Ollie North
[back] Nicaragua

Immediately, and actually even before because they knew there was going to be a problem, the White House had this backup plan, and it was, of course, to have Ollie North become the point man. So North becomes, secretly, the point man. He is also being secretly supported by the CIA, and by the NSA, and by other US. intelligence services. That comes out much later. But Ollie North is now the man who is supposedly running everything but that's all secret too, at least from the American people. And he's arranging to get weapons and raise money, and they're doing their various things they did with Saudi Arabia and so forth, to get the money, and so we end up with a lot of us in Washington really sort of knowing about this. This isn't like, all that secret, you know. I'd met Ollie North in '83 and he was actually a source for many journalists because he would, as part of the deal he would tell you some sexy stuff about the Achilles Laurel or something, but you protect your source, so you wouldn't really write about him.
    But I was writing about him. And by the summer of 85 - by June of 85, I did the first story about Oliver North. And it was a very tepid story, I must say, looking back at it. I had gone to the White House with it and they had flatly denied it. They said it was completely wrong, completely opposite from the truth - and I at that point had still not caught on to how dishonest these people had gotten. So I sort of softened it, but I still put it out - we had this story out for AP about Ollie North, and how he was running this Contra support operation, and how the White House was saying it wasn't happening, and that led eventually over that summer to a few other stories appearing, and of course it was all denied and the pressure on the journalists was so intense that the other news organizations backed away - the New York Times backed away, the Washington Post backed away, and it was left strangely to the AP and to the Miami Herald which was also following it with Al Charty's work to pursue this story - and really the story of the decade, but no one wanted it. It was an amazing story - it was a story about a really remarkable character, with a remarkable support cast, I mean, you know it was better than Watergate in that sense - I mean, you had Fawn Hall as opposed to Martha Mitchell, I mean this was a much better story! You had this secret war being fought, you had the government lying through its teeth every time it turned around, but no one wanted the story. The price had gotten too high. [1993] Fooling America. A talk by Robert Parry

I was now working with Brian Barger who we had brought on at AP - to help on this story, and we did the Contra-drug story in December of 1985, which was really well received around town [he said sarcastically], and we then proceeded to follow the North network into early '86 and we wrote the first story that there'd actually been a federal investigation in Miami, of what we knew as the North network. It had been suppressed because you weren't supposed to investigate this because it wasn't happening anyway, and the US. attorney who make the mistake of trying to investigate this, or the assistant US. attorney ended up in Thailand, working on some heroin case, and the investigation went literally nowhere. [1993] Fooling America. A talk by Robert Parry

