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The US ships another 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran via Israel. [PBS, 2000]
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a mid-level National Security Council staff member, is put in charge of the upcoming shipment of US Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Iran (see November 24-25, 1985). [PBS, 2000]
Retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord becomes deeply involved in organizing a covert supply operation for Nicaragua’s Contras under the name “Airlift Project.” Secord later testifies to the Congressional Iran-Contra Committee that the project’s money comes from private donations and friendly foreign governments. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
The CIA arranges for the shipment of 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles from Israel to Iran, ferried aboard a CIA front company transport plane. Within days, the Iranians reject the missiles because they do not meet their requirements. Some of the US officials involved in the missile transfer later claim they believe the CIA plane carried oil-drilling parts, and not weapons. After the transfer, John McMahon, the deputy director of the CIA, says that the agency can no longer provide covert assistance to Iran without explicit authorization from President Reagan. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] Reagan will authorize the sale of the missiles a month later (see December 5, 1985).
Officials from the National Program Office (NPO), responsible for the highly classified Continuity of Government program, fake an exercise in front of congressional leaders in order to cover up equipment failures. At a secret site near Great Falls, Montana, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV) gather with other key officials to witness the first major test of a new post-nuclear communication system. The high-tech system, worth millions of dollars, is meant to provide government leaders with the ability to communicate during and after a nuclear war. Much of the equipment, however, was purchased from separate contractors and is technically incompatible. The multi-million dollar system does not function properly, but NPO officials rig the exercise, paving the way for additional funding. As one participant will later explain: “At one point information was supposed to be sent out, and even though lights were blinking and the wheels were turning, the message was being sent by payphone about a block and a half from the site where the exercise was taking place.… Millions of dollars worth of equipment failed to function correctly and 25 or 50 cents worth of change and a pay telephone got the message through.” The visiting congressmen, who are responsible for allocating funds for the project, are fooled into thinking the system is fully functional. Money will continue to flow into the shoddy equipment for years to come. Sources will tell CNN five years later that the system is still not working properly. “Very few people knew about the scam and because the program is so classified there was no one they could tell,” CNN will report in 1991. [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]
President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, outgoing National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, and McFarlane’s replacement, John Poindexter, all meet at the White House to discuss the government’s arms sales to Iran. Later statements by the participants conflict on key details. Some will say that a consensus is reached to end arms sales to Iran, but Deputy CIA Director John McMahon will recall that no such consensus is reached. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Outgoing National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and National Security Council staffer Oliver North fly to London to meet with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant. Also present at the meeting are David Kimche, of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Israeli arms dealer Yaacov Nimrodi. McFarlane tells Ghorbanifar that the US wants to end arms sales to Iran, though the US wants to continue pursuing diplomatic relations. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] The US will in actuality continue selling arms to Iran (see January 7, 1986 and January 17, 1986).
A federal appeals court agrees with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the Fairness Doctrine, which mandates that broadcasters provide opportunities for different sides of controversial political and social issues (see 1949 and 1959), is no longer needed (see 1985). [Jamieson and Cappella, 2008, pp. 45] In the case Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the court rules 2-1—with Reagan administration appointees Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia overriding the third judge—that Congress had not actually made the Fairness Doctrine an actual law. Bork writes, “We do not believe that language adopted in 1959 made the Fairness Doctrine a binding statutory obligation” because the doctrine was imposed “under,” not “by,” the Communications Act of 1934. In Bork’s opinion, the 1959 amendment established that the FCC could apply the doctrine, but is not legally obliged to do so. Therefore, the FCC can retain or drop the rule as it likes. According to the Media Access Project, “The decision contravened 25 years of FCC holdings that the doctrine had been put into law in 1959.” [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2/12/2005; Museum of Broadcasting, 1/27/2008]
Fred Westerman, a retired Army intelligence veteran who now heads a government contracted security firm, reports several instances of waste, fraud, and abuse within the highly secretive Continuity of Government (COG) program, which is supposed to ensure the survival of the federal government during disaster situations. Westerman’s company, Systems Evaluations Incorporated, was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1985 to set up secret COG storage facilities around the country for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the clandestine National Program Office (see 1985). Within a year, however, Westerman becomes disturbed by problems he notices within the secret COG program. He alerts officials that engine parts are falling off emergency vehicles at several secret sites. He reports that security systems and alarms at secure government facilities are faulty. He says doors and locks at the secret locations are weak and flimsy. He says his workers have been exposed to toxic chemicals from leaking containers at multiple government installations. Westerman reports that at one location water has seeped onto high-voltage electrical lines. He also becomes concerned about payments being made to companies for inadequate work. Westerman is repeatedly pressured by superiors not to complain about the problems, but