Some Comments on the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination, from 25 Years Ago

The sometimes critical reaction to the criminal division chief of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office decision to take the Fifth Amendment in the Congressional investigation of Operation Fast and Furious led some people to wonder whether there was a similarly critical reaction with regard to Oliver North’s and John Poindexter’s decision to take the Fifth during the Iran/Contra hearings. I did a quick search, and came across these quotations, which I should stress are only a small subset of what was doubtless said:

[Michael Kinsley, Wash. Post, Dec. 18, 1986:] Five men have now taken the Fifth Amendment rather than tell a congressional committee about their role in the Iran arms deal. Moist-eyed Lt. Col. Oliver North says there’s nothing he’d like better than to reveal all, then declines, with a tragic sigh, to say anything. Strong congressmen swoon. Oliver North has a perfect right to take the Fifth. What he has no right to do is to strike a pose of heroic innocence, prattle on about upholding the Constitution and expect anyone to believe him.

[Steve Gerstel, UPI, Dec. 16, 1986:] Although Byrd and Dole both said that Vice Adm. John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, two key figures in the scandal, had the right to invoke the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination in their appearances before congressional committees, they made it clear they felt uniformed military men had a higher obligation.

[Dorothy Collin, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13, 1986:] The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday angrily accused three military officers who also have served as President Reagan’s national security aides of “deserting their country” by refusing to testify about the secret sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of money to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. “These guys are being praised as national heroes,” Sen. David Durenberger (R., Minn.) told reporters. “If they are such heroes, why are they deserting their country when they are finally being put to the true test?”

[Dimitri Simes, San Diego Union Tribune, Dec. 12, 1986:] I have to confess, despite the obvious pain in Lt. Col. Oliver North’s voice when he was taking the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, that my sympathy for his predicament was limited. Refusing to testify on the grounds of possible self-incrimination is an important constitutional right. Yet nobody is obliged to use it. Certainly not a man who began his statement by emphasizing his devotion to the public service. And certainly not an active-duty officer who had the bad taste to take the Fifth while wearing his uniform with an impressive collection of decorations on his chest. In the moment of trial, both North and his former boss, Vice Adm. John Poindexter, appeared to put their personal well-being above the interests of President Reagan and indeed the interests of the Republic.

I express no opinion on whether such views are right or wrong, either with regard to North and Poindexter or with regard to Patrick J. Cunningham, the federal prosecutor who is taking the Fifth in the Fast and Furious investigation.