THE NORTH NOTEBOOKS
From Washington by Tim Wheeler
May was not a good month for those assigned to the coverup of
the Iran-contra conspiracy. New disclosures erupted in legal
proceedings across the country. And all of the new information
reinforced evidence pointing in one direction -- toward President
The information was so revealing that it would have
precipitated a full-fledged political crisis were it not for
collaboration in the coverup by the bi-partisan congressional
leadership, the courts, and the Big Business news media. Indeed, the
refusal of Congress and the media to root out the source of the Iran-
contra conspiracy and bring the criminals to justice is now becoming,
in itself, an overriding issue. Investigative writers such as Seymour
Hersh of the New York Times and Scott Armstrong of the National
Security Archive are beginning to sharply assail Congress and the
media for cowardice and collaboration in the conspiracy. More and
more, Iran-contra is exposed as a crisis of the two-party system with
the Democrats unable or unwilling to challenge the secret junta in the
White House basement.
Congress's refusal to take principled action means that the
conspirators are making a clean getaway. They may be emboldened to
resort once again to the same criminal enterprise if Congress, for
example, terminated all aid to the death squad regime in El Salvador.
After all, the main reaction of Congress to the Iran-contra affair was
to repeal the Boland Amendment, which had outlawed aid to the contras,
and to restore that aid. And not one of the White House conspirators
-- including National Security Advisers Robert McFarlane and Adm. John
M. Poindexter, Oliver North, Fawn Hall -- has yet served an hour in
jail. What a contrast to the Watergate scandal, which forced the
resignation of President Nixon and sent John Ehrlichman, H.R.
Haldeman, Attorney General John Mitchell and a bunch of others to
The problem is that no matter how hard Congress and the media
try to sweep the Iran-contra crisis under the rug, new revelations
keep bubbling up in both expected and unexpected places: In Portland,
Oregon, a jury unanimously acquitted Richard Brenneke, the former CIA
agent of lying when he accused George Bush of attending a secret
meeting with Iranians in Paris in 1980 in which a deal was made to
keep the 52 American hostages in captivity in Teheran until after the
1980 elections. Bush's former national security adviser, Donald
Gregg, flew back from South Korea, where he is Bush's ambassador, to
testify that Brenneke was lying. The jury believed Brenneke, not
In Miami, the Justice Department is maneuvering to convict
Panamanian General Manuel Noriega of drug trafficking while denying
Noriega's attorneys access to evidence they need to defend him. A
federal judge threw out one deal in which the federal government would
pay the legal fees of Noriega's lawyers in exchange for their
agreement not to subpoena the CIA's files. Those files would be
highly embarrassing because they contain the record of Noriega's
employment on the CIA payroll for 20 years at $200,000 per year and
show that he had many accomplices in high places, including Bush, with
whom he met repeatedly.
In Washington, at the request of Irangate special prosecutor
Lawrence Walsh, a new grand jury has been empanelled to consider
evidence that Bush and President Reagan were very much "in the loop"
on the criminal enterprise. Also in Washington, Sen. John Kerry (D-
Mass.), chair of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism and
Narcotics, announced May 18 that he is examining thousands of newly
released photocopied pages from Lt. Col. Oliver North's notebooks,
which expose White House lying on the Noriega case. The National
Security Archive and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen released thousands
of the same pages at two press conferences on May 8 and May 18.
Senator Kerry declared, "The North notebooks confirm that
high-level U.S. officials, including officials at the CIA and the NSC
[National Security Council], knew about General Noriega's drug
trafficking and corruption in 1986, kept him on the U.S. payroll and
discussed helping him clean up his image in return for his help for
"The information was important because throughout 1988, while
my hearings were taking place, the White House was denying that it had
known about Noriega's drug trafficking." Kerry added, "There is
something fundamental that is violated in a democracy when the White
House can classify documents as 'Codeword Top Secret' in order to
suppress politically damaging information in an election year." Kerry
suggested that Walsh examine sworn testimony of former Assistant
Secretary of State Elliot Abrams and Donald Gregg to determine if they
committed perjury. Kerry said the documents also raise questions of
whether NSC and intelligence officers engaged in domestic surveillance
in violation of the law.
The North notebooks provide a wealth of new evidence. One
page, released for the first time May 8, lists a "mtg w V.P." at 12
noon, August 6, 1986. North began that day by meeting with Israeli
terrorist expert, Amiram Nir. According to North's notes, he then
went to an extraordinary meeting at the White House with members of
the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. According to
his later testimony, North "lied, lied, lied" to the lawmakers about
the Iran-contra conspiracy. North then met with several other covert
agents, including Gregg. Finally he met with Vice President Bush.
Did the Vice President discuss with North his lies to an official
oversight committee of the U.S. Congress?
Asked about this notation in North's notebook, White House
Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater declared, "The vice president's role
in the Iran-contra affair was completely examined in the congressional
inquiry and we have nothing to add."
Among the North notebooks released May 18 were those
reflecting the coverup began November, 25, 1986, when then-Attorney
General Edwin Meese announced at a White House news briefing the sale
of U.S. arms to Iran and diversion of the profits to the contras.
