Washington Journal: Of TV, Big Shots and Ollie's Gate
by Dale Russakoff Washington Post Staff Writer Washington Post, May 18, 1989, p.A23
It is a recurring nightmare of many Washington officials to rise at the crack of dawn, shuffle into the kitchen to start the coffee, stumble outside to fetch the newspapers and find planted in their path the heavy-set, bearded form of Howard Rosenberg.
It is something like catching the emperor without his clothes, confronting Washington's big shots before they can hide behind the tinted glass of limos, before slumber has even left their eyes. Rosenberg, unfailingly polite, speaks with the cheerfulness of one who has been awake for hours, savoring his moment.
This off-camera reporter and producer for CBS News has in his office countless videotapes of early-morning encounters that mostly begin the same way. Only the startled, dawn-lit faces at the other end of the camera change.
"Good morning, Colonel North, I'm Howard Rosenberg with CBS News," begins one. "Good morning, Mr. Secretary," starts one outside the home of former secretary of state George P. Shultz. Then there are: "Good morning Mr. Gregg," "Good morning, Mr. McFarlane," "Good morning, Mr. Wright," "Good morning, Mr. Tower," "Good morning, Mr. Bork."
Select a Washington scandal, select a player, make your way to the person's home, and there, at 5.30 in the morning -- come showers, snow or sunshine -- you are almost certain to find Howard Rosenberg with a sound and camera crew.
"You name 'em, I've staked em out," said Rosenberg, 37. "I don't want to leave the impression that all I do is hang around in people's driveways. But it is a tool. It's important to get people on the record."
"Some more buttoned-down journalists find Howard's style colorful to the point of being annoying," said CBS correspondent Eric Engberg, who has worked with him often. "But after a while, his raffishness grows on you."
It is a recurring dream of every reporter to uncover a story that changes the course of history -- or at least writes a footnote to it. Unfortunately for Oliver North, Rosenberg realized the dream. It became North's nightmare.
It happened in late 1986 and 1987, when Rosenberg and his crews filmed one high-ranking Reagan administration official after another coming out of their front doors and, in response to persistent questioning, denying knowledge of the Iran-contra affair. Then, on later tapes, they acknowledged more and more.
Prominent among them was Donald P. Gregg, ambassador-designate to South Korea, who is now in hot water, in part because of some initial denials issued to Rosenberg when Gregg was national security adviser to then-Vice President Bush.
Another subject was North, whom Rosenberg began staking out in November 1986, along with cameraman Michael Marriott and sound technician Mary Beth Toole. Rosenberg, who jots down everything he sees -- license tags, names, of neighbors -- fixed on the now-famous security gate at North's driveway. From a decal on an intercom beside the gate, he wrote down: Automatic Door Co. of Laurel, Md. Somewhat embarrassed, he said that he didn't get to the story until many stakeouts later, when thumbing through old notebooks looking for loose ends, he came upon the gate. "Olliegate," he calls it.
Automatic Door told Rosenberg they had done the work for a Mr. Robinette, who paid cash in advance. Suspecting the CIA was involved -- "the people I know of who have that amount of cash are drug dealers and the CIA" -- Rosenberg consulted a data base on the CIA [this was NameBase distributed on 5.25, 360K floppy disks], and found the name of retiree Glenn Robinette.
"Good morning, Mr. Robinette," Rosenberg said one freezing March morning in front of Robinette's house. Robinette proceeded to acknowledge that he had paid cash for the fence, adding that retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord arranged the deal. Rosenberg had the story, and he and Engberg put it together for the March 16, 1987 evening news.
The story got a light touch -- it seemed minor next to reports of a $30 million diversion of Iran arms sale profits. But it was the first evidence linking arms profits to personal benefits, and led investigators to North's acceptance of an illegal gratuity, one of three counts on which he was convicted. It also figures in Secord's indictment.
"It's a lesson," Rosenberg said of the story. "You follow your leads. You keep your eyes open. You don't have to be a great investigative reporter to figure that one out."
Meanwhile, the stakeouts continue. In one of them, Rosenberg confronted Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., attorney to North, in a parking garage where he had waited for hours while his crew hid in a stairwell that reeked of urine.
"I wish you didn't have to wait all day," Sullivan said politely.
"I wish I didn't have to wait all day too," Rosenberg responded.
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