The coincidence was almost too good to be true. "An old news video of Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying at the Iran-Contra hearings during the Reagan Administration," the e-mail from a friend began, "what he said was stunning!" I remember the event well.
I worked with Ollie North in the Reagan White House from 1985 until early in 1986, when I was director of public liaison. He was a charismatic speaker, one I frequently enlisted for briefings on the situation in Nicaragua, where the United States was trying to help a group of guerrillas known as the Contras, who were trying to overthrow the communist Sandinista government there. When Congress cut off funds to the Contras, Ollie helped set up a clandestine operation to raise private money for the group. In November 1986, the operation was discovered, leading to the worst crisis of the Reagan administration and to criminal indictments against North (whose conviction was later overturned) and others involved. The Congress also held hearings in which North and others testified.
One of the most memorable moments in those hearings was when Ollie talked about the threats on his own life, which prompted him to use $60,000 of the money he'd raised for a sophisticated home security system.
My friend's e-mail described the scene when a senator confronted Ollie about the security system:
"Isn't that just a little excessive?"
"No, sir," Ollie answered.
"Because the lives of my family and I were threatened, sir" the e-mail replied.
"By whom?" the senator questioned.
"By a terrorist, sir," Ollie answered. "His name is Osama bin Laden, sir."
"Why are you so afraid of this man?" the senator asked.
"Because, sir, he is the most evil person alive that I know of," the e-mail quotes Ollie as answering.
"And what do you recommend we do about him?" asked the senator.
"Well, sir, if it were up to me, I would recommend that an assassin team be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth."
My friend titled the e-mail "Amazing." Yes, I wrote back, it's amazing, all right. It also happens to be untrue.
Since I first got this e-mail, I've received a dozen copies of it, mostly from people who should know better. The latest version even had the added twist that the evil senator was none other than Al Gore.
In fact, Ollie North did testify that his life had been threatened by a notorious terrorist, a man named Abu Nidal, who was responsible for several high-profile terrorist attacks in the mid-'80s, including an attack on the Rome airport, in which a 9-year-old American girl was killed. The person doing the questioning was not Al Gore, or any other senator, but a Democratic staffer named John Nields, a rather scraggly looking, long-haired fellow who was the chief counsel to the committee.
And Ollie didn't suggest "taking out" Nidal either. What he said was more personal.
"I'll be glad to meet Abu Nidal on equal terms anywhere in the world. ... But I am not willing to have my wife and my four children meet Abu Nidal or his organization on his terms," the tough-talking Marine lieutenant colonel told his interrogators.
The e-mail hoax points out a danger. Not only do we want to paint our heroes as all-knowing and good, but we want to paint our adversaries as incompetent, or worse. The clear message from this e-mail is that the Democrats -- and, in the latest version, Al Gore -- are to blame for not getting rid of Osama bin Laden before he could kill more than 3,000 Americans.
There are some important questions to ask about what the Clinton administration might have done differently in dealing with the bin Laden and al Qaeda threat on their watch. But it's too bad some people have to invent incidents to make their case -- and a warning to anyone who believes every cockamamie story that comes over the Internet transom: If it sounds too amazing to be true, it probably isn't.