WASHINGTON — A reluctant Oliver L. North, compelled to appear as a government witness in the Iran-Contra trial of his former boss, testified Friday that he kept former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter "aware of what I was doing at all times."
North, looking pained and speaking slowly during much of his five hours of opening testimony, told jurors that he ran the government's covert mission to arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua at a time when military assistance had been banned by Congress.
Although acknowledging that he had made "untruthful statements" to Congress about his role in the secret operation, North stressed that neither Poindexter nor his predecessor, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, had counseled him to lie.
"Two former national security advisers told me never to reveal my Contra-related activities," testified North, who was convicted last year on three felony counts arising from his role in the scandal.
"No one ever told me to lie," he said.
The retired Marine lieutenant colonel is the government's opening witness against Poindexter, the highest ranking former official to be brought to trial in connection with the biggest scandal of the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, is charged with five counts of lying to Congress and obstructing its investigation of the covert sale of arms to Iran and the use of some of the proceeds to help the Contras.
Although North appeared on the stand as a government witness, U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene held that "the witness is hostile" to the prosecution, indicating that North's sympathies remained with his former superior.
Even so, North identified Poindexter as the author of a July, 1986, letter to key congressmen that reaffirmed several false statements McFarlane had provided a year earlier about North's covert activities.
Both letters had maintained that North was not engaged in any conduct in violation of the Boland Amendment, which banned all U.S. government assistance to military and paramilitary activities of the Contras.
The prosecution elicited testimony from North that appeared to support the principal charge among the five counts against Poindexter, the contention that he was at the center of a conspiracy to mislead Congress.
On the other hand, North--who was compelled to testify under a grant of immunity from further prosecution--did not appear to damage his former superior's principal line of defense, which will stress that Poindexter was carrying out policies enunciated by former President Reagan himself.
North, who won widespread support during his own trial from Americans who saw him as a loyal Marine who was only following orders, testified that he ran the Contra mission at the specific direction of Poindexter, McFarlane and the late CIA director, William J. Casey.
Casey died after a long illness three years ago. McFarlane, who attempted suicide several months after the scandal became public, later pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress.
North's arrival at the federal courthouse Friday morning was welcomed by the same large crowds that flocked to his trial a year ago.
Cries of "Here he comes!" and "Hey, Ollie!" arose from a long line of spectators in the corridor when the retired Marine, dressed in a dark blue suit and striped tie, showed up outside the courtroom.
After taking the stand, North initially was led through much of the same testimony he gave last April before the jury that convicted him of altering and destroying top-secret documents, misleading Congress and illegally accepting as a gift a $13,800 home security system.
He recounted how, as a senior staff officer on Reagan's National Security Council, he had been ordered to take charge of resupplying the Contras in 1984 just as Congress was preparing to implement the Boland Amendment, which cut off U.S. funding for that purpose.
Dan K. Webb, the associate independent counsel who is trying the case, asked North whether Poindexter "told you (that) you were becoming the person who would replace the CIA" as the source of military support for the anti-Sandinista rebels.
"I don't want to put those words in his mouth," North said. "But, in that general time frame, he was one of the persons."
"You were told, were you not, that you were supposed to go fund and arm the Contras?" Webb asked.
"In so many words, yes," North said.
At the time, Poindexter was McFarlane's chief deputy and North's immediate superior, North said.
Webb asked North if he could recall Casey's telling him that "the ball is in your court."
"Words to that effect," North replied. "The operation began as something small and evolved over time."
Webb asked if North had sought Poindexter's advice "on certain aspects of private fund-raising" for the Contras.
"I certainly kept Adm. Poindexter and Mr. McFarlane aware of what I was doing at all times," he said.