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Both the House and Senate name special committees to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. (New York Times 11/19/1987)
Avoiding Impeachment - The two investigations will quickly merge into one joint, unwieldy committee. Neither Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) nor Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) have any intention of allowing the investigations to become impeachment hearings against President Reagan (see December 19, 1986). They decide to combine the House and Senate investigations in the hopes that the investigation will move more quickly and limit the damage to the presidency. They envision a bipartisan committee made up of wise, sober lawmakers able to prevent the investigation from becoming a witch hunt. Wright will remember telling the Republican minority leadership, “You appoint and we appoint and we can maintain some control.”
Choosing Chairmen, Members - Byrd chooses Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a decorated World War II veteran who had served on the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 7, 1973) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. In turn, Inouye names Warren Rudman (R-NH), a former federal prosecutor, as his vice chairman, promising to share all the powers and responsibilities of the chairmanship with him. According to authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Rudman “would overshadow” the self-effacing Inouye. For the House side, Wright names conservative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) to chair that portion of the committee. Both Hamilton and Inouye have a deep conviction that to accomplish anything of lasting import, decisions must be arrived at in a bipartisan fashion. Wright names several powerful Democratic committee chairmen to the House committee; their responsibilities as committee chairmen will interfere with their ability to devote the proper time and effort to the investigation. House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IN) chooses his members with a very different agenda in mind. Michel, himself a relatively moderate Republican, chooses Dick Cheney (R-WY) as the ranking member of the House investigation. Cheney is well-informed about intelligence and foreign affairs, and, in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, “ruthlessly partisan.” In addition, Cheney will function as the White House “mole” on the committee, alerting White House officials as to the thrust and direction of the investigation and allowing them time to prepare accordingly. Michel salts the House committee with right-wing ideologues, including Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Few of Michel’s House committee members have any intention of pursuing the facts behind Iran-Contra; instead, they are bent on undermining the Democrats on the committee and ensuring that the committee achieves few, if any, of its goals.
Loss of Leverage - From the outset, Wright and Byrd’s opposition to any consideration of presidential impeachment, no matter what evidence is unearthed, loses them their biggest advantage in the proceedings. Not only will committee Republicans feel more confident in pulling the investigation away from sensitive and potentially embarrassing matters, the committee will ignore important evidence of Reagan’s own involvement in the Iran-Contra decision-making process, including recordings of telephone conversations showing Reagan discussing financing the Contras with foreign leaders. Hamilton in particular will be an easy mark for the ideologues in the Republican group of committee members; his biggest worry is whether Reagan “would be able to govern” after the investigation, and his relentless bipartisanship makes him easy for the committee Republicans to manipulate and sway. As for the Republicans, even fellow GOP committee member Rudman will become disgusted with their naked partisanship and their refusal to pursue the facts. “It was obvious that Dick Cheney and others were more interested in protecting the president than in finding out what had happened,” Rudman will later recall. Dubose and Bernstein add that Cheney has another agenda as well: preserving the powers of the presidency against Congressional encroachment.
Cheney's Influence - Cheney has always succeeded in lulling his opposition with his unruffled demeanor. He is able to do the same thing on the investigative committee. “We totally misread the guy,” a Democratic staffer later recalls. “We thought he was more philosophical than political.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 68-69)
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)
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.” (Siegel 7/9/1987)
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).
On the last day of Oliver North’s testimony to the Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee (see July 7-10, 1987), ranking Republican Dick Cheney handles the questioning. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will observe that the questioning is more of “a duet than an interrogation.”
Praise from Cheney to North - Cheney opens by praising North’s handling of the hearings, saying, “I know I speak for a great many people who have been watching the proceedings, because the Congress has been absolutely buried in the favorable public reaction to your testimony and phone calls and telegrams” (see July 9-31, 1987). North has taken to stacking piles of supportive telegrams on his witness table; what he and Cheney do not tell those watching the hearings is that Western Union is offering a half-price special on pro-North telegrams sent to the committee.
