WASHINGTON — On the day he was fired from his White House job, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North said President Reagan phoned him and stressed, "It's important that I not know" details of the diversion of Iran arms money to the contras, a former aide to North told Congress.
The previously secret testimony of Lt. Col. Robert Earl--disclosed in part today--differed from North's version delivered before congressional committees a day earlier.
Confronted with Earl's statement, North said in his second day of testimony today, "I don't recall the conversation that way."
North testified Tuesday that Reagan phoned him shortly after the scandal erupted with his firing last Nov. 25, 1986, and expressed utter surprise to learn of the diversion of Iran arms sales profits to Nicaraguan rebels.
North quoted Reagan as saying, "I just didn't know" of the possibly illegal diversion, which occurred during a congressional ban on official U.S. aid to the contra rebels.
Congressional sources said Earl, a Marine Corps officer assigned to work with North on the National Security Council staff, testified in a closed-door deposition about North's remarks. If Earl's account is correct, it could raise more questions about Reagan's knowledge of the diversion than North's version.
John Nields, counsel to the House Select Committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, asked North whether he told Earl later in the day that Reagan had remarked, "It's important that I not know."
"It may be that the President said it's important that I--Lieutenant Colonel North--understand that he did not know," North said, "but I wouldn't have characterized it the way you have just indicated, I don't--I don't believe."
North has emphatically insisted that, in supervising the covert operations, he assumed Reagan had approved all his activities but he learned later that Reagan had not approved the diversion to the contras.
A congressional source said that another North aide, Coast Guard Cmdr. Craig Coy, also gave the committees a deposition that did not dispute North's version of the Reagan conversation. However, the source said Coy was not present for the entire conversation between North and Earl.
As to whose version is believable, in the event Earl testifies publicly, the panels and public will be able to make up their own minds "which is more credible," the source said.