WASHINGTON -- President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, stunned prosecutors yesterday by repeatedly telling a federal judge that his testimony in Oliver L. North's trial had been inevitably "colored" by accounts of the Iran-contra scandal that North gave before Congress in July 1987.
As a result of the testimony by McFarlane, a crucial witness in North's 1989 trial, the two remaining Iran-contra criminal convictions of North appeared to be imperiled.
Yesterday's hearing stemmed from a July 1990 ruling by a District of Columbia appeals court panel, which concluded that no one had proven that testimony at North's criminal trial had not been tainted by North's appearance before a joint House and Senate investigative committee in July 1987, which was broadcast nationally.
The appeals court ordered U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell to conduct a "line-by-line" review of North's trial, if necessary, to determine whether witnesses' memories or their sworn testimony had been changed, focused, refreshed or even motivated in part by their viewing of North's immunized statements.
Yesterday, McFarlane swore that he had been swayed by statements North made earlier, under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution, meaning that his words could not be turned against him in a trial.
Yesterday's events appeared to surprise the lawyer representing the Iran-contra independent prosecution, Michael R. Bromwich, who had spent several days preparing McFarlane for his court appearance.
Indeed, Mr. Bromwich had guided McFarlane through an uneventful morning in which he had dutifully denied that the facts of his 1989 testimony had in any way been affected by North.
That changed dramatically after lunch, when McFarlane abruptly began to assert that the color and focus of his sworn statements, if not the facts, had been partly based on North's own words.
In a series of angry and loud exchanges that followed, Mr. Bromwich charged that McFarlane was trying to torpedo the case against North, and McFarlane, shouting, passionately defended himself.
"In watching four days of riveting testimony by a man who was like a son to me, I was affected," he said. How could I not have been? I was not alone. Ask Peter Jennings. Ask tens of millions of Americans. Facts are one thing, but the way I portrayed them in this courtroom was surely affected by that testimony."
McFarlane nevertheless was unable in more than four hours of questioning to cite a specific fact of his 1989 testimony against North that was changed or based on North's immunized statements.
Judge Gesell suggested several times that he may be bound by a higher-court ruling to throw out North's convictions on relatively slim evidence that testimony in the trial was influenced by North's immunized statements.