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Context of 'November 19, 1985: Retired General Secord Sets up Contra Supply Operation'

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Summer 1985: Costa Rica Allows Contra Airstrip

Lewis Tambs becomes the US Ambassador to Costa Rica. Tambs is under orders to open what is called a “southern front” for the Nicaraguan Contras; a small force of Contras is striking into southern Nicaragua from northern Costa Rica, and the Costa Rican government wants them out of their territory. Tambs believes that the orders for the “southern front” come from National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and their Restricted Interagency Group (RIG—see Late 1985 and After). Tambs, with the assistance of North’s liaison in Central America, Felix Rodriguez (see Mid-September 1985), secures permission from the Costa Rican government to build an airstrip for use by the Contras in northern Costa Rica, as long as it is not close enough to the border to allow the Contras to use it as a staging area for ground raids. One of Abrams’s first questions to North after being tasked to “monitor” the NSC officer (see September 4, 1985) is why the Costa Ricans are allowing the airstrip. The airstrip will be built at Santa Elena, Costa Rica, by the Udall Corporation, one of the private firms controlled by North’s partner, retired General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987), and will be called “Point West.” Abrams will later testify, falsely, that no US officials were involved in securing permission to build the airstrip. Notes taken by the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, about discussions concerning the airstrip, will prove that Abrams lies under oath about the airstrip. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Felix Rodriguez, Contras, Edwin Corr, Elliott Abrams, Richard Secord, Lewis Tambs, Udall Corporation, Restricted Interagency Group, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: US International Relations, 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

Gene Wheaton, a former Marine and CIA asset who served as a counter-terrorism adviser to the Shah of Iran and the current co-owner of a cargo airline called National Air, had agreed to help the Reagan administration run supplies and arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. However, Wheaton sours on the deal when he learns that retired General Richard Secord is heading that portion of the operation (see November 19, 1985). Wheaton formed a poor opinion of Secord and Secord’s colleague, the National Security Council’s Oliver North, during a 1985 attempt to win federal contracts to supply humanitarian aid to insurgents such as the Contras and the mujaheddin of Afghanistan. Wheaton reveals his knowledge of the secret Contra supply program to William Casey, the head of the CIA. But Casey says the government is not involved in the program, and refuses to take action. Wheaton will discuss his limited knowledge of the program with reporters from the San Francisco Examiner, resulting in embarrassing questions for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007; Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/29/2007]

Entity Tags: National Air, Caspar Weinberger, Central Intelligence Agency, Gene Wheaton, William Casey, Oliver North, Richard Secord, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Unaware of the White House machinations with Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras (see 1984, May 1984, October 10, 1984, November 19, 1985, December 6, 1985, Mid-1980s, April 4, 1986, May 29, 1986, and June 11, 1986), Congress approves a $100 million appropriation for military and non-arms aid to the Contras. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Contras

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, the liaison between the Nicaraguan Contras and the National Security Council (see Mid-September 1985), comes to Washington to argue that retired General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987) is providing shoddy airplanes and goods to the Contras at exorbitant prices. Rodriguez meets with his patron, Donald Gregg, the foreign affairs adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983 and October 10, 1986). Gregg then meets with other administration officials to discuss Rodriguez’s concerns. Officials discuss Rodriguez’s claim that his “working w/VP [Bush] [is a] blessing for CIA,” indicating that despite later denials (see December 1986 and August 6, 1987), Bush is well aware of Rodriguez’s activities on behalf of the Contras and may be facilitating them. According to Gregg’s notes, he is particularly concerned that Rodriguez is “go[ing] around to bars saying he is buddy of Bush… we want to get rid of him from his [involvement] w[ith] private ops. Nothing was done so he still is there shooting his mouth off.” [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Donald Gregg, Contras, National Security Council, Richard Secord, George Herbert Walker Bush, Felix Rodriguez

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez closes down the secret airstrip in his country used by the US’s covert Contra supply operation (see November 19, 1985). [New York Times, 11/19/1987]

Entity Tags: Oscar Arias Sanchez, Contras

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

CIA Director William Casey abruptly resigns due to terminal brain cancer (see December 18, 1986). Casey’s illness makes him unavailable to testify before the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation, a huge boon for committee Republicans who are determined to keep the truth of Iran-Contra from being revealed (see January 6-7, 1987). Casey had been one of the prime movers behind the Iran arms sales, and was National Security Council staffer Oliver North’s prime supervisor in what insiders call “the Enterprise”—the ad hoc organization run by North and retired General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985) that trained, supplied, and even at times fought for Nicaragua’s Contras. North and Secord’s organization managed to evade Congressional oversight and ignore laws passed to limit US involvement in the Nicaraguan insurgency (see October 10, 1984). According to upcoming testimony from North, Casey saw “the Enterprise” as such a success that it should serve as a model for other US covert operations around the globe. It was Casey’s idea to have foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia (see July, 1984) and Brunei (see June 11, 1986) supply money to the Contras, over the objections of White House officials such as Secretary of State George Shultz, who told Casey in reference to the phrase “quid pro quo” that he should remember that “every quid had a quo.” As one Democratic congressmen later puts it, Casey was the “godfather” of the entire Iran-Contra operation, and his unavailability to the committee is a tremendous blow to its ability to find the truth. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 70]

