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Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals

Key Figures

Project: Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals
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Fawn Hall, who was NSC official Oliver North’s secretary and who helped North destroy critical documents pertaining to the Iran-Contra affair (see November 21-23, 1986), admits lying to the FBI about the removal and destruction of documents. In January, Hall told FBI investigators that she had indeed secretly removed documents from the NSC offices by hiding them in her clothes (see November 25, 1986), but had only taken out computer printouts of North’s notes. Now she admits that she secretly removed some of the original documents that North had ordered her to alter to conceal his criminal activities. (United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 12/13/2007)

President Reagan tells a national television audience that he has made mistakes on Iran-Contra, and claims he has had massive memory failures. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he says (see February 2, 1987 and February 20, 1987). “My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower Board reported (see February 26, 1987), what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” Reagan’s sympathetic message resonates with US viewers; his popularity rebounds to over 50 percent in national polls. (Reagan 3/4/1987; Reagan 3/4/1987; PBS 2000)

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)

Iran-Contra investigative committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) tells a reporter that former CIA Director William Casey, who recently resigned due to terminal brain cancer (see February 2, 1987), was “one of the best CIA directors the agency had ever had.” Referring to Casey’s inability to testify in the Iran-Contra hearings, Cheney says, “I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the man based on speculation and innuendo (see May 5, 1987), and to do so at a time when he is incapable of defending himself strikes me as in extremely poor taste.” As for Iran-Contra itself, Cheney says, “I think there’s a very real possibility that it’s going to be at best a footnote in the history books.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 70)

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)

In the first day of testimony before the Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee (see May 5, 1987), General Richard Secord (see September 19, 1986) testifies that CIA Director William Casey was one of the driving forces behind the illegal sales of arms to Iran, and the equally illegal diversion of profits from those arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. Secord, the leadoff witness, testifies that in addition to Casey, CIA and State Department officials aided in the efforts to provide the Contras with weapons and funds. Secord says he spoke with Casey about arming the Contras three times. He does not go into detail about what specific information he received from Casey during these conversations, but says the quality and amount of information was disappointing: “I was never able to get the professional intelligence I was accustomed to having.” Secord testifies that under Casey, high-ranking CIA agents in Honduras and Costa Rica gave him intelligence and other assistance. (Pace 5/7/1987)

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)

Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, in testimony before the Iran-Contra committee, admits he previously lied under oath when he denied the existence of third-party funding of the Nicaraguan Contras. In fact, Abrams himself had facilitated the funding of the Contras by the Sultan of Brunei (see June 11, 1986). Abrams will eventually plead guilty to lying to Congress, but will never see the inside of a jail cell, as President George H. W. Bush will pardon him (see December 25, 1992). During questioning, Republican committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) praises Abrams’s service, saying, “I do personally believe you have an extremely bright future in the public arena in the United States.” When Cheney becomes vice president in the Bush-Cheney White House, he will name Abrams as deputy national security adviser (see June 2001). (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 74-75)

Fawn Hall, the former secretary to fired National Security Council officer Oliver North (see November 25, 1986), defends her illegal actions in helping North destroy evidence of his criminal activities in the Iran-Contra affair (see November 21-23, 1986). Testifying before the House and Senate, Hall says, “There are times when you have to go above the written law.” (Reeves 2005, pp. 400; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 12/13/2007)

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter listens with horrified fascination as Oliver North testifies to the Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee (see July 7-10, 1987) about the 1985 apprehension of the Arab terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro. North accuses unnamed members of Congress of being untrustworthy by leaking the military details of the hijackers’ capture to the press. Alter is fully aware that North is lying—in fact, North himself leaked the information about the capture to reporters. Alter is sure that North believes he will not be exposed because reporters do not, as a rule, reveal their sources. Though North did not speak to Alter himself about the Achille Lauro capture operation, Alter exposes North as the leaker. Alter will later write: “This didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.” (Alter 10/13/2003)

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.” (Siegel 7/9/1987)
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).

