Iran-Contra: What Do We Know, and When Did We Know It?

“The release last week of the report of the independent counsel marks a frustrat­ing anticlimax to what clearly is a continuing crisis of American gov­ernment”


“The Iran-Contra Scandal Ends In a Whimper”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unlike Watergate, in which the resigna­tion of the president created an ending of sorts, there is no suc­cessful conclusion to the Iran-contra scandal that tore the government to pieces during the mid-1980s. The release last week of the report of the independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, marks a frustrat­ing anticlimax to what clearly is a continuing crisis of American gov­ernment, based not in the execu­tive branch, but in Congress, which has been steadily under­mining its own ability to govern.

In their own investigation and subsequent report, the congressio­nal committees investigating the affair blamed the Reagan admin­istration, but never said a word about Congress’s own complicity, instead making it into a victim of the Reagan plot when in fact it was an accomplice.

There was never any official recognition of the Iran-contra scandal until November 25, 1986, when then-attorney general Edwin Meese made his “discovery” of the so-called diversion memo that for the first time officially ac­knowledged the funneling of mon­ey from the sale of arms to Iran to the rebels in Nicaragua.

U.S. backing for the rebels was well known in Washington and co­piously reported in newspapers and on television from at least 1984 on. The National Security Archive, the independent, nonprofit watchdog outfit in Washington, which has led the way in investigating the Iran-­contra scandal, has compiled de­tailed chronologies of how the scan­dal unfolded. A simplified version, along with key documents, is con­tained in Iran Contra Scandal: A Declassified History, which should be taken as a reader’s guide to the Walsh report.

Here are a few of the events that everybody in Washington during that period of time knew about: On April 9, 1984, The Wall Street Journal revealed the CIA had se­cretly mined Nicaraguan harbors. The next month, contra rebel lead­er Eden Pastora held a press con­ference in the Nicaraguan jungle to denounce the CIA’s pressure to align his followers on the southern front with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force operating out of Hon­duras. In the midst of the confer­ence, a bomb exploded, killing eight journalists and wounding 17 others. The assassin escaped.

In April 1985, five members of the Civilian Military Assistance team, a U.S.-based mercenary operation, were arrested in Costa Rica. In prison interviews, they began to spell out details of the National Security Council’s sup­port of a southern front operation run by John Hull along the Nicaragua border. In August 1985, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the National Security Council’s role in supporting the contras. On June 25, 1986, the CBS program West 57th Street aired a documentary on the contra resupply mis­sion, identifying Robert Owen as “the bagman for Ollie North” and John Hull as the key American working for the NSC in Costa Rica. Within a year, the Associat­ed Press, Miami Herald, and CBS News had chipped away, exposing the basic outlines of the National Security Council-run enterprise.

Even though some of these re­ports caused an outcry on Capitol Hill, they had little lasting impact. Indeed, the House, in June 1985, passed legislation authorizing hu­manitarian assistance to the contras, which was well understood at the time as a way to build up the military infrastructure.

In August 1985, Michael Barnes, then chairman of the House western hemisphere affairs subcommittee, and Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote Robert McFarlane, Rea­gan’s national security adviser, demanding an explanation of press reports that North was en­gaged in activities that violated the ban on contra aid. Together with North, McFarlane drew up a reply, stating that “at no time did I or any member of the National Security Council staff violate the letter or spirit” of congressional restrictions. That was that. Con­gress accepted this bald lie on its face.

A year later, in June, Represen­tative Ron Coleman from Texas introduced a Resolution of Inqui­ry directing the president to pro­vide documentation relating to the National Security Council contacts and support for the con­tras. By way of response, Vice-Admiral John Poindexter agreed to allow North to talk in secret to Hamilton’s intelligence commit­tee. At that meeting, on Aµgust 6, 1986, in the White House Situa­tion Room, North was all charm, denying any intention to violate the spirit, principle, or legal re­quirements of the Boland amend­ment. According to administra­tion notes of that meeting, the committee members seemed more concerned at the threats North and his family were receiving because of the newspaper exposes about his job.

Far from concerning itself about how the executive branch had methodically violated the laws it passed, in June 1986, the House passed President Reagan’s request for military and nonmili­tary support for the contras.

