WASHINGTON — White House aide Oliver L. North and CIA Director William J. Casey met secretly with Nicaraguan rebel leaders in a Washington town house in 1984 and 1985, apparently to avoid leaving any official record of the talks, two sources who were present at the series of sessions said Friday.
Casey, who died last month, and Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, his chief aide for Latin America at the time, used the initial meetings in 1984 to hand the agency's program of support for Nicaragua's contras over to North, then a middle-level staff member at the National Security Council, the sources said.
Direction for Contras
One participant said he believes the meetings in the government-owned town house continued into 1985, well after the CIA was prohibited by law from directing the contra effort.
North used the sessions to provide the contra leaders with direction, advice and intelligence and to discuss fund-raising efforts for the rebel army, he said.
"This was not just one or two meetings," he said. "There were more than a dozen meetings, maybe as many as 20. Most of them were just with North, but Casey was at several."
Two officials said the clandestine meetings took place in a town house on Jackson Place, an elegant row of Federal-style brick buildings across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The street is only steps away from the Old Executive Office Building, where both North and Casey had offices.
However, visitors to the Jackson Place houses are not required to sign in at a computer registry, as they were at the Old Executive Office Building--and thus leave no official record.
One of the houses, officially a residence for former Presidents when they visit Washington, contains a highly secure conference room that has been made safe against electronic eavesdropping and is often used by senior Administration officials for discreet meetings, a former official said. It is there that North and Casey are believed to have met with the contra leaders.
'It Fills in a Blank'
The discovery of the hitherto undisclosed meetings sheds new light on Casey's role in supervising North, who ran a two-year-long secret effort to fund and supply the contras--including the diversion of profits from the Administration's secret arms sales to Iran.
"It fills in a blank," a congressional investigator said. "It tells us that North's relationship with Casey was more intimate than we knew and that it was under way at an early stage."
Members of the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra scandal have been pursuing indications that Casey secretly supervised the efforts of North, who was fired by President Reagan last November.
One government source said North had informal meetings with Casey on virtually a weekly basis while he was running the secret contra effort.
Aid Cut Off in 1984
Congress cut off U.S. aid to the rebels in mid-1984 and explicitly ordered the CIA to stop directing the covert war against Nicaragua's leftist regime. As a result, Robert C. McFarlane, then the President's national security adviser, said he and Casey chose North to manage the continuing secret aid effort, which included the solicitation of $32 million in funding from Saudi Arabia.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House investigating committee, said last week he has been struck by the mounting evidence of Casey's importance. "I went into these hearings under the impression that Director Casey knew very, very little about these efforts to divert funds to the contras and to supply the contras," he said. "What we've heard thus far would suggest that Col. North was in frequent contact with Director Casey, and that surprised me."
Committee staff members said they were not aware of the Jackson Place meetings until informed of them by The Times. One of the contra leaders who attended, Adolfo Calero, testified before the panels last month but did not mention the clandestine conferences.
Asked by Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) how often and where he had met with Casey, Calero said: "Oh, maybe about five or six times. In his office (at CIA headquarters) in Virginia, two or three; one in the Old Executive Office Building; and then I saw him at various social political functions."
The sources who revealed the Jackson Place meetings said they began in the spring of 1984, but added that they did not know how many of the meetings Casey attended. If Casey or other CIA officers used the meetings to provide intelligence, advice or fund-raising aid to the contras between Oct. 12, 1984, and Aug. 8, 1985, their actions would appear to have violated the law.
'Keep Plugging Away'
"Some of them were merely to encourage the contras to keep plugging away" despite the cutoff of CIA funds, one source said. But as the cutoff date of Oct. 12, 1984, neared, the meetings focused on the "direct transition" of the program from the CIA to North, he said.
"There were specific discussions of what logistical functions North would assume," he said.
A CIA spokesman refused to comment on the account. White House spokesmen did not respond to inquiries about the North-Casey meetings and the use of the town house.
Clarridge, who attended several of the sessions in 1984, is scheduled to testify before the congressional committees next month, officials said.
Staff writers Josh Getlin and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.