Much has been written about the notations North jotted on one page of
his steno pad that day. "Call from JMP," North wrote, referring to
his boss, National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter. The page
continues: "VP call Peres ... Discovered contra connection ... wd be
best if Israel wd accept that they were aware that some funds were
diverted ... Put it off on Gorbanifar [sic]." Thus, North suggests
that Vice President Bush telephoned Israeli Defense Minister Shimon
Peres to enlist his help in the cover story pinning the diversion on
Iranian businessman and arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar.
In the photocopy of that page from North's notebook released
by the congressional Iran-contra committee two years ago, Exhibit JMP-
85, all references to Israel are blacked out. On the second line,
only the letters "VP" are legible.
That same frenzied day, with shredders working overtime, North
scrawled notes on other conversations. "Meese story wrong," is the
headline on one page, evidently recording the protests of an Israeli
official, almost certainly Amiram Nir. "Israelis: Elements of what
Meese said are wrong, some are correct," North wrote. "Finding
drafted before we had any sense that finding wd be used for this
A few lines down North jotted, "Nir/North ... we first
discussed ... Does Meese know truth?" Then, beneath this, North
wrote, "Finance: purposely constructed finding so that there were
several layers of denialability ... No CIA resources." This referred
to a finding signed by President Reagan authorizing the Iran-contra
Later, North's notes seem to reflect growing anger by Nir.
North wrote, "Nir -- statement being issued ... What basis did Meese
use? Worse possible end to an ... Easily proven wrong." Then North
placed in quotation marks the following, "I cannot back this story."
The final sentence on that page declares, "Message has been read to
Shultz and Perez [sic] prior to release." A few pages later, North
wrote, "1845 -- Call from President Reagan."
Part of the problem in deciphering North's notebooks is
filling in the blank spots in his shorthand. Analysts at the National
Security Archive have become expert at reading North's hieroglyphics.
Malcolm Byrne, a National Security Archive analyst, told reporters at
a May 18 news conference, "George Bush has said he was 'out of the
loop' and did not realize the Iran initiative was an arms-for-hostage
deal until December 1986. The new North notebooks place Bush much
closer to the loop than ever before." Byrne described Bush as a
"godfather" of Iran-contra who was "key to getting the Israelis on
board with the cover story once the scandal broke in November 1986."
Byrne said comparing the heavily redacted or blacked-out
photocopies of North's notebooks released earlier with the relatively
legible versions released through the Archive's Freedom of Information
lawsuit is, in itself, revealing. Most of the redactions of the
earlier versions were North references to Bush and to Israel. A high
priority, he said, was "protecting Israel ... Bush."
Amiram Nir is the link between Bush and the Israelis in the
operation. Deleted at White House request from the very first Senate
report on the Iran-contra affair in January 1987 was a reference to a
meeting Bush held with Nir some time in September 1985. The likely
significance of a Bush-Nir meeting at an unknown time and place in
September 1985 becomes clear in a review of what Nir did in the months
that followed that meeting. "I recall that we met New Years Day
 or the day after," North testified to Congress, "and it was
Nir's proposal at that point to use the profits ... selling Israeli
TOWs at a profit, replenishing them with part of that money, using
part of that money for other operations." Did Nir discuss this scheme
in his September 1985 meeting with Bush? Why was the White House so
anxious to have that Bush-Nir meeting expunged from the Senate's
report? Perhaps it was Bush who authored the diversion scheme. The
Senate complied with the White House request but then voted not to
release the report, which remains classified to this day.
Bush met again with Nir on July 29, 1986 at the King David
Hotel in Jerusalem. That meeting gave Bush a chance to work out with
Nir a more plausible alibi and to put a tighter lid on their meeting
the previous September.
Nir knew too much. On November 30, 1988, three weeks after
Bush's election, Nir died in a plane crash in Mexico.
Scott Armstrong, founder of the National Security Archive,
wrote a scathing article in the May-June edition of the Columbia
Journalism Review about the refusal of the media to expose the truth
about the Iran-contra conspiracy. Armstrong pointed out that Nir was
"the most likely vehicle for reporting on Bush's involvement in the
Iran arms deal" since he was an intelligent agent "who served as the
point of contact with Israeli intelligence for both George Bush and
Oliver North." After Nir's death, Armstrong declared, "even
investigative reporters seemed to lose interest in the already well-
documented set of facts about Bush's involvement."
Armstrong blasts Congress, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh
and the media "for not pursuing the most obvious trails of evidence:
the violations of law ... When Congress fails to act as an anvil, the
hammer of the press flails harmlessly in the air. 'If neither house
of Congress cares, why should we?' went the typical Washington
jounalist's refrain. The fervor with which serious journalists
pursued Watergate was missing. The press seemed to share, rather than
challenge, Congress' willingness to pass the buck." Armstrong cites
the trial of John Poindexter on charges that skirt the main issue --
Iran-contra's menacing affront to constutional government. Wrote
Armstrong, "I sometimes wonder if, should new revelations emerge --
illegal support for the contras, for example -- the press would even
to bother to cover the story."