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Context of 'May 27, 1987: CIA Operative Testifies, Turns Questioning into Anti-Soviet Diatribe'

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Vice President George Bush hosts a secret meeting with his foreign policy adviser, Donald Gregg (see 1982), and former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez. The meeting is the first impetus of the National Security Council (NSC)‘s initiative to secretly, and illegally, fund the Nicaraguan Contras in an attempt to overthrow that country’s socialist government. Rodriguez agrees to run a central supply depot at Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador. In a memo to NSC chief Robert McFarlane, Gregg will note that the plan is rooted in the experience of running “anti-Vietcong operations in Vietnam from 1970-1972.” Gregg will also note that “Felix Rodriguez, who wrote the attached plan, both worked for me in Vietnam and carried out the actual operations outlined above.” [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007] Rodriguez and Gregg, along with others such as Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis (see April-June 1972), were part of the CIA’s “Operation 40,” an assassination squad that operated in Cuba and the Caribbean during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rodriguez tried at least once, in 1961, to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In 1967, Rodriguez interrogated and executed South American revolutionary Che Guevara. He was part of the infamous and shadowy Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 1/17/2008]

Entity Tags: Felix Rodriguez, Donald Gregg, Contras, Robert C. McFarlane, Fidel Castro, Frank Sturgis, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ché Guevara, ’Operation 40’, National Security Council, ’Operation Phoenix’

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

The National Security Council’s Oliver North persuades former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez to help him divert funds and weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Rodriguez agrees to set up the servicing of CIA transport planes and other aircraft at the Ilopango Air Base in San Salvador, El Salvador. Rodriguez works out of Ilopango, helping the Salvadoran Air Force in its own counter-insurgency activities. Rodriguez was placed at Ilopango by Donald Gregg, a former CIA agent who now serves as the foreign policy adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983). While in El Salvador, Rodriguez uses the alias “Max Gomez.” [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: National Security Council, Donald Gregg, Felix Rodriguez, George Herbert Walker Bush, Oliver North, Central Intelligence Agency, Contras

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord becomes deeply involved in organizing a covert supply operation for Nicaragua’s Contras under the name “Airlift Project.” Secord later testifies to the Congressional Iran-Contra Committee that the project’s money comes from private donations and friendly foreign governments. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]

Entity Tags: Contras, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Richard Secord