So this was what was happening by the Summer of '86, when Barger and I finally did a story - we had 24 sources by this point - it was getting silly, you know? You know, it wasn't like two sources, or three sources, we were up to 24, and some of them named, and we did this story in June of '86 where we laid a lot of it out - we didn't have all of it, I'll grant - we didn't know about Secord's flights, but we had Rob Owen, and we had Jack Singlaub, and we had how the intermediaries were moving the weapons and so forth. So we get to this point, and we put this story out, and finally Congress - which had been very afraid of touching this - the democrats were extremely timid - finally Lee Hamilton, who was then Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee takes our little story with the rest of the Intelligence Committee over to the White House and they sit down with Ollie North and they say, "Colonel North - we have this story that says you're doing these things which are kind of illegal, uh, what about it?" He said, "It's not true," they said "Thank you," and they went back to Capitol Hill. And I get a call from one of Hamilton's aides, and he told me, he said - I'll never forget this, because it was probably my worst moment in the whole Iran Contra Scandal - I get this call from a Democratic aide who tells me that Lee Hamilton has looked into my story, and he had a choice between believing these honorable men at the White House or my sources and it wasn't a close call.
    And so, at that point, we were, sort of, done. They could have - as Ross Perot might say - they could have stuck a fork in us. Barger was stuck on the overnight at AP and was sort of pushed out of the company - he left. I was basically told, more or less, well, you know, take your medicine like a man, you got it wrong, you know, and we were wrapping up our investigation - it was over. During that summer we tried to get a longer version of this into any publication, virtually none would take it. None would take it - I mean, we even went to Rolling Stone and they turned us down.
    So that's where we were. This phony, dishonest, false reality had won out. And the reality had lost out, and anyone who was crazy enough to actually believe in the reality was a real loser in Washington.
..........And then, as it all looked like it was pretty much over, one of the last planes of Ollie North's little rag-tag air force, was chugging along over Nicaragua on October 5th, 1986, and just because history is like this - history is kind of, you know, it's quirky sometimes - there was this teenager, draftee, never filed a SAM missile in his life, didn't even know how to fire it exactly, but he described after the fact how he sort of aimed it at this plane that was sort of lumbering along through the sky, and it went off! The SAM missile went off, and it went right at the plane, which really amazed this kid. They say it was Soviet made - I mean, what would you have thought? So the missile goes right at the plane and hits it right under one of the wings and the plane starts spiralling out of control. And another little quirk of history is that - most of the guys were kind of macho on board, and they didn't wear parachutes, but Eugene Hasenfus had just gotten a parachute sent to him by one of his relatives, and because he had the door open to start kicking out these weapons to the Contras, even though the plane spiraled out of control he could crawl to the door and pushed himself away from the plane and parachuted down through the Sandinistas.
    And so, there was literally a smoking fuselage on the ground in Nicaragua, and the press corps in Washington suddenly said, 'oh gee! Maybe we had missed something after all.' But even then the White House initially - this was - it was an interesting meeting. October 7th, at the NSC - they were in kind of a panic. Ollie was out of the country working on the Iran project, so Elliot Abrams was chairing this meeting, and they were trying to figure out what to do - what was their story going to be. Later on I talked to one of the participants at this meeting and I said, "Gee, what did you guys think you were up to? Did you think you shouldn't just maybe fess up at this point?" He said "No. We had been so successful in managing the information, we, you know, just thought we could just do anything!" So the anything they did was that they just started lying again! And they put out - and it wasn't just from the State Department anymore, it was from the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, and virtually every senior official in the position to do anything about this, came out and said there is no US. government connection to this flight. And Elliot even sort of came up with this neat idea [sound lost for a moment] - I know Singlaub pretty well and I happened to put a call in, and he hadn't been told he was supposed to take the fall - they hadn't gotten around to telling him that. So when he flies back from Asia he lands, and he comes down off the plane and all these reporters are up to him saying, The New York Times has just run this story based on a senior official saying it was your plane and he said, "I had nothing to do with that plane!" So later on he told me that he have taken the fall if he'd only known that he was supposed to take the fall, but they hadn't told him he was supposed to take the fall, so, crazy enough, he told the truth.
    So they were still looking for someone to take the blame on this, and then a very enterprising freelancer, an American journalist, went into the Salvadoran telephone office, and since everything's for sale down there, he bought the phone records for the safe house. They hadn't thought to, you know, take care of the phone records. And so he buys these phone records and, my goodness, there are all these calls to the White House, and to Ollie North's personal line, as well as by the way to the Vice President's office because Felix Rodriguez who was running the drops was calling virtually daily - well maybe, certainly weekly - the Vice President's office to talk to then George Bush's national security advisor Donald Greg. So they had to come up with some new stories again. And these stories kept shifting.
    But what was incredible about the whole thing was the arrogance that pervaded the White House at this point. They really thought they could control how everybody in this country understood the facts. They could create the reality, and the press would go along with it, and through the press the American people would either be deceived or so confused that they wouldn't be able to do anything about it anyway. The perception management wasn't going to give up. [1993] Fooling America. A talk by Robert Parry

So they had to cover that up. And what we saw was the next remarkable stage of this. And probably this is what changed a lot of how I saw journalism. Obviously I'd not been really too thrilled by what I was seeing up to this point, but the next phase was even more unbelievable. And the next phase is the scandal was broken - there are three parts to it basically: there's the illegal shipments of weapons to the Contras in defiance of the law, the Boland Amendment; there is the problem of the Arms Export Control Act, which President Reagan was violating back in '85; and of course there's what became the focus - the crossover - the use of residuals from the arms sales in Iran for the Contras - the so-called 'diversion' which many people feel was indeed a diversion of the public at least. So you had these three elements. The White House chose to make a stand on the latter one - the diversion, and they proceeded to lie about the other two. They put out false chronologies on Iran to show that the President did not know about the '85 shipment. They insisted - even as Vice President Bush insisted until December of '86 that he had no idea there was a Contra operation going on - even though it had been much of the press, he just hadn't bothered to read it. [1993] Fooling America. A talk by Robert Parry

We brought the story into the CIA. And I reported that the CIA had assisted North's operation, despite their denials; that North was using National Security Agency highly-sensitive secret cryptology equipment and had been passing it out like candy to all the people who were working with him - they all had these KL-43's as they were called which could send these secret messages back and forth, and so we'd broken that barrier. We'd broken into the CIA.
    Choice "A" was to tell the truth, to say that the President had violated a variety of laws, committed felonies, and violated our constitutional safeguards about the way we carry out wars in our country, and impeach him. Option A.
    Then there was Option "B" - to tell the truth and have congress sort of say well, it's okay with us, which creates a dangerous precedent for the future, that is, that now President's would say well hey, look at the Reagan example, you know, if he can wage war privately, why can't I? So that was Option "B."
    And then there was Option "C" - to pretend it didn't happen, or to pretend that, say, some Lieutenant Colonel had done it all. So Washington, I guess understandably, settled on Option "C."  [1993] Fooling America. A talk by Robert Parry