The former chairman of the House intelligence committee testified Wednesday that he wasn't satisfied with White House denials of news reports that Oliver North was helping Nicaraguan rebels in defiance of a congressional ban.
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., testified that then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane assured him in two letters and a 1985 committee briefing that neither North nor other National Security Council aides was helping the Contra guerrillas."Were you satisfied with the response?" prosecutor John W. Keker asked Hamilton, the lead-off witness at North's trial in U.S. District Court.
"No, I was not," Hamilton replied. "The press continued in large numbers; it was of great interest to Congress."
The inquiries were first made in August 1985 following news reports that North was helping raise money for the Contras and giving the rebels tactical military advice despite prohibitions on U.S. aid first enacted by Congress in the so-called Boland Amendment of 1984.
"This was the most controversial matter of policy in Washington at the time," Hamilton testified. "It was not possible for me to go onto the floor of the House of Representatives without members asking me about the news stories."
Prosecutors are trying to show that North, then a Marine lieutenant colonel serving on the NSC staff, subverted the processes of government by helping McFarlane draft false answers to letters from Congress inquiring about the news reports of his activities.
Accurate answers to congressional inquiries are needed, Hamilton said, because "we can't fulfill our responsibility unless we have accurate information from the executive branch."
North is charged, among other things, with obstructing congressional inquiries into his activities in 1985 and 1986. McFarlane, who is expected to testify as a prosecution witness, has pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.
Following further reports of his activities, the committee questioned North directly during an Aug. 6, 1986 meeting in the White House Situation Room, Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the reports about North's fundraising activities sparked "enormous interest" among House members because "the debate through a large part of the 1980s was on whether or not the Contras should be funded by the government."
"That became a very controversial debate," Hamilton said, culminating in the passage of the Boland Amendment that prohibited U.S. intelligence agencies from using money to help the Contras.
Under cross-examination, Hamilton conceded that the series of Boland Amendments were a confusing set of laws but insisted that "there was throughout that period of time a prohibition of any aid for military or paramilitary activities."
He also dismissed a suggestion by North's defense lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, that the Boland Amendment did not apply to the NSC.
"I do not recall anyone saying to me this language does not apply to the National Security Council," McFarlane said. "The letter Mr. McFarlane wrote to me specifically said that the language did apply and I accepted that."
During direct examination, Keker tried to undercut the claim in Tuesday's opening argument by Sullivan that Congress couldn't be trusted with secrets because it "leaked like a sieve."
Hamilton said the White House shared secrets with the intelligence committee throughout his two-year tenure as its chairman.
"I am not aware of any information that I was not permitted to see," Hamilton said. "I was never refused a request for information."