Obvious Orchestration - Dubose and Bernstein later write that Cheney and North’s session is so perfectly carried out that it seems scripted and rehearsed, “complete with programmed queries and answers not available to everyone else.” Committee co-chairman Warren Rudman (R-NH) later says, “It was apparent to me that there was coordination going on.” Bruce Fein, the Republican staff’s chief of research, later admits that there was indeed such collaboration, though he says it was nothing more than “coordinat[ing] strategy.” Cheney and North’s duet paints North as nothing more than a guy who wanted “to cut through red tape” to save Nicaragua from Communism. North takes the opportunity to portray the selfless hero: “Hang whatever you want around the neck of Ollie North… but for the love of God and the love of this nation, don’t hang around Ollie North’s neck the cutoff of funds to the Nicaraguan resistance again. This country cannot stand that, not just because of Nicaragua, but because of all the other nations in the world who look at us and measure by what we do now in Nicaragua, the measure of our whole commitment to their cause. To things like NATO, to things like our commitment to peace and democracy elsewhere in the world.”
'Turnaround from Defense to Offense [Is] Complete' - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The two men were now in the zone, a parallel radical-right fantasyland, blissfully ignoring the damage to America’s reputation caused by the administration’s support for the Contras and its willingness to barter weapons for hostages with Iran and Hezbollah.” Cheney and North ignore the World Court’s condemnation of the US mining of Nicaraguan harbors, the Contras’ attacks on civilian targets such as medical centers while refusing to engage the Sandinista forces themselves, which had inflamed outrage in Europe, and the ridicule that Iranian hardliners had subjected US attempts to open negotiations. Cheney’s questioning strategy is so successful that he is able to offer North his remaining time to present a slideshow on why funding the Contras is so important. Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The turnaround from defense to offense was complete.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 75-78, 80)
The congressional Iran-Contra committee has finally produced a final report, which committee Democrats thought would be unanimous. But committee Republicans fought successfully to water down the report, including the exclusion of evidence proving President Reagan’s involvement in the policy decisions (see August 3, 1987 and After), and then at the last minute broke away and announced their intention to issue a minority report—which was their intention all along. “From the get-go they wanted a minority report,” Republican staffer Bruce Fein will later recall. The official majority report is due to come out on November 17, but a printing error forces it to be delayed a day (see November 18, 1987). The committee Republicans, headed by Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) and Senator Henry Hyde (R-IL) leak their minority report to the New York Times on November 16, thus stealing a march on the majority. On November 17, all of the committee Republicans save three—Senators Warren Rudman (R-NH), Paul Trible (R-VA), and William Cohen (R-ME)—hold a press conference in which they accuse the majority of staging a “witch hunt” against the president and the administration. The minority report asserts: “There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.… In our view the administration did proceed legally in pursuing both its Contra policy and the Iran arms initiative.” Rudman calls the minority report “pathetic,” and says his Republican colleagues have “separated the wheat from the chaff and sowed the chaff.” The press focuses on the conflict between the two reports. The Democrats largely ignore the minority report: “This was ‘87,” one Democratic staff member will recall. “We had a substantial majority and the Republicans were trained to be what we thought was a permanent minority party. When they would yap and yell, we would let them yap. It just didn’t matter.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 80-81)
The first phase of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century, co-chaired by former Senators Gary Hart (D-CO) and Warren Rudman (R-NH), is issued. It concludes: “America will be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction and Americans will lose their lives on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” (US Commission on National Security 9/15/1999)
The final report of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century, co-chaired by former Senators Gary Hart (D-CO) and Warren Rudman (R-NH), is issued. The bipartisan panel was put together in 1998 by then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Hart and Rudman personally brief National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell on their findings. The report has 50 recommendations on how to combat terrorism in the US, but all of them are ignored by the Bush administration.
