WASHINGTON — On the eve of Oliver L. North's trial in the Iran-Contra scandal, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell on Monday excused President Bush from testifying but ordered former President Ronald Reagan to be available as a potential witness and said that parts of his personal diary might be examined.
Gesell's ruling capped months of legal wrangling over classified documents and subpoenas for high-ranking officials. It set the stage for a trial beginning this morning that finally will submit to judicial fact-finding many of the allegations that have swirled around the former White House aide, whose 1987 appearance before a congressional committee set off a wave of "Olliemania" around the country.
Main Charges Dropped
North is charged with attempting to cover up his "secret war" in Nicaragua by shredding documents and with misleading Congress and members of a presidential board of inquiry. Because the principal charges of conspiracy and theft against him were dismissed earlier this month out of concern for national security, the trial is not expected to produce major revelations about the scandal.
But if North chooses to take the stand and is given wide latitude by the judge to explain his actions, he may reveal details about covert operations abroad that occurred during his tenure as a National Security Council official, legal sources said.
The trial may last four to five months, with jury selection taking up to two weeks. This process may be more difficult and lengthy than usual because prosecution of the boyish-looking retired Marine lieutenant colonel has stirred deep emotions across the country.
Beginning this morning, Gesell plans to question prospective jurors about how much they have read and seen in the media about North, and whether--if they have formed opinions about his conduct--they could lay these thoughts aside in favor of what they hear in the courtroom. Aside from this issue, many potential jurors are expected to cite personal hardships in asking to be excused from serving in such a long trial.
To prove the charges of cover-up and misleading Congress, prosecutors plan to call dozens of high-ranking officials including former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and others. North is seeking to call, among others, some NSC colleagues and at least two members of Congress who investigated his activities.
He is expected to contend that he had reason to believe his activities were authorized by then-President Reagan and other high officials. Some defense witnesses will be called solely to attest to his character and integrity, legal sources said.
Hearing on Reagan
Gesell, in his ruling Monday, excused Bush on grounds that there has been "no showing (by North) that President Bush has any specific information relevant and material to the charges." The judge said that Reagan, however, "shall remain subject to call" by North's lawyers but will not be ordered to appear until a hearing on the relevance of testimony he might give.
Quashing defense subpoenas for documents in the possession of Bush and Reagan, Gesell said that he would consider ordering Reagan to produce some of his diaries only if North's lawyers could show some bearing "in light of the limited precise counts that still remain in the case."
Yale Kamisar, a criminal law expert at the University of Michigan Law School, said North's trial will be "good for the country in demonstrating that no one is above the law--even someone who has held a high government position."
Kamisar added in an interview that in spite of the substantial information about the Iran-Contra scandal produced by the 1987 congressional hearings, "trials present a more authoritative and credible version of events."
"There is a tendency among members of the public to take sides without knowing the facts. North's trial should help resolve the gossip and rumors about what he did or did not do," Kamisar said.
Hailed by Reagan as "a national hero," the 45-year-old North soared in popularity when he appeared on national television in his bemedaled uniform before a joint Senate-House committee in the summer of 1987 to defend his activities.
While some viewed his actions in diverting Iranian arms-sale profits to the Nicaraguan rebels as arrogant and beyond the law, much of the public saw him as a patriot or as a "fall guy" for the Reagan Administration--someone who had put love of country above personal concerns.
A North Defense Fund organized by friends and headquartered in Virginia reportedly has raised most, if not all, of his legal expenses--currently estimated at $2 million to $3 million--and North has commanded fees of $25,000 per appearance for speaking to mostly conservative organizations.
Grant of Immunity