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Attorney General Edwin Meese undertakes an internal fact-finding investigation focused on President Reagan’s involvement in the November 1985 sale of Hawk missiles to Iran (see 1985). Meese is apparently not interested in finding facts, because he refuses a request to assist from the FBI, and takes no notes during his interviews of administration officials.
'Shredding Party' - Additionally, during his investigation, National Security Council documents are altered or destroyed, including a presidential finding from December 1985 that retroactively authorized US missile sales to Iran (see November 24-25, 1985 and December 5, 1985); National Security Adviser John Poindexter will later admit to destroying this document. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North holds what is later called a “shredding party,” destroying thousands of documents that would likely implicate White House officials in a criminal conspiracy to break the law (see November 21-23, 1986). The Iran-Contra investigative committee will later fault Meese for departing from “standard investigative techniques” during his investigation.
Document Linking Iran Arms Sales, Contra Supplies Survives - Meese also finds a potentially explosive document in the desk of North, the National Security Council staffer who managed the Iran arms deals. The document, an undated memorandum apparently from April 1986, outlined “a planned diversion of $12 million in proceeds from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras” (see April 4, 1986). Meese’s investigation now diverges onto two tracks, one a continuation of the Hawk shipments, and the second an investigation into who knew about, and who had approved, the diversion.
Reagan Courting Impeachment? - Meese confirms from North that the $12 million had indeed been given to the Contras, and informs Reagan, Chief of Staff Donald Regan, and Vice President Bush. Reagan is reportedly shocked by the revelation, in part because he knows he could face impeachment for violating the Boland Amendment (see October 10, 1984). Meese informs the cabinet the next day. Apparently Meese does not want to know if any senior White House officials knew of the diversion, because he does not ask them about it. When Poindexter informs Meese that before December 1985, his predecessor Robert McFarlane handled the Iran arms sales “all alone” with “no documentation,” Meese accepts his word. Several White House officials present at the meeting—Reagan, Regan, Bush, Poindexter, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—all know that Poindexter is lying, but none correct him. After the meeting, Shultz tells his aide, Charles Hill: “They may lay all this off on Bud [McFarlane].… They [are] rearranging the record.” Investigative counsel Lawrence Walsh will later write: “The Select Committees viewed this as an isolated error. It was not.”
'Case for Deniability' for Reagan - In Walsh’s opinion, Meese is not conducting an investigation at all, but instead is “building a case of deniability for his client-in-fact, President Reagan.” Walsh will characterize Meese’s actions as “an effort to obstruct a congressional inquiry.” In 2006, authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will write, “The two strands of an illegal policy came together in that memo.” The authors refer to the US arms sales to Iran and the diversion of the profits from those sales to the Contras. (New York Times 11/19/1987; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 8/4/1993; PBS 2000; Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 66)
National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North, the prime coordinator of the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the Reagan administration, leads a coordinated effort to alter, remove, and destroy critical documents that could prove criminal intent in the burgeoning Iran-Contra investigation (see November 21-25, 1986). The enormity of the destruction of government records earns the incident the sobriquet “Ollie’s shredding party.” A key figure in the document shredding is North’s secretary, Fawn Hall. Hall, whose mother Wilma was the secretary for North’s former NSC boss, Robert McFarlane, will reluctantly become one of the first, and most damning, witnesses for Lawrence Walsh’s independent investigation of the Iran-Contra affair (see December 19, 1986). Hall has been, in the words of Walsh’s prosecutors, “generally aware” of North’s involvement in both providing illegal funds to the Contras and in illegally selling arms to Iran, maintaining his records and typing his memoranda and letters. Though she knows of the illegal activities, because she did not participate in meetings or telephone conversations with other key figures in the affair, she will later be able to testify, “I did not know many of the details relevant to the Iran and Contra initiatives.” Hall’s participation in North’s “shredding party” is her first direct participation in any criminal activities surrounding the Iran-Contra affair. After