nonetheless brings his complaints to the FBI, the Justice Department, and the inspector general’s office within FEMA. Westerman’s job will be threatened after he refuses to hand over corporate documents to a competitor (see November 1987). FEMA officials will allegedly burglarize Westerman’s office in search of the documents in late 1987 (see Late 1987). System Evaluation’s contract with the government will be canceled in December 1987 (see December 1987) and Westerman will later file a lawsuit against the government seeking reimbursement (see November 1988). The lawsuit will be frozen when the Justice Department opens an investigation of Westerman (see November 1988) and the suit will later be sealed after an in-depth report highlighting Westerman’s case is published by a major magazine (see August 8, 1989). Westerman will lose another contract, along with his security clearances, in 1990 (see 1990), and by November 1991, he will be unemployable, several hundred thousand dollars in debt, and unable to gain any restitution from the government (see November 1991). [Emerson, 8/7/1989; San Francisco Chronicle, 8/8/1989; Associated Press, 9/11/1989; CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]
Hamilton and Cheney hold a press conference together about the Iran-Contra Affair investigation on June 19, 1987. [Source: J. Scott Applewhite]Future 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), at this time chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, fails to properly investigate Iran-Contra allegations. He learns of press reports indicating that the Reagan administration is illegally funneling weapons and money to the anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, but when the White House denies the story, Hamilton believes it. Hamilton will later acknowledge that he has been gullible, and will say of his political style, “I don’t go for the jugular.” It is during the Iran-Contra investigation that Hamilton becomes friends with Dick Cheney, at this time a Republican congressman. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 33] Cheney is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and so must work closely with Hamilton, including on the Iran-Contra investigation. [PBS, 6/20/2006] Hamilton calls Cheney “Dick” and they will remain friends even after Cheney becomes vice president in 2001 and Hamilton, as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, begins to investigate Cheney’s actions as a part of the Commission’s work. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 33] Hamilton will also fail to properly investigate “October Surprise” allegations (see 1992-January 1993).
Months before the National Security Council (NSC)‘s Oliver North sets up his network to illegally divert funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), the NSC uses the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—see July 22, 1991) to channel money to the Contras. This money is sent from White House-controlled funds to Saudi Arabia to “launder” its origins, then deposited into a BCCI bank account controlled by Contra leader Adolfo Calero. [Time, 7/22/1991]
National Security Council officer Oliver North, running the secret and illegal network that diverts funds from US-Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), has a phone conversation with CIA official Alan Fiers (see Summer 1986). A diary entry by North documenting the conversation reads in part, “Felix talking too much about V.P. connection.” “Felix” is CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, a key member of North’s network (see May 27, 1987). It is not clear whether the “V.P.” notation refers to Vice President George H. W. Bush or to former CIA official Donald Gregg, now Bush’s foreign policy adviser and a liaison to Rodriguez. In later testimony before the Iran-Contra Congressional committee (see May 5, 1987), Gregg will deny that Bush’s office was involved in recruiting Rodriguez to work with North. [Time, 7/22/1991] Gregg has a long and clandestine relationship with Rodriguez, going back as far as 1959, when the two were involved in “Operation 40,” a CIA-led attempt to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 2/3/2008] Gregg also worked with Rodriguez in covert operations during the Vietnam War. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007]
CIA and State Department officials begin learning, to their dismay, about the illegal merging of legitimate Congressional funding of the Nicaraguan Contras with the illegal funding operation driven by National Security Council (NSC) official Oliver North (see October 1985). A senior CIA official in Central America cables Washington reporting the emergency landing of one of North’s Caribou transport planes on a road in El Salvador, and the potential embarrassment of reports from United Press International (UPI) about the plane. The official reports that North’s liaison in El Salvador, former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez (see Mid-September 1985), is “‘coordinating’ all of this with Ollie North (one supposes on open phone). [I] had to say, honestly, that [I] knew nothing of this Caribou and indeed had not heard anything from [CIA official Alan Fiers—see Late 1985 and After ] on the subject for two weeks. Rodrigues [sic] has just called [an embassy official] to advise that UPI is on the downed Caribou and wants a story. Charge’s position is that he has no knowledge re this A/C [aircraft]. God knows what Felix Rodrigues [sic] is saying.” William Walker, the deputy for Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see September 4, 1985), discusses the matter with the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, expressing the same concerns. Walker says that “Ollie and Max,” referring to North and Rodriguez (by his pseudonym, “Max Gomez”), “are to have nothing to do w/humanitarian assistance deliveries, etc.” Walker tells Corr to “impress on Fiers that we cannot proceed in this ‘fouled up manner.’ This is the 3d recent screw up & Washington being surprised by unknown & uncoordinated activities.” It is unclear as to what other “screw ups” Corr is referring. Walker will later testify, falsely, that he had never heard of Felix Rodriguez until August 1986. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Congress narrowly defeats a measure pushed by, among others, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see September 4, 1985), for $100 million in military and other aid for the Nicaraguan Contras. Abrams, National Security Council officer Oliver North (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), and senior CIA official Alan Fiers (see Late 1985 and After) quickly fly to Central America to reassure Contra officials that they will continue to receive funding from the Reagan administration. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993] Congress will approve the funding three months later (see June 16, 1986).