Entity Tags: George Shultz, Contras, William Casey, Richard Secord, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee

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

Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee.Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifies before the joint House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. During the course of his testimony, he says he does not know if President Reagan had any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). North also testifies that William Casey, the recently deceased CIA director (see May 6, 1987), knew of and approved the diversion of funds to the Contras. North admits that the Iranian arms sales were initially designed to help facilitate the release of the American hostages being held by Hezbollah. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Tour de Force - North’s testimony is a “tour de force,” in the words of authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, that allows Republicans the opportunity to reverse the field of the hearings and go on the offensive instead of defending the conduct of the Reagan administration. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, wears his full-dress Marine uniform throughout his entire testimony with rows of ribbons festooning his chest. Handsome and full of righteous patriotism, he is striking on television, and contrasts well with the nasal, disdainful committee lawyers (see May 5, 1987) who spend four days interrogating him.
Need to Free Hostages Trumps Law - For the first two days, North and House counsel John Nields spar for the cameras. North says that Casey had directed him to create the so-called “Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987), the clandestine organization that supported the Nicaraguan Contras with money, weapons, and sometimes US personnel. North admits to shredding untold amounts of evidence after the operation came to light (see November 21-25, 1986). He also admits to lying to Congress in previous testimony. But all of his actions are justified, he says, by the need to get Iran to free the American hostages. “I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten Americans home for it,” he declares in response to one question about US arms sales to Iran. Senate counsel Arthur Liman will later write, “He made all his illegal acts—the lying to Congress, the diversion [of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Contras], the formation of the Enterprise, the cover-up—seem logical and patriotic.”
Targeting Covert Operations - Nields’s preferred line of questioning—covert operations—makes many committee members uncomfortable. Some House Democrats want to use the investigation to further their own goals of limiting covert actions, and others simply want the truth to be revealed. In contrast, House Republicans are united in opposition to any details of covert operations being revealed on national television and thus hampering the president’s ability to conduct future operations as needed. After the first day of North’s testimony, committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) exults on PBS that North “probably was as effective as anybody we’ve had before the committee in coming forward very aggressively and stating what he did, saying why he did it, arguing that he was in fact authorized to take the activities that he did.”
Leaky Congress Unfit to Know of Covert Ops, North Contends - North echoes Cheney’s position that the question is not whether White House officials broke the law, but whether Congress was fit to consider the question of national security at all. North goes so far as to question the propriety of the hearings themselves: “I believe that these hearings, perhaps unintentionally so, have revealed matters of great secrecy in the operation of our government, and sources of methods of intelligence activities have clearly been revealed, to the detriment of our security.” North’s message is clear: Congress is not fit to handle covert operations or, by and large, to even know about them. Best for the legislature to allow the White House and the intelligence community to do what needs doing and remain quiet about it. North’s contention that Congress has leaked vital national security information is shot down by Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who not only forces North to admit that he has no evidence of his contention, but that the White House, not Congress, is the main source of leaked classified information. Indeed, North himself has leaked information (see July 7-10, 1987). Inouye’s co-chair, Warren Rudman (R-NH) will later say: “The greatest leaks came out of the White House. North and company were the biggest leakers of all during that period.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 75-78] Nields, addressing North’s implication that the NSC has no obligation to tell the truth to Congress, says towards the end of his session with North: “We do believe in a democracy in which the people, not one lieutenant colonel, decide important policy issues, don’t we? … You denied Congress the facts North had admitted to lying about the government’s involvement with the Hasenfus plane. You denied the elected representatives of the people the facts.” [Boston Globe, 7/9/1987]
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).

Entity Tags: William Casey, Warren Rudman, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Arthur Liman, Bush administration (41), Contras, Daniel Inouye, Hezbollah, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Lou Dubose

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

The New York Times reports that Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986) is in possession of tapes and transcripts documenting hundreds of hours of telephone conversations between CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and CIA agents in Central America. The time period of the taped conversations corresponds to the period in which NSC officer Oliver North, retired Air Force General Richard Secord, and arms dealer Albert Hakim were running their secret arms pipeline informally known as either “Airlift Project” or “The Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987). Former Deputy Director for Operations Clair George (see Summer 1986) installed the taping system in the early- to mid-1980s. The contents of the conversations are not known, though it is known that Walsh is using the tapes to force accurate testimony from North and others either standing trial or serving as witnesses in Iran-Contra prosecutions (see March 16, 1988). [Time, 7/22/1991]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Albert Hakim, Oliver North, Richard Secord, Lawrence E. Walsh, Clair George

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

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