12/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Visitors to Lieut. Col. Oliver North's Spartan office next door to the White House always remarked upon one thing—the Soviet Army hat emblazoned with a red star that rested like a trophy on the ledge of his window. North was first and foremost a soldier, a gung-ho Marine versed in covert operations, a decorated veteran of Vietnam who saw the issues of the day in black and white and who was perpetually at war with the Enemy. "Ollie is President Reagan's type of modern American hero," says a friend. "Ollie moves with speed. If he gets authorization, he'll do it."
But what if Ollie doesn't get authorization? Will he still do it? The question is suddenly germane. In five heady years in the shadows of the National Security Council, North seems to have been transformed from an adviser to the NSC director into the President's own Rambo, devising bold and cunning military means to effect Ronald Reagan's diplomatic ends. Perhaps of necessity, secrecy was almost a fetish; North adopted disguises and aliases for classified missions to the Middle East, and the White House sought to keep photographs of him out of the press. Until recently it was unknown even how many children he has. Meanwhile his deft hand was reportedly shaping some of the Administration's most controversial episodes—among them the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA, the invasion of Grenada, the midair interception by four U.S. Navy fighters of the plane carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers and the funding and arming of the contras.
Last month North was fired, accused of masterminding the covert, possibly illegal funding of the contras with up to $30 million in profits from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran. There were those to whom his demise came as a sort of vindication. He wielded command over bureaucrats at State and the Pentagon with the bravura of a five-star general, so nettling his military superiors that some were said to have called him "the world's highest ranking lieutenant colonel." One Administration official said recently that "Reagan thought of him almost as a son," and the source of his power certainly lay in his access to the President's office and imagination.
In the past North has insisted that he "never acted without the approval of my superiors." His superiors, however, now claim otherwise, insisting that North alone knew the full details of the plot to skim arms profits for the contras. Many well-placed Washingtonians find this scenario implausible. Says Robert Hunter of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies: "Can you imagine calling up the commanding officer of the Army weapons depot and saying, 'Hi, I'm Ollie North and I'm sending over an 18-wheeler. Do you mind putting 2,000 TOW missiles on it?' Can you imagine someone in the Israeli Government getting a call, 'Prime Minister, it's Ollie North—how about sticking that money in a numbered account in Switzerland?" Yet, according to news reports, when Congress called a halt to U.S. support for the Nicaraguan rebels, North was directed to put together a network of private donors, arms dealers and foreign governments to keep the anti-communist rebels supplied. The theory favored by some White House-watchers has an overzealous, loosely-supervised North overstepping the line. Getting close to that line, after all, had been his business. "He'll skate on the edge of his skis to accomplish the mission," said a senior Administration official.
North had always been known as a can-do, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy, a dedicated soldier gifted with a good mind. The son of an Army colonel, he graduated with honors in 1968 from the U.S. Naval Academy. After Annapolis he went to Vietnam, where he led a Marine platoon in heavy combat and won a Silver Star. Assigned to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington during the mid-to late-1970s, he made his name as a "briefer," a glib, quick-study type who was good at propping senior officers. Spotted by Navy Secretary John Lehman, North eventually was tapped by the NSC. He routinely put in 16-hour days, and he traveled extensively. There was little time for Betsy Stuart, his wife of 18 years, or their four children.
The chance for more family time will be one of the few consolations of his current troubles. However, if it is established during the Congressional and FBI investigations that he was indeed the rogue mastermind behind diverting Iranian payoffs to the contras, he could be prosecuted. He can't go back to the White House (which rescinded his pass) and some say the Marines don't want him (he apparently went over too many heads too many times). What will he do next? "The quick answer," says Harlan K. Ullman, a colleague of Hunter's at the Georgetown think tank, "is to go out and make $10 million. Clint Eastwood is a little too old for the movie. Maybe Don Johnson would be better."