Three months later, on October 5, 1986, a planeload of arms was shot down over Nicaragua, and when the lone survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured by the Sandinistas, the CIA station chief in Costa Rica cabled Washington that the situation requires we do necessary damage control.” Administration officials issued cate­gorical denials to three congressio­nal committees that sought answers about the flight. Elliott Abrams, in an appearance before the House intelligence committee, was asked by Hamilton: “Just to be clear, the United States govern­ment has not done anything to facilitate these private groups, is that a fair statement?” Abrams replied, “Yes, to the extent of my knowledge that I feel to be com­plete, other than the general pub­slic encouragement that we like this kind of activity.”

The fact is that the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight over intelligence generally are boosters for both spooks and covert action. The intelligence committees are supposed to sort out and stop what Senator Patrick Leahy has called the intelligence community’s more “cockamamy ideas” be­fore they happen. They should have stopped Iran-contra before it happened.

But these committees sat by as the CIA mined Nicaragua’s har­bors and wrote up a murder man­ual for the contras. They watched passively as the CIA bungled a plan to assassinate a Lebanese radical religious sheikh with a car bomb that instead killed 80 by­standers. As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive has observed, “the senators and con­gressmen who sit on the intelli­gence committees effectively become members of the covert club of government, the select clique of men and women privy to the se­crets of state. The intoxication of this privilege has transformed the committees into advocates as op­posed to counterweights.”

Michael Harrington, the former congressman who was censured in 1975 for revealing classified CIA testimony on the destabilization of Chile, said the oversight system is a “seductive game of shared secrets,” adding, “It starts with the pleasant feeling of being privy to things unknown to the ordinary citizen, but it works very much like blackmail. The more you know about dubious secret opera­tions, the more you are responsi­ble for hiding, and the more you hide, the tighter the grip of the State Department, or the CIA, or the Pentagon.”

The spooks hand-feed the com­mittees, telling them what they want to hear. And the committees can’t do anything about the spooks even if they wanted to. The CIA contingency fund allows the agency to finance whatever operation it desires until legisla­tion is passed specifically banning that operation.

On April 26, 1984, the Senate intelligence committee put out a press release claiming Casey and the committee “have agreed on the need for more thorough and effective oversight procedures,” and that the CIA “pledged its full cooperation in this effort.” But as Congress’s subsequent investiga­tions revealed, at the same time Casey was feeding this line to the intelligence committees, he was collaborating with the National Security Council, soliciting funds from the Saudis, and meeting with retired general Richard Secord — all part of the administration’s ef­forts to get around congressional restrictions on aid to the contras.

What happened in Congress be­fore the Iran-contra scandal broke is bad enough, but the behavior by Congress after that is hard to believe. It was Congress that placidly doled out waivers of immunity to the leading participants, which everyone knew at the time would make any future criminal prosecution next to impossible.

Walsh’s report puts it in the most polite terms: “Immunity is ordinarily given by a prosecutor to a witness who will incriminate someone more important than himself. Congress gave immunity to North and Poindexter, who in­criminated only themselves and who largely exculpated those responsible for the initiation, supervision, arid support of their activi­ties. This delayed and infinitely complicated the effort to prosecute North and Poindexter.”

George Bush himself did as much as anyone could to ham­string the Walsh inquiry. In De­cember 1992, after he lost the election, Bush belatedly discov­ered notes for a political diary he had been keeping, which showed he knew about the Iran-contra arms deal from the get-go. Under an agreement with the Reagan White House, Walsh had first re­quested such documents back in 1987. And in one of his final acts as president, on Christmas eve, 1992, Bush pardoned former sec­retary of defense Casper Weinber­ger, 12 days before Weinberger was to go on trial, along with five other principal defendants. It was the first time a president ever par­doned someone in whose trial he might be called as a witness.

During the Iran-contra hearings, Oliver North argued that the American people “ought not to be led to believe, as a consequence of these hearings, that this nation cannot or should not conduct covert operations.” And having heard the testimony, the congres­sional committee seems to have agreed: “Covert operations are a necessary component of our Na­tion’s foreign policy,” the congressional report says, and maintains that ”history reflects that the prospects for peaceful settlement [of international conflict] are greater if this country has … the means to influence developments abroad.”

