WASHINGTON — As early as December, 1985, even before President Reagan approved the sale of weapons to Iran, then-White House aide Oliver L. North suggested to Israeli officials that he was looking for a way to divert profits to the Nicaraguan resistance, according to new evidence obtained by the Iran- contra investigating committees.
The evidence contradicts North's testimony that he had never thought of the diversion until it was suggested to him by Iranian middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar in January, 1986, after Reagan had approved the direct sale of U.S. weapons to the government in Tehran.
The timing of North's conversation with the Israelis strongly suggests that White House aides were motivated by a desire to generate cash for the contras when they pressed Reagan to sign a directive on Jan. 17, permitting the arms sale.
North's intentions in December, 1985, are reflected in both a chronology provided to the House and Senate committees by the Israeli government and in handwritten notes made by an Israeli purchasing officer in Hebrew. Both refer to a meeting that North had with Israeli officials in New York City on his way to a meeting in London during the first week of December.
The closely held chronology was provided to the committees under an agreement between the congressional committees and the Israeli government before the hearings. The notes were obtained independently by Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate committee, during a trip to Israel after the committee hearings ended in early August. Contents of the documents were characterized for The Times by sources who refused to be identified.
It is not clear precisely what North told the Israelis during their New York meeting, but sources said the notes and chronology indicate that, in the context of their discussion of the Iran arms sales, he expressed a keen desire to generate profits from the sale and also referred to the contras' need for money to sustain their battle against the Sandinista government.
A committee source said that these documents are being viewed by panel members as "concrete evidence that North was talking about raising money for the contras through a diversion earlier than we had been told at the hearings."
In his testimony before the committee, North indicated that the idea of diverting profits from the arms sales to the contras was first proposed to him sometime in early 1986 by Ghorbanifar. He indicated that it had not previously occurred to him.
In fact, North recounted in vivid detail that, during a meeting in a London hotel room attended by others, Ghorbanifar summoned him into the bathroom and privately outlined what the Marine colonel described as "an attractive incentive . . . that residuals could flow to support the Nicaraguan resistance."
North said he later received approval for the diversion from his immediate supervisor, then National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, and from the late CIA Director William P. Casey, who he said termed it a "neat idea."
Poindexter testified that North first proposed the diversion to him in a conversation in early February, 1986, after North returned from his London encounter with Ghorbanifar. He said North told him: "I think I have found a way that we can legally provide some funds to the democratic resistance through funds that will accrue from the arms sales to the Iranians."