Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North was hospitalized for three weeks in 1974 following an episode of emotional distress after his return from a brief command in Okinawa, associates of North told The Miami Herald.
White House officials say they are unaware of any such incident in North's background. As a nominee in 1981 for a sensitive post on the National Security Council (NSC), North would have been required to disclose such an incident as part of his medical history. NSC officials refused to say whether the hospitalization was disclosed.
Sources familiar with the granting of security clearances say such information about North's past raises questions about the thoroughness of the FBI background investigation as well as the decision to approve his nomination to the NSC.
North and his attorney were sent telegrams Friday inquiring about the hospitalization. Neither responded to those inquiries. Saturday morning North told The Herald: "I'm not going to confirm. I'm not going to deny. I'm not going to comment."
In a telephone interview, North's attorney Brendan Sullivan said, "I cannot talk to you about it." In interviews during the past two weeks, associates of North said it is "common knowledge" within the Marine Corps that North suffered an undisclosed illness of an emotional nature that required three weeks of treatment at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
"It was general knowledge among his contemporaries, particularly those who had gone to the (Naval) Academy, that Oliver was reported to have suffered from an emotional or nervous incident or period of depression that had required hospitalization, " one senior Marine official told The Herald.
Several of North's fellow officers said they were surprised in 1981 that the incident did not prevent North from winning the sensitive position on the NSC. An NSC spokesperson said they could not say whether the hospitalization would have precluded his serving on the NSC.
North was fired Nov. 25 as deputy director of the NSC after disclosures that payments by Iran for U.S.-supplied weapons went to assist U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels.
In late 1974, Marine Corps records show North was based in Okinawa as commander of Company A, First Battalion, Fourth Marine Division. He held that position for 29 days, from Nov. 11 to Dec. 9, 1974. He was replaced Dec. 10 by Capt. Ernest Brown.
Upon his return, North was assigned to a post in Washington.
A reliable official source told The Herald the unit diary for North's company contains an entry that indicates North was reported sick for a period of three weeks immediately after his arrival in the states. It shows he was sick from Dec. 16, 1974, to Jan. 7, 1975, with the diagnosis listed as "unknown, " the source said.
Unit diaries are often released by the Marine Corps under the Freedom of Information Act. However, Marine Corps lawyer Capt. Mike Rogers said information of a medical nature is generally kept secret.
Former Marine Capt. Brown, now a civilian, said in an interview that he was told soon after North's departure from Okinawa that North suffered emotional problems upon returning to Washington.
"This was general knowledge, " Brown said.
A third senior Marine official who was an associate of North in the 1970s, told The Herald that North spoke with an acquaintance in December 1974 and described an emotional incident that led to his hospitalization.
A fourth senior Marine official, who was also close to North during the mid-1970s, confirmed in an interview that he was personally aware of North's hospitalization in December 1974. This source said he was advised within a matter of days after the hospitalization that it stemmed from an episode of "emotional distress."
"To the best of my recollection, it was soon after (North was hospitalized), " the source said. Officials at the NSC and the FBI say the background investigation for NSC nominees, while extensive, does not usually involve a review of medical records.
"Normally, no, that doesn't come into the background investigation, " said FBI Special Agent Susan Schnitzer. ". . . Unless on their application they stated they have a problem."
NSC officials, citing the Privacy Act, said they would not disclose the contents of North's background form. An NSC spokesperson said investigators would not normally examine a nominee's medical record unless the application disclosed previous treatment for a nervous disorder.
"They do ask a question if your family has a history of mental illness or if you've ever had a problem of this nature, " said Jackie Murphy.
The hospitalization is a troubling incident in North's otherwise impressive military career. It has long been the subject of discussion within the close-knit circle of military acquaintances who have known North since his days at the Naval Academy.
"It was common knowledge, " said one senior Marine official.
Currently every Marine with a top secret clearance or higher completes, under penalty of perjury, form DD-398, a Statement of Personal History. The form asks for an answer of yes or no to the question, "If hospitalized or treated by a doctor for nervous disorders."
An instruction booklet for preparing the forms explains: "Often a nominee will indicate 'no' when in fact he has been treated for a nervous disorder or a nervous breakdown in the past.
"The rationale used is that he didn't consider it a 'history, ' but rather a single episode. This reasoning is incorrect. Any treatment or problem within the context of these questions must be listed with an explanation."