WASHINGTON -- Oliver North admitted Thursday he shredded sensitive documents under the noses of Justice Department officials as they searched his office as part of the first probe of the Iran-Contra scandal.
North denied that he was destroying documents relating to a potential investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal, and he said the attorney general's investigators could hear the shredder going as he dropped documents into it.
'You're saying ... you were there taking batches of documents past these attorneys from the Department of Jutice and shredding them and they weren't saying, 'Stop, we'd like to look at what you're doing,' asked Senate panel lawyer Arthur Liman.
North did not deny that he was destroying documents that would have been politically embarrassing to the administration.
'I shredded because I thought it was the right thing,' North said.
North's office was searched by Attorney General Edwin Meese's aides, William Bradford Reynolds, who discovered the 'smoking gun' memo outlining the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan Contras, and John Richardson. Earlier testimony has shown that Reynolds smuggled the document out of the office without discussing it with North.
North acknowledged in his third day of testimony that he continued to destroy documents until Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day he was fired from the National Security Council for his role in the worst scandal of the Reagan presidency.
North's revelation could further fuel congressional criticism of how Meese conducted the probe of the Iran scandal and raise questions about the propiety of the investigators' actions.
Members of the panel have suggested that the investigation was conducted so poorly that it appeared Justice Department officials may have been part of a cover-up.
When asked to comment on North's disclosures, a Justice Department spokesman said 'Not at the moment.'
On Nov. 22, when Justice Department officials searched his White House office and discovered the memo outlining the diversion of profits to the Contras, North said, 'I remembered shredding documents while they were in there reading documents.'
'I was sitting in my office reading. I'd go out and shred it. They could hear it. The shredder was right out the door,' North said.
'They were working on their projects. I was working on mine,' North said.
North's former secretary, Fawn Hall, earlier testified that she and North conducted a frantic 'shredding party' on Nov. 21 when it became apparent that the Iran-Contra affair was going to become public.
And North said he continued to shred after he was interviewed by Meese on Nov. 23.
Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., has criticized the Justice Department for failing to seal off North's office and signaling him that a criminal investigation was imminent, giving him the time to destroy evidence.
In an afternoon marked by verbal sparring between North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, and Liman, Sullivan told Liman at one point, 'Get off his back.'
Sullivan frequently halted the proceedings to whisper in North's ear and challenged Liman numerous times over his questions, shouting at times.
When Liman suggested that North look at his notes to refresh his memory, Sullivan shouted, 'Mr. Liman, when he wants to look at something, he'll look at. Don't (you) suggest when he looks at it. Get on with the questioning.'
Earlier, North accused Congress of causing 'serious damage to our national interests' by holding public hearings into the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Contras. 'It must make them wary of ever helping us again.'
The Marine lieutenant colonel, 43, offered his 18-minute discourse to the select House-Senate committees investigating the scandal as rationale for his intimate participation in the U.S. arms sales to Iran and the channeling of excess profits for the support of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
'It is sort of like a baseball game in which you are both the player and the umpire. It's a game in which you call the balls and the strikes and where you determine who is out or who is safe. And in the end you determine the score and declare youself the winner. From where I sit, it is not the fairest process.'
North said: 'But I suggest to you that it is the Congress which must accept the blame in the Nicaraguan freedom fighter matter. Plain and simple, you are to blame because of the fickle, vacillating, unpredictable, on-again, off-again policy toward the Nicaraguan democratic resistance -- the Contras.
'When the executive branch did everything possible within the law to prevent them from being wiped out by Moscow's surrogates, you then have this investigation to blame the problem on the executive branch. It doesn't make sense to me. Who will investigate the Congress?'
Senate panel Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, quietly but firmly responded:
'On May 5, at the opening session of these hearings, I said the following, and I believe this represents the official understanding of the members of the panel. 'Let it be clear that our concern in this inquiry is not with the merits of any particular policy but with flawed policy making processes. Our hearings are neither pro-Contra nor anti-Contra.'
'I would hope that in our questioning and in our responses we will keep that in mind,' Inouye said.
To end his interrogation, Van Cleve said he had the 'personally painful duty' of asking North the question that has arisen repeatedly since the hearings began.
After reciting the litany of evidence that North lied to the Iranians, to his associates in the initiative and to Congress, Van Cleve asked:
'Can you assure this committee that you are not here and now lying to protect your commander in chief?'
'I am not lying to protect anybody, counsel; I came here to tell the truth,' the Marine said vehemently. 'I told you that I was going to tell it to you, the good, the bad and the ugly ... I have told the truth, and I have done so painful though it may be for me and for others.'
Earlier, Van Cleve led North through an extensive explanation of the situation in Nicaragua and of North's role in the TWA hijacking and the October 1985 piracy of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro.
North asserted that the Soviet Union has pumped millions of dollars into Nicaragua to establish a communist toehold in Central American. However, North said, the Soviets 'have walked to the edge' and will not more potently intervene as long as the United States shows, through support of the Contras, that it will not abandon the fledgling democracies in the region.
Effectively the NSC's action officer in the TWA and Achille Lauro incidents, North said the United States and Israel had drawn up a joint covert operation to use during the airliner hijacking.
He did not elaborate on the plan but said that through Israeli efforts in Iran, the United States was able to negotiate with the radical Islamic government in Tehran to get the Americans aboard the plane freed.
In the Achille Lauro case, the release of the Americans held captive by Islamic fundamentalists 'could not have been done without the direct immediate assistance from Israel,' he said, which came in the form of critical intelligence.
That information directly helped the United States intercept the aircraft flying the pirates to freedom in Libya, North said. The terrorists, save the alleged mastermind Abu Abbas, were taken to Italy, tried and jailed for the murder of American Leon Klinghoffer.