Public opinion is sharply divided on the testimony, believability, and popularity of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North after his testimony before Congress’s Iran-Contra committee (see July 7-10, 1987). A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows 64 percent of those surveyed have a “favorable opinion” of North after watching his testimony. But the “scores of letters received” by the Post was almost exactly opposite, with two-thirds expressing disapproval or reservations about North’s testimony. The Post reports, “Of 130 letters that could be categorized easily as either favorable or unfavorable, 39 were favorable, 91 unfavorable.” One of the unfavorable letters reads in part: “I wish to register an emphatic voice that does not join in the general adulation of… North. He is certainly bright, articulate, sincere and dedicated—but not to the basics of democracy, the rule of law or the tenets of the Constitution.” One favorable letter characterizes North as “the guy we thought we were voting for when we voted for Reagan,” and lauds North for “his endeavor to help release our hostages, get a better relationship with Iran and most of all support the Nicaraguan contras with both military arms and humanitarian supplies.” Many of the letters in support of North chastize the media. One letter writer accuses the Post and the television news media of mocking North throughout his testimony, and concludes that after North’s performance, “the media have, at long last, been hoist on their own petard.” The Post reports that “the mix of letters” is “evidently not so very different from that received at other newspapers across the country,” with “letters editors at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times all reported more mail against North. USA Today said the mail is now running 50-50 after an initial flurry of mail in North’s favor.” According to Gallup Polls president Andrew Kohut, letter writers are more articulate, more involved in public affairs, and more politicized than people who don’t write. Also, “people who hold intense attitudes tend to write…” (Stearns 7/31/1987) Television news anchors and pundits are equally divided. NBC’s Tom Brokaw says North “performed the congressional equivalent of a grand slam, a touchdown, a hole-in-one, a knockout. You can almost hear his supporters around the country chanting ‘Ol-lie, Ol-lie, Ol-lie.’” But CBS’s Dan Rather asks why North did not do as he had sworn to do and take all the blame for the Iran-Contra machinations: “Whatever happened to the idea that he would take arrows in his chest?” (Siegel 7/9/1987)

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)

Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, who has attended some of Oliver North’s Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) meetings (see Late 1985 and After and July 1986 and After), testifies before the Joint House-Senate Committee investigating Iran-Contra (see May 5, 1987). Armitage is asked about RIG meetings in which North recited a list of his activities in coordinating the Contras, discussed the private funding of the Contras, and demanded item-by-item approval from group members: “[D]o you recall, regardless of what dates, regardless of where it was, regardless of whether it had exactly the players he said—because he could have gotten all that wrong—do you recall any meeting at which he did anything close to what his testimony suggests?” Armitage replies, “I do not.” (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).

Faced with revelations of his possible involvement in the Iran-US arms-for-hostage deals (see November 3, 1986), Vice President George Bush, who has been heavily involved in the deals both with Iran and with its enemy Iraq (see July 23, 1986), denies knowing anything about anything. He tells the press that he knew nothing about any administration officials objecting to selling arms to Iran: “If I had sat there, and heard George Shultz and Cap [Caspar Weinberger] express it strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don’t know something it’s hard to react…. We were not in the loop.” Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, telephones Shultz, the Secretary of State, and snaps, “He was on the other side [supporting the arms deals with Iran]. It’s on the record! Why did he say that?” Former National Security Council aide Howard Teicher, who was deeply involved in the arms-for-hostage deals with Iran, will say in 1992, “Bush definitely knew almost everything about the Iranian arms-sales initiative. I personally briefed him in great detail many times. Like so many others, he got premature Alzheimer’s after the arms sales became public.” (Waas and Unger 11/2/1992)

Former National Security Adviser John Poindexter is indicted on seven felony counts relating to his participation in the Iran-Contra affair. Poindexter is named with fellow Iran-Contra conspirators Oliver North, Richard Secord, and Albert Hakim as part of a 23-count, multi-defendant indictment. The charges are based on evidence that shows all four defendants conspired to defraud the United States and violate federal law by secretly providing funds and supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras. The cases will soon be severed and each defendant will be tried separately (see May-June, 1989). (FINAL REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR IRAN/CONTRA MATTERS: Chapter 3: United States v. John M. Poindexter 8/4/1993; PBS 2000)