A decade earlier, the Church committee had inquired into the intelligence scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, considered proposing a ban on all forms of covert action, and declared that “covert action must be seen as an exceptional act, to be undertaken only when the national security requires it  and when overt means will not suffice.”

By the time the congressional committees on Iran-contra took up the issue, such a principle nev­er occurred to the members. There never has been the hint of legislation aimed at curbing the use of covert action. And under the current administration the structures of the national security state remain in place.

It is certainly not for poor Walsh to sort out this mess. He can only gesture toward it in frus­tration: “The underlying facts of Iran-contra are that, regardless of criminality, President Reagan, the secretary or state, the secretary of defense, and the director of cen­tral intelligence and their necessary assistants skirted … the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the President’s willful activities.

“What protection do the people of the United States have against such a concerted action by such powerful officers? … [I]n the give and take of political community, congressional oversight is often overtaken and subordinated by the need to keep government functioning, by the need to antici­pate the future, and by the ever­-present requirement of maintain­ing consensus among the elected officials who are the Government.”

He goes on: “Time and again this Independent Counsel found himself at the mercy of political decisions of the Congress and the Executive branch … Despite ex­traordinary efforts to shield the OIC from exposure to immunized testimony, the North and Poin­dexter convictions were overturned on appeal on the immunity issue…

“Congressional action that pre­cludes, or makes it impossible to sustain, a prosecution has more serious consequences than simply one less conviction. There is a sig­nificant inequity when more peripheral players are convicted while central figures in a criminal enterprise escape punishment. And perhaps more fundamentally, the failure to punish governmen­tal law breakers feeds the percep­tion that public officials are not wholly accountable for their actions.”

Although it is seldom seen as such, the United States has main­tained since the early part of the century what amounts to a centralized, federal police that has operated in numerous occasions as a political force lodged in the FBI, beginning with efforts aimed at expelling dissenters — at first, anarchists and commu­nists — then, from the ’50s on, used to spy on black civil rights activists including Martin Luther King, and during the ’60s to spy on student leftists and radicals.

During the 1980s, the govern­ment spied on and harassed those who dissented from the war in Central America, and when that dissent became mainstream and Congress outlawed aid to the contras in the Boland amendment, the White House entered into a conspiracy against Congress, and employed what amounts to a counterinsurgency operation against it.

Not only did the Reagan administration secretly deploy a well-heeled publicity campaign to overturn the amendment, but it built a private, sub rosa foreign policy in the basement of the White House with Oliver North as the point man. In its guide to the scandal, the National Security Ar­chive dug up and printed State Department documents describ­ing how the Reagan White House used members of the army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group to organize PR, including among other activities funneling phony wire service stories to “people like Newt Gingrich to read on C-Span during the open orders and enter into the Congressional Record.”

So the techniques of covert ac­tion designed to pacify and win guerrilla war in the Third World — those parts of the world then perceived to be on the periphery of the Soviet empire — were employed within the United States against the citizenry through a mostly unsuspecting and seemingly disinterested Congress.

If ever there was an assault on the Constitution, this was it. But Congress, itself so caught up in the process of covert action, seems not to have recognized the challenge to its own authority, let alone to have much cared. Now everyone is willing to let bygones be bygones. With Reagan and Bush gone from government, the argument is, government will once more right itself.

But Clinton himself is now en­gaged in a crime bill that effec­tively employs the same techniques of counterinsurgency against the inner cities of America. ­

And Congress? Within a weak and vestigially corrupt executive, Congress is the most important bulwark of democracy. Yet it swings aimlessly, verging as time goes on towards the irrelevant. Af­ter the lengthy fight over NAFTA, which held out the prospects of being resolved — one way or another — on the basis of actual na­tional debate, the president just stepped in and bought the votes.

This sort of erosion of credibil­ity and democracy can be sus­tained for years, but in the end it will come to a head in a pointed crisis of the state. The anarchy that grips Europe may not be so far away. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 14, 2020