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

National Security Council officer Oliver North, running the secret and illegal network that diverts funds from US-Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), has a phone conversation with CIA official Alan Fiers (see Summer 1986). A diary entry by North documenting the conversation reads in part, “Felix talking too much about V.P. connection.” “Felix” is CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, a key member of North’s network (see May 27, 1987). It is not clear whether the “V.P.” notation refers to Vice President George H. W. Bush or to former CIA official Donald Gregg, now Bush’s foreign policy adviser and a liaison to Rodriguez. In later testimony before the Iran-Contra Congressional committee (see May 5, 1987), Gregg will deny that Bush’s office was involved in recruiting Rodriguez to work with North. [Time, 7/22/1991] Gregg has a long and clandestine relationship with Rodriguez, going back as far as 1959, when the two were involved in “Operation 40,” a CIA-led attempt to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 2/3/2008] Gregg also worked with Rodriguez in covert operations during the Vietnam War. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Fidel Castro, Contras, Central Intelligence Agency, Alan Fiers, Donald Gregg, Felix Rodriguez, National Security Council, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him.Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him. [Source: Nancy McGirr / Reuters / Corbis]A CIA C-123 transport plane (see November 19, 1985) is shot down in southern Nicaragua by a Sandinista soldier wielding a surface-to-air missile. The transport plane left an airfield in El Salvador with arms and other supplies intended for the Nicaraguan Contras. Three crew members—US pilots William Cooper and Wallace Sawyer, Jr, and an unidentified Latin American—die in the crash, but one, a “cargo kicker” named Eugene Hasenfus, ignores CIA orders and parachutes to safety—and capture by the Sandinistas. Hasenfus is a construction worker from Wisconsin who signed on to do temporary work with CIA contractors, and has no intention of “going down with the plane.” The next day, newspapers around the world run stories with Hasenfus’s face peering out from their front pages.
Reveals US's Arming of Contras - The Hasenfus shoot-down will break the news of the Reagan administration’s secret arming of the Contras in their attempt to bring down the democratically elected Socialist government of Nicaragua. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 64]
Damage Control - Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see Late 1985 and After) is the designated US spokesman on the Hasenfus shootdown. Abrams coordinates with his fellow Contra supporters, the NSC’s Oliver North and the CIA’s Alan Fiers, and with the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, on how to handle the situation. Between the three, they coordinate a denial from the Salvadoran military about any Salvadoran or US involvement in the Hasenfus flight. As for themselves, they agree not to flatly lie about anything, because they cannot be sure of what Hasenfus will say, but they agree to remain as quiet as possible and hope the media sensation surrounding Hasenfus dies down with little long-term effect. According to notes taken by Corr during one meeting, everyone knows that a leak—“eventually someone in USG [the US government] will finally acknowledge some ‘winking.’ Salv role now more public”—is inevitable. It is eventually decided that the Contras themselves will take all responsibility for the flight. Fiers worries that the flight will be connected to previous humanitarian aid supplied to the Contras (see October 1985). They also confirm that Felix Rodriguez, North’s liaison to the Contras in Central America (see Mid-September 1985), is in Miami, hiding from the press. Hasenfus will later acknowledge making at least ten supply flights into Nicaragua (see October 9, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Elliott Abrams, Contras, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Richard Secord receives whispered advice from his attorney, Thomas Green, during his testimony.Richard Secord receives whispered advice from his attorney, Thomas Green, during his testimony. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Public testimony begins in the joint House and Senate investigations of the Iran-Contra affair. General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985) is the first witness (see May 5, 1987). [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
'Hero's Angle' - The televised hearing area in Room 325 of the Senate Office Building, built to accommodate over two dozen committee members, their staff, witnesses, lawyers, and television reporters and camera operators, features a series of two-tiered stages. Film director Steven Spielberg will later tell Senate counsel Arthur Liman that from a visual viewpoint, the staging is a terrible mistake; the witnesses appear on television “at the hero’s angle, looking up as though from a pit at the committees, who resembled two rows of judges at the Spanish Inquisition.” Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will note with some sardonicism that the committee’s two lawyers could not have been better choices to play television villains. Liman is “a nasal-voiced New York ethnic with ‘spaghetti hair,’” and House counsel John Nields is “a balding lawyer with long locks down to his collar who couldn’t keep his distaste for the witnesses from creeping into his voice.”
Opening Statements; Cheney Blames Congress, Not the White House - The hearings open with the usual long-winded opening statements from the various committee members. Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY), the leader of the Republican hardline contingent, makes it clear from the outset where he intends to go in the investigation. “Some will argue that these events justify the imposition of additional restrictions on presidents to prohibit the possibility of similar occurrences in the future,” he says. “In my opinion, this would be a mistake. In completing our task, we should seek above all to find ways to strengthen the capacity of future presidents and future Congresses to meet the often dangerous and difficult challenges that are bound to rise in the years ahead.” He then introduces his counter-argument: Congress’s dithering, not the Reagan administration’s clear violation of the law, is the crux of the problem with the Iran-Contra affair. “One important question to be asked is to what extent did the lack of a clear-cut policy by the Congress contribute to the events we will be exploring in the weeks ahead?” Cheney and his colleagues will argue that because Congress had supported the Contras in the past, its decision not to continue that support was an unforgivable breach, “a form of actionable negligence,” in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, that made it necessary for the Reagan administration to establish “a parallel support network as a ‘bridging’ mechanism until Congress could be brought around to a sensible policy.” Oliver North will echo this concept in his own testimony (see July 7-10, 1987), driving committee Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-NH) to retort: “The American people have the Constitutional right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks, or what Oliver North thinks or what I think or what anybody else thinks makes not a whit if the American people say, ‘Enough.’” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 72-75]

Entity Tags: Richard Secord, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Contras, Arthur Liman, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Reagan administration, Lou Dubose, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Steven Spielberg, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform.Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform. [Source: Cuba Informazione]CIA operative Felix Rodriguez testifies before the Iran-Contra committee (see May 5, 1987). Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and former US Army officer, is notorious for his involvement in the execution of South American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967. Rodriguez also ran covert assassination operations for the CIA during the Vietnam War. Rodriguez’s connection to the White House was through Donald Gregg, the national security adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983). Gregg had helped station Rodriguez at an airport in El Salvador, where Rodriguez could, under the pseudonym “Max Gomez,” manage the Contra resupply operation for Oliver North and Richard Secord (see Mid-September 1985 and November 19, 1985). CIA cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus (see October 5, 1986) told his Sandinista captors that “Max Gomez” was his contact with the CIA. Rodriguez’s testimony is potentially explosive, but committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) has no interest in eliciting any such infomation. Instead, he invites Rodriguez to launch a well-scripted diatribe against allowing the Soviet Union to establish a Communist foothold in Latin America. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 73-74]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Richard Secord, Central Intelligence Agency, Felix Rodriguez, Donald Gregg, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

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