Jim Wright.Jim Wright. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]A group of Nicaraguan Contra leaders walks unexpectedly into the office of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and demands a meeting. They want to discuss prisoners being held by the Sandinista government. Wright is perplexed, but agrees to see them.
'Reagan-Wright' Peace Plan - Wright has engineered a peace program between the US and Nicaragua known as “Reagan-Wright,” a program very unpopular with right-wing Republicans both in the White House and in Congress. White House officials such as President Reagan’s national security affairs assistant Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams have attempted to derail the program by trying to persuade other Central American leaders to come out against Nicaragua and thereby undermine the peace talks. But the program has progressed, largely because of Wright’s tireless efforts and the cooperation of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez (who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts). Wright had informed the leaders of the different factions in Nicaragua, Contras and Sandinistas alike, that his door was always open to them.
Enemy in House - Wright does not realize that he has an implacable enemy in powerful House member Dick Cheney (R-WY). Cheney is offended by what he sees as Wright’s encroachment on powers that should be reserved for the executive branch alone, and has devised a campaign to further undermine Wright.
Meeting between Wright and Contras - When the Contra leaders meet with Wright, the speaker has already informed the CIA that its agents who were fomenting civil unrest and provoking the Sandinistas were violating the law. He tells the Contras that they can no longer expect CIA agitators to work on their behalf. When news of the meeting gets back to Cheney and Abrams, they are, in Wright’s recollection, “furious.”
Washington Times Claims Wright Leaked Classified Information - The State Department steers the angry Contra delegation to the offices of the right-wing Washington Times, where they tell the editorial staff what Wright had told them—that the CIA is illegally provoking unrest in Nicaragua. A week later, Wright is floored when a Times reporter confronts him with accusations that he has leaked classified CIA information to foreign nationals.
Security Breach Allegation - Wright’s defense—he had told the Contras nothing they didn’t already know—does not placate Cheney, who immediately calls for a thorough investigation of Wright’s “security breach.” Speaking as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Cheney says Wright has raised serious “institutional questions that go to the integrity of the House, to the integrity of the oversight process in the area of intelligence, and to the operation of the Intelligence Committee.”
Set-Up - An investigative reporter from Newsday, Roy Gutman, learns from State Department sources that Wright had been set up by Cheney and Abrams. State Department officials sent the Contras to the Washington Times with specific instructions to leak the CIA content of their discussion with Wright to the editors. But Gutman’s discovery has little impact on the situation.
Ethics Complaint - Cheney, with House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IL), files a complaint with the House Ethics Committee and demands an investigation by the Intelligence Committee, claiming Wright has compromised US intelligence operations in Central America. Throughout the process, neither Michel nor Cheney give Wright any warning of the complaints before they are filed.
Pressure from Cheney - Looking back, Wright will be more disturbed by Michel’s actions than by Cheney’s. He considered Michel a friend, and was amazed that Michel went along with Cheney in blindsiding him. Michel will later apologize to Wright, and say that Cheney had pressured him so much that he went along with Cheney in filing the ethics complaint without telling Wright. One aspect that Michel does not explain is why, as House minority leader, he would put the stamp of approval of the House leadership on the complaint, raising it to a much higher level than a complaint from a rank-and-file representative like Cheney. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 60-62)

Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) publishes an essay for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), apparently written either by his Iran-Contra commission colleague Michael Malbin or by Cheney and Malbin together, but printed under Cheney’s name. The essay is titled “Congressional Overreaching in Foreign Policy,” and covers what he terms “congressional aggrandizement” of presidential powers.
Congress Has No Place in Determining, Implementing US Foreign Policy - Cheney’s essay bluntly states his belief that Congress has no business interfering in the president’s power to determine and implement the nation’s foreign policy; in general, the essay indicates Cheney’s disdain for the legislative branch of which he has been a member. He writes, in part: “Broadly speaking, the Congress was intended to be a collective, deliberative body. When working at its best, it would slow down decisions, improve their substantive content, subject them to compromise, and help build a consensus behind general rules before they were to be applied to the citizenry. The presidency, in contrast, was designed as a one-person office to ensure that it would be ready for action. Its major characteristics… were to be ‘decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.‘… [T]he legislative branch is ill equipped to handle many of the foreign policy tasks it has been taking upon itself lately.” He writes that while Congress may take upon itself powers to launch military actions or respond to an attack, it is by nature so slow and deliberative, and its members so focused on getting reelected, that it cannot adequately wield those powers: “[T]he real world effect often turns out… not to be a transfer of power from the president to Congress, but a denial of power to the government as a whole.” The only power Congress should have in involving itself in foreign policy, Cheney argues, is whether or not to fund presidential initiatives. “[T]he nation should not be paralyzed by Congress’s indecision,” he writes. (Kirk 6/20/2006; Savage 2007, pp. 59-61)
Cheney Selected as Secretary of Defense - Shortly after the essay is published, President George H.W. Bush names Cheney as his secretary of defense. Cheney was scheduled to give a talk based on the essay at AEI, but cancels it and goes to Washington to begin preparing for confirmation hearings in the Senate. Reporter Charlie Savage will note that the essay may have caused Cheney some difficulties in his confirmation hearings had it had a larger audience. (Savage 2007, pp. 61)
Former White House Counsel: Cheney's Proposals Unconstitutional, Unwise - In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write of the essay: “Cheney seems to be oblivious to the fact that the type of government he advocates is not, in fact, the government our Constitution provides.… His argument also assumes that a more agile, energetic, and fast-acting chief executive is the better system, but history does not support that contention. Presidential leadership has consistently shown itself less wise and less prudent than the slower but more deliberative nature of the system that we have. It was Congress that forced presidents out of no-win wars like Vietnam. The reason the nation’s Founders empowered Congress was because they wisely realized that a president—like heads of governments throughout history—was prone to fighting wars for his own glory, without seeming able to easily bring those wars to an end.” (Dean 2007, pp. 88-89)

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the former National Security Council member who had been a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal (see July 7-10, 1987), is tried for crimes related to the operation (see March 16, 1988). (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 82)

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal (see February 1989), is convicted of three counts of falsifying and destroying documents (see November 21-25, 1986 and March 16, 1988), of obstructing a Congressional investigation, and of illegally receiving a gift of a security fence around his home. He is acquitted of nine other counts. Though facing up to ten years in prison and a $750,000 fine, North receives an extremely lenient sentence: three years’ suspended, two years’ probation, community service, and a $150,000 fine. He also has his Marine service pension suspended. During the trial, North admits he lied repeatedly to Congress during his testimony (see July 7-10, 1987), but says that his superiors, including National Security Adviser John Poindexter, ordered him to lie under oath. North contends that he was made a scapegoat for the Reagan administration. “I knew it wasn’t right not to tell the truth about these things,” he says, “but I didn’t think it was unlawful.” US District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell calls North a “low-ranking subordinate who was carrying out the instructions of a few cynical superiors,” and says to North: “I believe you still lack understanding of how the public service has been tarnished. Jail would only harden your misconceptions.” North, who had been staunch in justifying his actions in the Iran-Contra hearings, now expresses remorse over his crimes, saying, “I recognize that I made many mistakes that resulted in my conviction of serious crimes… and I grieve every day.” North, who is a popular speaker with conservative organizations, can pay off his fine with six speaking engagements. Nevertheless, he says he will appeal his conviction. (BBC 7/5/1989; Johnston 9/17/1991) North’s conviction will indeed be overturned by an appeals court (see September 17, 1991).

President George H. W. Bush nominates his former foreign policy adviser, Donald Gregg, to become the US Ambassador to South Korea. Gregg is one of the architects of the Contra funding and supply program (see March 17, 1983). Gregg faces some difficulty in his Senate confirmation hearings stemming from his linchpin role in Iran-Contra, with Senator Alan Cranston (R-WY) telling him: “You told the Iran-Contra committee that you and Bush never discussed the Contras, had no expertise on the issue, no responsibility for it, and the details of Watergate-sized scandal involving NSC staff and the Edwin Wilson gang [a group of ‘rogue’ CIA agents operating in apparent conjunction with Bush] was not vice presidential. Your testimony on that point is demonstrably false. There are at least six memos from Don Gregg to George Bush regarding detailed Contra issues.” But Cranston is the only member of the committee to vote against Gregg’s confirmation. (Spartacus Schoolnet 12/28/2007)

