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Word for Word: Threats that might have been

By MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2002

From www.snopes.com, a Web site dedicated to researching and explaining urban legends, as well as "common fallacies, misinformation, old wives' tales, strange news stories, rumors and celebrity gossip."

Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, a Los Angeles couple, operate the Web site and do the research themselves "as a hobby," according to the site.

-- MIKE WILSON, Floridian editor

* * *

Claim: Oliver North stated during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings that Osama bin Laden was "the most evil person alive" and that "an assassin team [should] be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth."

Status: False.

Example: (Collected on the Internet, 2001) "I was at a UNC lecture the other day where they played a video of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra deals . . . He was being drilled by some senator I didn't recognize . . . (He testified that) "the life of my family and I were threatened.'

"Threatened? By who?'

"By a terrorist, sir.'

"Terrorist? What terrorist could possibly scare you that much?'

"His name is Osama bin Laden . . . He is the most evil person alive that I know of.'

"And what do you recommend we do about him?'

"If it were me I would recommend an assassin team be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth.'

"The senator disagreed with this approach and that was all they showed of the clip.

"It's scary when you think 15 years ago the government was aware of Osama bin Laden and his potential threat to the security of the world. I guess like all great tyrants they start small but if left untended spread like the virus they truly are."

Variations: One of the versions in circulation concludes, "The senator disagreed with this approach and that was all that was shown of the clip. If anyone is interested, the senator turned out to be none other than ... Al Gore." (Senator Al Gore of Tennessee was not a member of the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and therefore did not take part in the questioning of any witnesses before the Committee.)

Origins: For most of us who watched the televised Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 . . . the enduring image we came away with was a memory of an unapologetic and resolute Lt. Col. Oliver North delivering testimony in a Marine uniform . . .

The terrorist North mentioned in his testimony was not Osama bin Laden . . . To the extent that bin Laden was known to the western world in 1987, it was not as a "terrorist" but as one of the U.S.-backed "freedom fighters" participating in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden's hatred of the U.S. and conversion to "terrorist" status is not believed to have come about until the Gulf War of 1990-91, when he was outspokenly critical of Saudi Arabian dependence upon the U.S. military and denounced U.S. support of a "corrupt, materialist, and irreligious" Saudi monarchy. (The Saudi Arabian government stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 for his funding of militant fundamentalist Islamic groups.)

No, Oliver North did not testify about or speak the name Osama bin Laden during the Iran-Contra hearings. He claimed that threats against his life had been made by terrorist Abu Nidal, telling a congressional committee:

"I want you to know that I'd be more than willing . . . to meet Abu Nidal on equal terms anywhere in the world. There's an even deal for him. OK? But I am not willing to have my wife and my four children meet Abu Nidal or his organization on his terms . . ."

So no, Oliver North didn't warn us back in 1987 about Osama bin Laden's "potential threat to the security of the world" or suggest that bin Laden be hunted down by "an assassin team," nor was he given the brush-off by a clueless senator "who disagreed with this approach." Finger-pointers will have to look elsewhere.

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