the camera.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said "no comment" to Dutton's testimony. Reagan has denied any knowledge of the diversion of millions of dollars from the U.S. arms sales to Iran to rebels fighting to overthrow Managua's government.
Dutton said after one successful mission in September, 1986, North told him: "This has been a success. You're not going to get a medal for this. But some day the President will shake your hand and thank you."