North learns that the Department of Justice is opening an inquiry into the sale of arms to Iran, North secures a number of documents from NSC files showing that he had violated the Boland Amendment (see October 10, 1984) by aiding the Contras. North marks the documents with handwritten revisions, changing the text to make it seem as if North had not violated the law. He then gives the documents to Hall, asking her to retype them to include his corrections and then replace them in the files. Hall does so, but does not finish the alterations before North calls her in to help him shred documents, including notes and phone records. Hall later estimates that she and North shredded documents in piles of 12-18 pages for close to an hour, shredding in all a stack of documents almost two feet high. The shredding and alterations continue through November 23. She will later testify that she had never shredded such a large quantity of documents. (Reeves 2005, pp. 367; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 12/13/2007)
Attorney General Edwin Meese announces the results of his internal “investigation” of US arms sales to Iran (see November 21-25, 1986). In the conference, Meese announces that President Reagan did not learn of the US shipments of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles (see 1985, November 24-25, 1985, and August 4, 1986) until February 1986. Investigators for Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh will later conclude that Meese lied; not only did Meese never ask Reagan about his knowledge of the Hawk shipments, he ignored evidence and testimony that proved Reagan did indeed know of the shipments, such as a statement from Secretary of State George Shultz that Reagan had told him that he had known of the Hawk shipments in advance. But Meese will also, reluctantly, admit that the US had illegally diverted between $10 million and $30 million in funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see April 4, 1986). National Security Adviser John Poindexter immediately resigns, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is fired from the National Security Council staff. (New York Times 11/19/1987; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 8/4/1993; PBS 2000)
Congress announces the creation of a special counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. Lawrence Walsh is named the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation. (New York Times 11/19/1987) Walsh, a retired federal judge, later says that he is worried from the outset about the potential for what he calls a “carnival atmosphere” surrounding the hearings. In creating the special counsel and the concurrent Congressional investigation (see January 6-7, 1987), Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) want to head off any possibility of impeachment. “That is the last thing I wanted to do,” Wright later recalls. “Ronald Reagan had only two years left in his [second and final] term. I was not going to allow a procedure that would lead to his impeachment in his final year in office.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 67-68)
The Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigation begin meetings to discuss the logistics of the upcoming public hearings (see May 5, 1987). Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) later recalls that House committee chairman “Lee Hamilton and I bent over backwards to be fair to the Republicans.” Many of the committee Republicans are not predisposed to return the favor. Moderate Republican Warren Rudman (R-NH), the co-chairman of the Senate committee, recalls that deep divides were forming between the committee’s moderate Republicans and the more hardline Republicans led by Dick Cheney (R-WY). “The meetings were very, very intensive,” Rudman will recall. Cheney helps put together the Republican committee members’ staff, and includes a number of hardline Reagan loyalists: the Justice Department’s Bruce Fein; the former assistant general counsel to the CIA, David Addington; and others. Notably, it is during the Iran-Contra hearings where Cheney and Addington form their lasting professional association.
Artificial Deadline - The first battle is over the length of the hearings. Cheney’s hardliners want the hearings over with quickly—“like tomorrow,” one former staffer recalls. Hamilton will recall: “Did I know Dick wanted to shorten it? Yes, I knew that.” Committee Democrats, fearful of extending the proceedings into the 1988 presidential campaign and thusly being perceived as overly partisan, agree to an artificial ten-month deadline to complete the investigation and issue a final report. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that the deadline is “an invitation to the administration to stall while simultaneously burying the committee under mountains of useless information.” When, in the fall of 1987, the committee receives large amounts of new information, such as White House backup computer files, Cheney’s hardliners will succeed in insisting that the committee adhere to the deadline.
