Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D., R.I.) asked Pickering why he decided as ambassador to El Salvador to pass on to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North information that ultimately led to a secret donation of more than $1 million in military equipment and supplies for the Nicaraguan contras.
Pickering insisted that he "saw no money exchanged" but acknowledged that he provided North, then a National Security Council aide in Washington, with a note and an "oral message" from an unidentified individual about the military assistance. At the time, the Boland amendment prohibited the United States from supplying any kind of military aid to the rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.
Pickering said that he had some "reservations" about being the carrier for such a message but that he did not consider it a violation of the Boland amendment.
"I made the decision this was a suitable way to pass it (the arms information)," the 57-year-old diplomat said.
In 1987, Pickering told congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra affair that the note contained a list of weapons and military supplies being offered by a private group of Nicaraguan exiles and other contra supporters.
Pickering said yesterday that he gave the information to North instead of passing it through regular State Department channels because of its sensitive nature.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who served on the committee that investigated the Iran-contra affair, also quizzed Pickering about what he knew of the covert delivery of U.S. arms to Iran.
"In a word, zip," Pickering said. Appointed ambassador to Israel in 1985, Pickering said he and other U.S. officials in Israel did make some inquiries but were told "not to worry about it" by a "key authority in American intelligence."
"We were put in a position where trust was not only non-existent. It was subverted," he said, characterizing the affair as "foreign-policymaking in a second channel."
"I think it's a dangerous, ineffective, perhaps never-to-be-repeated way of making foreign policy," he said in response to a question about the episode. "If I had it to do over again . . . I would not do it that way again."
The committee could vote as early as next week on Pickering before referring his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.