WASHINGTON — Despite the outpouring of public support for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, Senate Iran- contra committee counsel Arthur L. Liman said Friday that Americans should separate North's engaging and inspiring presentation from the deeper issues being weighed by the panel.
The basic question, Liman said during a break in the committee hearings, is whether the nation is willing to allow national policy to be guided in secret without consultation from elected officials. He suggested that this concern will outlast the public's emotional response to North's compelling account of his actions.
"In the end," he said, the public is "still going to have to ask whether this is the way we want to conduct our affairs."
In four days of testimony, North unabashedly has described how he and others in the executive branch deliberately deceived Congress about crucial aspects of the Administration's sale of arms to Iran and about covert support for the Nicaraguan rebels. Even President Reagan, he said, was not fully informed about the secret initiatives being carried out in his name.
Liman, a tough and quick-witted trial lawyer from New York, admitted that the Marine officer has made a formidable witness.
"The American people look up and see a hero, a James Bond or a great general," he said.
Still, Liman added, "Americans can respect somebody as a hero and still say they want their elected representatives to run the government."
Despite the controversy they have generated, Liman said, the hearings have been a dramatic contrast to the secret operations carried out by North and others in the Administration.
"Whether you accept what (North) said or not, this is an exercise in open government--the antithesis of what happened (in the Iran-contra affair)," Liman noted.
"These hearings are about democracy," he added.
Nonetheless, Liman found himself on the defensive Friday as some members of the House committee complained that he had not dealt fairly with North. When Liman contended that the fired National Security Council staff member broke the law by failing to seek Reagan's approval for secret operations, his questioning was interrupted by an angry Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.).
Questions Called Slanted
"He is phrasing his questions to make an argument, to slant it as though the entire committee thinks that this is a horrible thing," McCollum said. "He doesn't speak for everybody."
Rep. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) said his office has received many angry phone calls from people complaining: "You've got to do something about Arthur Liman."
But Liman suggested that he is unfazed by the criticism and added that lawmakers on the committee had better brace themselves for a torrent of criticism over North's testimony.
"If they don't like bad fan mail," he said, "they're just going to have to get used to it."
Paradoxically, Liman, in his questioning of North, has purposely toned down the combative style that he has used with other witnesses.
He said that, before he began his examination, "I sat here and watched him for two days" as House counsel John W. Nields Jr. sternly peppered North with sharp questions. He said he decided a more subdued approach was likely to elicit more information.
"If, in order to get the facts, I would have had to salute him after each question, I would have saluted him after each question," Liman said.