Waite questioned on his relations with Oliver North

November 20, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

LONDON -- After nearly five years in captivity, Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite has returned home to a hero's welcome -- and to hard questions about his role with Oliver L. North in the arms-for-hostages deal.

Before his capture Jan. 20, 1987, Mr. Waite had received international acclaim for his role in the freeing of three American hostages in Lebanon. His tireless efforts seemed in keeping with the reputation he had built up throughout the 1980s as a man who would go to Iran, Libya or anywhere to help people held captive against their will.

But the world has since learned that the primary force behind the 1985 and 1986 release of the three American hostages was not Mr. Waite's diplomacy, but Mr. North's arms-for-hostages deal with Iran -- and that Mr. Waite met face to face on several occasions with Mr. North, then a Marine lieutenant colonel serving on the White House National Security Council.

Significantly, Mr. Waite's own kidnapping, and the taking of several other hostages, came in the weeks immediately following the revelation of Mr. North's dealings. That revelation was accompanied by widespread reports that the church envoy himself was somehow involved in the arms-for-hostages affair.

Some observers have suggested that suspicion among Islamic fundamentalists about the nature of Mr. Waite's links to Mr. North led directly to Mr. Waite's loss of credibility in Lebanon and perhaps to his seizure.

Indeed, during the final days before he disappeared, Mr. Waite complained that his own contacts in Lebanon had dried up and that his work in securing freedom for hostages had become more difficult.

Mr. North, who was in Britain recently promoting his new book, confirmed during several interviews that he came to know Mr. Waite during 1985 and 1986 and provided him with transportation, security and logistical support.

Mr. North described Mr. Waite as "an innocent victim" and "a courageous individual." But he refused to characterize their relationship in detail, beyond saying that it was one of friendship and respect.

In a television interview Monday night, Mr. North said he felt responsible for Mr. Waite's capture in that he failed to reach Mr. Waite to dissuade him from going to Lebanon that last time, when he knew how angry the kidnappers were.

At the very least, documents made public in the Iran-contra investigation suggest that Mr. North and other Reagan administration officials exploited Mr. Waite as a source of information and counsel and used his activities as a cover for their own secret dealings.

The question is whether Mr. Waite, a complex man with a penchant for self-promotion as well as for altruism, had any knowledge of the arms-for-hostages deal or any other involvement in it.

"I believe he was used and that his motives were entirely honorable," the retired archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, said in a television interview Monday night.

Lord Runcie, the head of the Church of England until early this year, was Mr. Waite's boss.

And it was Lord Runcie who allowed Mr. Waite to work for release of the American hostages in conjunction with American religious officials.

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