Jousting with the Special Prosecutor - The committee also has trouble co-existing with the special prosecutor’s concurrent investigation (see December 19, 1986). The special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, wants a long, intensive investigation culminating in a round of prosecutions. The committee worries that in light of Walsh’s investigation, key witnesses like Oliver North and John Poindexter would refuse to testify before the committee, and instead plead the Fifth Amendment. Rudman and committee counsel Arthur Liman want Walsh to quickly prosecute North for obstruction of justice based on North’s “shredding party” (see November 21-25, 1986). Rudman believes that he can get his Republican colleagues to agree to defer their investigation until after North’s trial. But Walsh declines. Rudman later says: “Walsh might have been more successful if he had followed our suggestion.… But he had this grand scheme of conspiracy.” As such, the committee has a difficult choice: abort the investigation or grant North immunity from prosecution so he can testify. Cheney and his hardliners, and even some Democrats, favor not having North testify in deference to his upcoming prosecution. “People were all over the place on that one,” Rudman will recall. Hamilton is the strongest proponent of immunity for North. “He believed that North had information no one else had,” a staffer will recall. Hamilton and the moderate Republicans are more interested in finding the details of the Iran-Contra affair rather than preparing for criminal prosecutions. The committee eventually compromises, and defers the testimony of North and Poindexter until the end of the investigation. Another committee staffer later recalls, “Hamilton was so fair-minded and balanced that in order to get agreements, he gave ground in areas where he shouldn’t have.”
North Deal 'Dooms' Investigation - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The deal the committee struck with North’s canny lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, doomed Walsh’s investigation and the hearings.” The committee offers North “use immunity,” a guarantee that his testimony cannot be used against him in future prosecutions. The committee also agrees, unwisely, to a series of further caveats: they will not depose North prior to his testimony, his testimony will be strictly limited in duration, the committee will not recall North for further testimony, and he will not have to produce documents to be used in his testimony until just days before his appearance. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 70-72, 77)
Interviewed by investigators for Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986), Defense Department official Lieutenant General John Moellering testifies to his participation in Oliver North’s Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) meetings. In several RIG meetings, North asserted his control over the Nicaraguan Contra activities, discussed the private funding of the Contras, and demanded line-by-line approval of each specific activity (see July 1986 and After). Though he was present for at least one of those meetings, Moellering testifies that he has no recollection of any such behaviors or assertions from North. The later discovery of notes taken during Moellering’s “debriefing” for one such meeting by Moellering’s aide, Colonel Stephen Croker, will prove that Moellering either suffers from systemic memory loss or is lying. (Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986 8/4/1993) It is not until RIG member Alan Fiers, a former CIA official, testifies in 1991 about North’s behaviors that verification of North’s discussion of such specifics about Contra activities and funding will be made public (see July 17, 1991).
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). (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)
According to investigators working with Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986), the Iran-Contra affair is closely linked to the burgeoning scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—see 1976, 1978-1982, 1981-1991, 1981-1983, 1984-1986, January 1985, December 12, 1985, February 1988-December 1992, March 1991-December 1992, and July 5, 1991.) Former government officials add that the CIA kept secret funds hidden in BCCI accounts, and used the monies to fund covert operations in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Investigators confirm that a US defense intelligence organization used BCCI to maintain a secret “slush fund” for financing covert operations. And, months before National Security Council (NSC) official Oliver North set up his network for diverting funds to the Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), the NSC used BCCI to divert funds to the Contras (see Early 1986). (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)
A federal judge drops all charges against convicted felon Oliver North (see May-June, 1989). A federal appeals court had reversed part of North’s conviction and ordered the case returned to a US District Court for the remainder of the convictions. District Judge Gerhard Gesell, who presided over the original trial that found North guilty of three felonies, drops the charges after special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh says he is forced to abandon the prosecution of North. In order to testify before the Iran-Contra hearings (see July 7-10, 1987), North was granted limited immunity from prosecution, and Walsh says prosecutors will be unable to show that North’s immunity grant did not affect his trial testimony, and the testimony of witnesses in his earlier trials. The decision by Walsh and Gesell brings to an end five years of court proceedings against North, who calls himself “fully, completely” vindicated. Last week, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, North’s former superior and mentor, testified that his testimony in North’s earlier trials had been heavily influenced by North’s testimony before Congress. President Bush says: “He’s been through enough. There was an appeal. He’s been let off. Now that’s the system of justice is working.… I’m very, very pleased.” Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) says the Walsh investigation should be closed down entirely, saying, “What have American taxpayers received for their $50 million?” referring to some estimates of the cost of the overall inquiry. “A lot of press releases. A lot of rumor and innuendo. But little in terms of justice.” Walsh, who had opposed immunity for North from the start of the investigations in 1987, says: “This is a very, very serious warning that immunity is not to be granted lightly. Now, I have never criticized Congress. I urged them not to grant immunity, but they have the very broad political responsibility for making a judgment as to whether it’s more important that the country hear the facts quickly or that they await a prosecution.” (Johnston 9/17/1991) An outraged New York Times editorial says that North’s claim of complete exoneration is a “wild overstatement” and calls the reversal “a serious setback for another objective of democratic government: promptly to uncover the truth in high-profile cases and to prosecute them when necessary without sacrificing the Constitution’s privilege against compelled self-incrimination.” It concludes: “Mr. North can thank his battling lawyers and a fastidious judiciary for letting him beat the rap. That remains far short, however, of exoneration.” (New York Times 9/17/1991)
Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, facing multiple counts of lying under oath to Congress about, among other things, his knowledge of the US government’s involvement in the resupply operation to the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 10-15, 1986), his knowledge of the role played by former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez in the resupply (see December 17, 1986), and his knowledge of third-party funding of the Nicaraguan Contras (see November 25, 1986), agrees to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of withholding evidence from Congress. Abrams agrees to the plea after being confronted with reams of evidence about his duplicity by investigators for special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh as well as from testimony elicited during the House-Senate investigation of 1987 (see July 7-10, 1987) and the guilty plea and subsequent testimony of former CIA agent Alan Fiers (see July 17, 1991). Abrams pleads guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress, to unlawfully withholding information from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, and admits lying when he claimed that he knew nothing of former National Security Council official Oliver North’s illegal diversion of government funds to the Contras (see December 6, 1985, April 4, 1986, and November 25-28, 1986). Abrams says that he lied because he believed “that disclosure of Lt. Col. [Oliver] North’s activities in the resupply of the Contras would jeopardize final enactment” of a $100 million appropriation pending in Congress at the time of his testimony, a request that was narrowly defeated (see March 1986). Abrams also admits to soliciting $10 million in aid for the Contras from the Sultan of Brunei (see June 11, 1986). (Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986 8/4/1993)
The outgoing President Bush pardons six former Reagan officials for any crimes they may have committed as part of their involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. One of the six, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, was slated to go on trial in January 1993 on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of arms sales to Iran and funding from other countries for the Nicaraguan Contras (see July 24, 1992). Weinberger’s case was expected to reveal details of then-Vice President Bush’s involvement in the affair. Bush has refused to turn over a 1986 campaign diary he kept that may contain evidence of his involvement. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh says of the pardons, “[T]he Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.” The pardons “undermine… the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office—deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence.” Walsh says that he believes Bush may have pardoned Weinberger to conceal his own complicity and possibly criminal actions in Iran-Contra. Bush also pardons former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, both of whom have already pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress. Bush also pardons Clair George, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine services, convicted earlier in December of two felony charges of perjury and misleading Congress. Finally, he pardons two other CIA officials, Duane Clarridge, who is awaiting trial, and Alan Fiers, who pled guilty to withholding information from Congress, and who testified against George. For his part, Bush says he is merely trying to “put bitterness behind us” in pardoning the six, many of whom he said have already paid a heavy price for their involvement. Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) is sharply critical of the pardons, saying, “If members of the executive branch lie to the Congress, obstruct justice and otherwise break the law, how can policy differences be fairly and legally resolved in a democracy?” (Johnston 12/25/1992)
According to sources with firsthand knowledge, alleged perjurer Lewis Libby (see October 28, 2005), the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, has given indications of the nature of his defense in his upcoming trial (see January 16-23, 2007). Libby will tell the court that he was authorized by Cheney and other senior Bush administration officials to leak classified information to reporters to build public support for the Iraq invasion and rebut criticism of the war. Prosecutors believe that other White House officials involved in authorizing the leak of classified information may include former Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and White House political strategist Karl Rove. Libby has already made this claim to the grand jury investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak (see March 24, 2004). As he told the grand jury, Libby will claim that he was authorized to leak classified information to rebut claims from former ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson’s husband, that the Bush administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make a public case for war. Libby allegedly outed Plame Wilson, a covert CIA agent, as part of the White House’s effort to discredit Wilson. Libby is not charged with the crime of revealing a covert CIA agent, but some of the perjury charges center on his denials of outing Plame Wilson to the FBI and to the grand jury. Libby has admitted revealing Plame Wilson’s identity to reporter Judith Miller (see August 6, 2005); he also revealed classified information to Miller.