In connection with the Iran-Contra scandal, former National Security Adviser John Poindexter (see March 16, 1988) is convicted of five felonies, including conspiring to obstruct official inquiries and proceedings, two counts of obstructing Congress, and two counts of lying to Congress. Poindexter is sentenced to six months in prison. Instead of serving his jail time, he will win a reversal in federal appeals court. (FINAL REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR IRAN/CONTRA MATTERS: Chapter 3: United States v. John M. Poindexter 8/4/1993) The New York Times will write during Poindexter’s sentencing hearing that, though Poindexter had a brilliant career before becoming Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, he should go to jail because he is not only clearly guilty of the felonies he is convicted of, but he has shown a total lack of remorse or contrition. “The admiral disagreed with [the] fundamental rule of law and apparently still does,” the Times will write, noting that Poindexter apparently feels that if he views the law as incorrect or overly constraining, he is well within his rights to break that law. (New York Times 6/11/1990)

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).

Former CIA agent Alan Fiers.Former CIA agent Alan Fiers. [Source: Terry Ashe / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images]The former head of the CIA’s Central America task force, Alan Fiers, pleads guilty to two counts of lying to Congress. Fiers has admitted to lying about when high-ranking agency officials first learned of the illegal diversion of US funds to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Fiers now says that when he learned of the diversions in the summer of 1986, he informed his superior, then-Deputy Director for Operations Clair George, who ordered him to lie about his knowledge (see Summer 1986). In return for his guilty pleas to two misdemeanor counts instead of far harsher felony charges, Fiers is cooperating with the Iran-Contra investigation headed by Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986). Time reports: “The Iran-Contra affair has been characterized by US officials as a rogue operation managed by overzealous members of the National Security Council. But if Fiers is correct, top-ranking CIA officials not only knew about the operation and did nothing to stop it; they also participated in an illegal cover-up.… Suddenly a number of unanswered questions assume a new urgency. Just what did Ronald Reagan—and George Bush—know? And when did they know it?” (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)

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 Shortly After September 1, 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)

Former President Ronald Reagan in January 1992.Former President Ronald Reagan in January 1992. [Source: SGranitz / WireImage]Former President Ronald Reagan is questioned for a single day in court after his former secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, is subpoenaed in the ongoing Iran-Contra trials. Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease is by now painfully apparent; not only can he not remember facts and figures, he has trouble remembering his former Secretary of State, George Shultz. (PBS 2000)

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)

The presidential papers of Ronald Reagan are scheduled to be released to the public (by Reagan’s own decision), but on his first day in office, Bush invokes a clause in the Presidential Records Act (PRA) to allow him 30 days to “review” the papers before releasing them. He will continue to “review” them every month until November 2001. Then Bush will issue an executive order giving him essentially carte blanche in deciding if and when any presidential papers will ever be released (see January 20-September 10, 2001 and November 1, 2001). The standard of the 1978 Presidential Records Act is to make presidential records and documents available after twelve years, if not voluntarily made available sooner, and with some obvious exceptions such as classified materials concerning national security. The first president to whom the new law applies is Ronald Reagan, and his vice-president, George H.W. Bush. The Reagan library has already released, or is readying for release, all but about 68,000 pages. The law provides that an incumbent president can double-check the release to ensure it falls within the law’s provision. According to the Act, the 68,000 pages are to be released now. Bush’s order will declare that not only can a former president assert executive privilege over his papers against the will of the incumbent president (a measure Reagan instituted just before he left office) but that a sitting president could also block the papers of a predecessor, even if that predecessor had approved their release. The implications of this change are breathtaking. “It’s pretty fishy,” says Anna Nelson, an American University history professor. “The precautions on ‘national security’ are extreme. These are not Iran-Contra papers.” Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, says, “This is a test of Congress to see how much the administration can get away with. It is not at all surprising the executive branch would want to operate in secret. The question is, How much will Congress accept?” (Baker 2/7/2002; Dean 2004, pp. 89-90)