Shelved by White House - According to Hart, Congress will begin to take the commission’s suggestions seriously in March and April, and legislation is introduced to implement some of the recommendations. Then, “Frankly, the White House shut it down.… The president said, ‘Please wait, we’re going to turn this over to the vice president‘… and so Congress moved on to other things, like tax cuts and the issue of the day.” The White House will announce in May that it will have Vice President Dick Cheney study the potential problem of domestic terrorism, despite the fact that this commission had just studied the issue for 2 1/2 years. Interestingly, both this commission and the Bush administration were already assuming a new cabinet level National Homeland Security Agency would be enacted eventually, even as the public remained unaware of the term and the concept. (Tapper 9/12/2001; Talbot 4/2/2004)
Cannot Get Meeting with Bush - At the meeting with Rice, Rudman says he wants to see President Bush, and is planning to deliver a “blunt and very direct” warning to him that he needs to deal early in his presidency with the question of domestic terror threats. Rice initially agrees to pass on Rudman’s request for a meeting with Bush, but nothing happens. Rudman will contact Rice’s office several times, but still no meeting is arranged. Rudman will later say he is “disappointed” by this, adding, “There’s no question in my mind that somebody at the White House dropped the ball on this.” (Shenon 2008, pp. 56-57)
Ignored by 9/11 Commission - Hart will be incredulous that neither he nor any of the other members of this commission are ever asked to testify before the 9/11 Commission. (Hart 4/6/2004) The 9/11 Commission will later make many of the same recommendations as this commission. However, it will barely mention the Hart/Rudman Commission in its final report, except to note that Congress appointed it and failed to follow through on implementing its recommendations. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 107, 479)
The 10 members of the new 9/11 Commission are appointed by this date, and are: Republicans Thomas Kean (chairman), Slade Gorton, James Thompson, Fred Fielding, and John Lehman, and Democrats Lee Hamilton (vice chairman), Max Cleland, Tim Roemer, Richard Ben-Veniste, and Jamie Gorelick. (Kemper and Zuckman 12/12/2002; Associated Press 12/16/2002; Shenon 12/17/2002) Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and John McCain (R-AZ) had a say in the choice of one of the Republican positions. They and many 9/11 victims’ relatives wanted former Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), who co-wrote an acclaimed report about terrorism before 9/11 (see January 31, 2001). But, possibly under pressure from the White House, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (R-MS) blocked Rudman’s appointment and chose John Lehman instead. (Jacoby 12/12/2002; Fournier 12/13/2002; Zabarenko 12/16/2002; Shenon 2008, pp. 55-56) It will slowly emerge over the next several months that at least six of the 10 commissioners have ties to the airline industry. (CBS News 3/5/2003) Henry Kissinger (see December 13, 2002) and his replacement Thomas Kean (see December 16, 2002) both caused controversy when they were named. In addition, the other nine members of the Commission are later shown to all have potential conflicts of interest. Republican commissioners:
Fred Fielding also works for a law firm lobbying for Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. (Associated Press 2/14/2003; CBS News 3/5/2003)
Slade Gorton has close ties to Boeing, which built all the planes destroyed on 9/11, and his law firm represents several major airlines, including Delta Air Lines. (Guggenheim 12/12/2002; CBS News 3/5/2003)
John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, has large investments in Ball Corp., which has many US military contracts. (Associated Press 3/27/2003)
James Thompson, former Illinois governor, is the head of a law firm that lobbies for American Airlines and has previously represented United Airlines. (Associated Press 1/31/2003; CBS News 3/5/2003) Democratic commissioners:
Richard Ben-Veniste represents Boeing and United Airlines. (CBS News 3/5/2003) He also has other curious connections, according to a 2001 book on CIA ties to drug running written by Daniel Hopsicker, which has an entire chapter called “Who is Richard Ben-Veniste?” Lawyer Ben-Veniste, Hopsicker says, “has made a career of defending political crooks, specializing in cases that involve drugs and politics.” He has been referred to in print as a “Mob lawyer,” and was a long-time lawyer for Barry Seal, one of the most famous drug dealers in US history who is also alleged to have had CIA connections. (Hopsicker 2001, pp. 325-30)
Max Cleland, former US senator, has received $300,000 from the airline industry. (CBS News 3/5/2003)
James Gorelick is a director of United Technologies, one of the Pentagon’s biggest defense contractors and a supplier of engines to airline manufacturers. (Associated Press 3/27/2003)
Lee Hamilton sits on many advisory boards, including those to the CIA, the president’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, and the US Army. (Associated Press 3/27/2003)
Tim Roemer represents Boeing and Lockheed Martin. (CBS News 3/5/2003)
Retired Republican Senator Warren Rudman, the former co-chairman of Congress’s Iran-Contra investigation (see July 7-10, 1987), says that today’s White House officials are little different in at least one respect to the Reagan-era officials who constantly leaked information to the press, then claimed Congress leaked so much information that it was unfit to be trusted with the nation’s secrets. “Just look at the case now with that CIA agent [Valerie] Plame [Wilson],” Rudman says. “God forbid anyone did that on the Hill, there would be hell to pay. The administration would be lining up howitzers on the White House lawn to fire at the Capitol.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 76-77)
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