Robert McFarlane, testifying against his former White House aide, Oliver North, said President Reagan never told anyone to lie to Congress about secret efforts to keep Nicaraguan rebels alive.

Reagan "never did say, `Go lie to Congress,' but he did say we should not share that information," said the former national security adviser, who was sentenced a week ago for illegally withholding information from Congress.North, the former staff member of the National Security Council, watched intently Friday as his ex-boss and mentor took the stand as a hostile witness.

The jury of nine women and three men, which has sometimes struggled to stay alert during the trial, perked up as McFarlane, in low, almost mournful tones, began describing his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

McFarlane, the national security adviser from October 1983 to December 1985, said the administration arranged in mid-1984 for Saudi Arabia to contribute $1 million a month to the Nicaraguan Contras at a time when Congress had cut off U.S. assistance to the rebel force.

Eventually, the Arab kingdom gave $32 million and McFarlane said Reagan "made it clear that no one should (know about it) and we should keep it that way."

"Did the president specifically say Congress?" asked U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell.

"It was not precise - it was everyone," McFarlane responded.

John Keker, independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's chief deputy, began his questioning with a delicate reference to McFarlane's Feb. 9, 1987, suicide attempt and the witness acknowledged he tried to take his own life that day.

McFarlane apparently was despondant over the scandal he had helped to bring on the White House.

Moving swiftly, Keker then opened a brief history lesson into U.S. support for the Contra rebels, whom Reagan once called "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."

When Congress voted in 1984 to cut off aid to the rebels, McFarlane testified, Reagan instructed him to "do all that we could to keep them together body and soul." McFarlane said he passed on those words to North.

"Did the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, ever tell you to lie to Congress?" Keker asked. "No," McFarlane said.

"About anything?"

"No," McFarlane replied.