Vice Admiral John Poindexter testifying before Congress in the Iran Contra hearings in 1987.Vice Admiral John Poindexter testifying before Congress in the Iran Contra hearings in 1987. [Source: Associated Press]Vice Admiral John Poindexter begins running a shadowy new government agency called the Information Awareness Office. (Markoff 2/13/2002; Caterinicchia 10/17/2002) Poindexter, formerly President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, is known for his five felony convictions of lying to Congress, destroying documents, and obstructing Congress in its investigation of his role in the mid-1980s Iran-Contra affair. Later his convictions were overturned on a technicality. (Turley 11/17/2002) Far from apologizing, Poindexter said it was his duty to lie to Congress. (Newsday 12/1/2002) The New York Times notes that his new agency “is developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information-analysis systems.” The new office is part of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Poindexter was also known for his controversial role in shifting control of computer security to the military in the 1980s. Says Marc Rotenberg, former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, “It took three administrations and both political parties over a decade to correct those mistakes.” (Markoff 2/13/2002) Surprisingly, Poindexter’s appointment is little noticed until later in 2002 when the Total Information Awareness program is revealed (see March 2002; November 9, 2002). Incidentally, several others involved in the Iran-Contra affair also find jobs in the Bush Administration, including Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, and Otto Reich. (Observer 12/8/2002)

Elliott Abrams, a well-known neoconservative and former Iran-Contra figure, leads one of a dozen Bush administration working groups charged with drafting post-invasion plans. Involved in his group are adamant neoconservatives Joe Collins, a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon, and Robin Cleveland, a former aide to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. His working group is supposed to draft plans for rapid humanitarian planning. But critics in the State Department complain that it involves itself in the issue of post-Saddam politics and economic reconstruction. Abrams’ group is backed by Paul Wolfowitz and the vice president’s office. An ally of Secretary of State Colin Powell tells Insight magazine, “This is a case of stealthy micromanagement by the Wolfowitz hawks—they use what bureaucratic vehicles are available to make their imprint on policy.” Additionally the group is very secretive. It refuses “to brief not only top State Department officials but also aides of Gen. Tommy Franks, the commanding officer of the US Central Command [CENTCOM], about what it is doing.” Instead it stovepipes its work to its contacts in the White House. Sources in the State Department and CIA believe that one of the group’s apparent aims is reducing the influence of the State Department, CIA and the United Nations in post-Saddam Iraq. These critics also question “why a convicted felon [Abrams], pardoned or not, is being allowed to help shape policy.” Within the Pentagon, there is also resentment of Abrams’ group. An unnamed Pentagon source says General Tommy Franks is being “left out of the loop.” A Defense official says, “CENTCOM is for the most part unaware of what Abrams is doing, but friction is developing and the military end of the equation feels that they are being mislead.” (Dettmer and Andersen 11/26/2002; Insight 12/28/2002)


