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What It's All About

July 12, 1987

In the prepared statement that he read to congressional investigating committees the other day Lt. Col. Oliver L. North shifted deftly between tones of grievous indignation and resigned martyrdom. He expressed a kind of angry bewilderment concerning the "strange process" that he and others are being put through by the panels that are trying to dig out the truth about the Iran- contra scandal. He hinted at the pain that he has endured as his character and honesty have come into question. It was, as hearing drama goes, pretty good stuff, and no doubt it was in the main sincere. No doubt either that it displayed a remarkable obtuseness as to the real issues behind the investigation.

For starters, take the objections that North raised to the very existence of the investigative hearings. Not only does he dislike the committee's procedures but he also cannot "comprehend" why he should even find himself sitting there, being grilled as one of its chief witnesses. After all, as he put it, he did nothing more than try to perform his assigned work on the National Security Council "in the best interests of our country."

But of course the reason why North is under investigation is obvious, just as it is obvious why he took such care to negotiate limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He and others are being called to account precisely because they earlier evaded their legal obligation to inform Congress fully and honestly about the covert foreign-policy initiatives that the Reagan Administration was pursuing. If Congress had been kept informed as the law requires, if the system of checks and balances had been allowed to work, then almost certainly neither North nor anyone else would today be protesting that they are the victims of undeserved woes.

In one breath North maintains that he is a patriot, an honest man, a good soldier who faithfully carried out his superiors' orders in the defense of democracy. In the next breath he freely admits that along with others he repeatedly and deliberately misled and lied to Congress to conceal the truth about the Administration's covert schemes. His implicit rationale thus becomes that in order to defend democracy it became necessary to disregard some of the most basic of democratic principles. Chief among those, of course, was respect for the rule of law.

As the hearings go on and as details accumulate, it's important, we think, not to lose sight of the fundamental issues involved. Zealous men, delegated great power in ways yet to be explained, took it on themselves to ignore the law in order to carry out dubious activities that they knew Congress would not approve of. This is not something that a constitutional democracy can tolerate. This is not something that even self-professed patriots or presidentially proclaimed national heroes can be allowed to do with impunity. And this is what these hearings are basically all about.

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