Risk of Implicating Cheney - Law professor Dan Richman, a former federal prosecutor, says it is surprising that Libby would use such a defense strategy. “One certainly would not expect Libby, as part of his defense, to claim some sort of clear authorization from Cheney where none existed, because that would clearly risk the government’s calling Cheney to rebut that claim.” Reporter Murray Waas writes that Libby’s defense strategy would further implicate Cheney in the White House’s efforts to discredit and besmirch Wilson’s credibility (see October 1, 2003), and link him to the leaks of classified information and Plame Wilson’s CIA identity. It is already established that Libby learned of Plame Wilson’s CIA status from Cheney and at least three other government officials (see 12:00 p.m. June 11, 2003 and (June 12, 2003)).
Similarities to North's Iran-Contra Defense Strategy - Waas compares Libby’s defense strategy to that of former Colonel Oliver North, charged with a variety of crimes arising from the Iran-Contra scandal (see February 1989). Libby’s defense team includes John Cline, who represented North during his trial. Critics call Cline a “graymail” specialist, who demands the government disclose classified information during a trial, and uses potential refusals to ask for dismissal of charges. Cline won the dismissal of many of the most serious charges against North when Reagan administration officials refused to declassify documents he said were necessary for North’s defense. The special counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation, Lawrence Walsh, believed that Reagan officials refused to declassify the documents because they were sympathetic to North, and trying North on the dismissed charges would have exposed further crimes committed by more senior Reagan officials. It is likely that Cline is using a similar strategy with Libby, according to Waas. Cline has already demanded the disclosure of 10 months’ worth of Presidential Daily Briefings (PDBs), some of the most highly classified documents in government (see January 31, 2006). The Bush administration has routinely denied requests for PDB disclosures. A former Iran-Contra prosecutor says: “It was a backdoor way of shutting us down. It was a cover-up by means of an administrative action, and it was an effective cover-up at that.… The intelligence agencies do not declassify things on the pretext that they are protecting state secrets, but the truth is that we were investigating and prosecuting their own. The same was true for the Reagan administration. Cline was particularly adept at working the system.” Michael Bromwich, a former associate Iran-Contra independent counsel and a former Justice Department inspector general, says it might be more difficult for the Bush administration to use a similar strategy to undercut special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, because Fitzgerald was appointed by the attorney general, not a panel of judges as were Walsh and Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Both Walsh and Starr alleged that they were impeded by interference from political appointees in the Justice Department. Bromwich’s fellow associate Iran-Contra counsel William Treanor, now the dean of Fordham University’s Law School, agrees: “With Walsh or Starr, the president and his supporters could more easily argue that a prosecutor was overzealous or irresponsible, because there had been a three-judge panel that appointed him,” Treanor says. “With Fitzgerald, you have a prosecutor who was appointed by the deputy attorney general [at the direction of the attorney general]. The administration almost has to stand behind him because this is someone they selected themselves. It is harder to criticize someone you yourself put into play.” (Waas 2/6/2006)
'This Is Major' - Progressive author and columnist Arianna Huffington writes: “This proves just how far the White House was willing to go to back up its deceptive claims about why we needed to go to war in Iraq. The great protectors of our country were so concerned about covering their lies they were willing to pass out highly classified information to reporters. And remember—and this is the key—it’s not partisan Democrats making this claim; it’s not Bush-bashing conspiracy theorists, or bloggers reading the Aspen roots (see September 15, 2005). This information is coming from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as filed in court papers. This is major.” (Huffington 2/9/2006)