The original logo for the Total Information Awareness program. An eye from a Masonic pyramid appears to cast a beam over the world, with Muslim regions highlighted. [<a href=“http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/11/20/MN218568.DTL” target=_new>San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20/02</a>, <a href=“http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4552953,00.html” target=_new>Guardian, 11/23/02</a>] The motto, Scientia Est Potentia, means “knowledge is power.” The logo is later removed from the department’s website. [<a href=“http://www.sunspot.net/news/nationworld/bal-spy1503,0,4325331.story?coll=bal-home-headlines” target=_new>Baltimore Sun, 1/5/03</a>]
The original logo for the Total Information Awareness program. An eye from a Masonic pyramid appears to cast a beam over the world, with Muslim regions highlighted. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20/02, Guardian, 11/23/02] The motto, Scientia Est Potentia, means “knowledge is power.” The logo is later removed from the department’s website. [Baltimore Sun, 1/5/03] [Source: DARPA]The New York Times exposes the existence of John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness data collection program, begun in early 2002 (see Mid-January 2002; March 2002). (Markoff 11/9/2002) Conservative columnist William Safire writes, “If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you: Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as ‘a virtual, centralized grand database.’ To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you—passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance—and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a ‘Total Information Awareness’ about every US citizen.” (Safire 11/14/2002) Poindexter says it will take years to realize his vision, but his office has already begun providing some technology to government agencies. (O'Harrow 11/12/2002) The existence of this program, and the fact that Poindexter is running it, causes concern for many on both the left and right. (Shapiro 1/16/2003) It is regularly called Orwellian, conjuring visions of 1984’s Big Brother, and even supporters admit it sounds Orwellian. (Getz 11/15/2002; Turley 11/17/2002; Goldenberg 11/23/2002; Newsday 12/1/2002; Hertzberg 12/9/2002; Webb 12/12/2002; Mittelstadt 12/16/2002; Baer 1/5/2003) The New York Times suggests, “Congress should shut down the program pending a thorough investigation.” (New York Times 11/18/2002) Experts question not only its civil liberties implications, but also if it is even feasible. If it does work, would its database be swapped with errors that could not be removed? (see March 2002) (Puzzanghera 12/26/2002) However, many newspapers fail to report on the program at all, and ABC is the only network to report the story on prime time television. (ABC News 11/16/2002; ABC News 11/25/2002) Despite so many objections, the program is included in the Homeland Security bill (see November 25, 2002), and only later somewhat curbed by Congress (see January 23, 2003).

Elliott Abrams, a special assistant to President George W. Bush on the National Security Council [NSC] and a well-known neoconservative and former Iran-Contra figure, is appointed to senior director for Near East and North African affairs within the NSC. Neoconservatives working at the Pentagon’s Near East South Asia (NESA) desk worked hard to get Abrams appointed. “The day he got (the appointment), they were whooping and hollering, ‘We got him in, we got him in,’” Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, tells Inter Press Service. Abrams, a controversial figure with close ties to Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, had been convicted of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, though he was later pardoned by George W. Bush’s father. (Insight 12/28/2002; Lobe 8/7/2003)

Veterans of the Iran-Contra scandal meet for a “lessons learned” discussion, led by Elliott Abrams. One of the conclusions drawn is that, had they done it right, they could have gotten away with it. For future covert operations, they reportedly agree that they should abide by the following axioms: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the CIA has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office.” (Hersh 3/5/2007)

While on a trip to the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney gives a frank outline of his view of the president’s powers, and refers to an Iran-Contra document as support for this view. In response to a question about his perspective as a veteran of the Ford administration, which the reporter says “arguably was the point at which presidential power had reached its absolute nadir,” Cheney replies, “Yes, I do have the view that over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority, that it’s reflected in a number of developments.” Cheney lists several examples, including the War Powers Act, Congressional budget controls, the limitations placed on his own 2001 Energy Task Force, and numerous steps to limit the president’s power taken after Watergate and the Vietnam War. Cheney then advises the reporter: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran Contra Report in about 1987 (see November 16-17, 1987). Nobody has ever read them, but we—part of the argument in Iran Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective.… I believe in a strong, robust executive authority. And I think the world we live in demands it. And to some extent, that we have an obligation as an administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good a shape as we found them.… I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.” (White House 12/20/2005)
Nixon Lawyer: Cheney 'Twisting History' - However, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the Iran-Contra document to which Cheney refers “replete with factual and other errors,” a wholesale “twist[ing] of history” that nevertheless “sought to establish extreme standards for presidential powers vis-a-vis Congress.” According to Dean, Cheney believes now, as he did then, “that the Congress—other than writing checks to finance the president’s policies—has no real role whatsoever.” (Dean 2007, pp. 86-88)
Former Republican Staffer: 'Chasm of Difference' between Then, Now - Former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, who helped Cheney write the minority report and has since parted ways with his old boss, will say there is “a chasm of difference” between Iran-Contra and the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration. “Then it was part of the democratic process,” Fein will say in July 2006. “The way you debate the process, it allows for self-correction. This is the essence, the lifeblood of democracy.” Then, the Reagan administration was forced by a Democratic majority in Congress to disclose at least some details of its inner workings. There is no such disclosure today, Fein says. “They think that democracy ends if you win elections.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 81)

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