Reagan staff's e-mail revealed Published records: Stunning revelations are few and far-between among the 500 electronic messages from the Reagan White House that have been published in a book.

November 26, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- On the morning of Nov. 6, 1986, as news of his secret role in the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran first cascaded onto the world's front pages, Oliver L. North sat at a computer terminal in his third-floor office at the National Security Council and tapped out an electronic message.

"Oh, Lord," he wrote to a co-worker, sounding pained. "I lost the slip and broke one of the high heels. Forgive please. Will return the wig on Monday."

Whatever the meaning of Mr. North's missive -- it is unclear to this day whether he had just returned from an undercover mission or a rowdy Halloween party -- it surely never was meant for public consumption.

Now it is public, along with 499 other internal White House computer messages, in a book that purports to expose what Oval Office advisers really thought and did during President Ronald Reagan's second term.

What they did, besides conduct government business and hatch various foreign-policy plots that have been largely reported, is play practical jokes, flirt and practice interoffice politics.

The paperback book and an accompanying computer diskette, titled "White House e-mail," are published by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit Washington organization that seeks to preserve and declassify federal foreign-policy documents.

Stunning revelations are few and far between, perhaps because the book's main characters, Mr. North and his boss during the Iran-contra period, John M. Poindexter, have already been investigated to exhaustion by reporters and lawyers.

To no one's surprise, Mr. North appears in the book as a public servant concerned more with expediency than bureaucratic or diplomatic protocol. In a series of 1986 exchanges, for instance, he discusses a "fairly good relationship" with Panama's head of state at the time, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, in which the two men sidestepped State Department channels to discuss ways of advancing what they considered their nations' interests in Central America.

Through an intermediary, the notes show, Noriega offered to "take care of" the socialist leaders of Nicaragua, where the United States was engaged in a proxy war. "I told the messenger that such actions were forbidden by our law," Mr. North wrote, but he added that he was intrigued by the dictator's counteroffer to assist in sabotage operations.

Mr. Poindexter liked the notion. "If he really has assets inside, it could be very helpful, but we can not (repeat not) get involved in any conspiracy on assassination," he wrote of Noriega. "More sabotage would be another story."

Noriega is now in federal prison on drug-related charges.

Later that year, an agitated-sounding Mr. North wrote that he had personally threatened Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, with a cutoff of U.S. aid if his government held a planned news conference to expose a U.S.-backed operation that was ferrying arms to Nicaraguan rebels from a Costa Rican airstrip.

The airstrip was, in fact, part of a rogue operation that Mr. North and friends were financing with profits from the secret sale of weapons to Iran.

After a conference call with CIA and State Department associates, Mr. North wrote, he called Mr. Arias to "tell him that if the press conference were held, Arias" -- a line of the note is censored here -- "wd never see a nickel of the $80M that McPhearson had promised him on Friday."

"I recognize that I was well beyond my charter in dealing w/a head of state this way," Mr. North wrote his boss, but "it seemed like the only thing I could do."

Mr. Arias, who later won the Nobel Prize for his peace efforts in Central America, did squelch the news conference, but only for a few days; pro-Communist aides in his government staged the event later without his consent, Mr. North wrote elsewhere.

The White House interoffice computer system fairly hummed with similar anecdotes, but it also was employed for less global concerns.

Messages detail behind-the-back efforts by presidential aides to sidestep reporters, win invitations to important meetings and, in one case, ensure that Mr. North was excluded from a session.

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