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the National Security Council staffer who facilitates the secret Iran arms deals, helps divert $12 million in money from those arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras. The deal is documented in a memorandum located in North’s desk by investigators for Attorney General Edwin Meese (see November 21-25, 1986). Meese will inform President Reagan and top White House officials of the memo, but many of the cabinet members and top officials he will inform already know of the transaction. [United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 8/4/1993] National Security Adviser John Poindexter, the recipient of the memo, will later testify that President Reagan never saw the memo. Reagan will deny knowing anything about the diversion of arms profits to the Contras until November 1986 (see November 10, 1986 and After and November 13, 1986). [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
After Islamic militants bomb a Berlin discotheque, killing two American soldiers (see April 5, 1986 and After), the White House blames Libyan dictator Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and prepares to attack Libya in retaliation. Some members of Congress, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D-GA), question the appropriateness of the Reagan administration committing what may well be an act of war without consulting Congress. Others say the White House should make public its case against Libya before launching what in essence is the opening salvo in a war, instead of insisting that the evidence against Libya must remain classified. However, Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) staunchly defends the White House’s unilateral action. He tells a PBS reporter that “if the president of the United States reviews it and feels it’s adequate,” then the nation should trust what he says about classified intelligence. “It seems to me that this is a clear-cut case where the president as commander in chief… is justified in taking whatever action he deems appropriate and discussing the details with us after the fact.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 52]
Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. [Savage, 2007, pp. 47-48] Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 50]
Gene Wheaton, a former Marine and CIA asset who served as a counter-terrorism adviser to the Shah of Iran and the current co-owner of a cargo airline called National Air, had agreed to help the Reagan administration run supplies and arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. However, Wheaton sours on the deal when he learns that retired General Richard Secord is heading that portion of the operation (see November 19, 1985). Wheaton formed a poor opinion of Secord and Secord’s colleague, the National Security Council’s Oliver North, during a 1985 attempt to win federal contracts to supply humanitarian aid to insurgents such as the Contras and the mujaheddin of Afghanistan. Wheaton reveals his knowledge of the secret Contra supply program to William Casey, the head of the CIA. But Casey says the government is not involved in the program, and refuses to take action. Wheaton will discuss his limited knowledge of the program with reporters from the San Francisco Examiner, resulting in embarrassing questions for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007; Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/29/2007]
Senior White House officials attend a National Security Planning Group (NSPG) meeting on the subject of Central America. Attending the meeting are President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Treasury Secretary James Baker, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, CIA Director William Casey, and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan. The interests of the Nicaraguan Contras are represented by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see September 4, 1985), NSC officer Oliver North (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), and senior CIA official Alan Fiers (see Late 1985 and After). According to minutes of the meeting, North reminds the group that under the 1986 Intelligence Authorization Bill, the State Department can legally approach other countries for non-military funding for the Contras. During the ensuing discussion, Reagan asks, according to the minutes: “What about the private groups who pay for ads for the contras? Have they been contacted? Can they do more than ads?” This indicates that Reagan is well aware of the private, illegal funding being channeled to the Contras. Fiers will later give a somewhat different version of events in his testimony to the Iran-Contra grand jury (see July 17, 1991), recalling Reagan asking about “Ollie’s people” working with the Contras and asking if they could help with funding. Fiers will recall the question causing tension among the group, and then someone quickly responding, “that’s being worked on.” After the meeting, North becomes more outspoken in his descriptions of his illegal funding of the Contras. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Entity Tags: William Casey, Contras, Caspar Weinberger, Alan Fiers, Donald Regan, Ronald Reagan, Elliott Abrams, James Baker, George Herbert Walker Bush, George Shultz, Oliver North, Reagan administration
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
After a National Security Planning Group (NSPG) meeting that covered the need for further monetary assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, in a discussion with his boss, Secretary of State George Shultz, broaches the idea of soliciting donations from other nations. Shultz is receptive, but warns Abrams that he does not want donations from a country that receives large amounts of US aid, as such solicitations might appear to be kickbacks from such aid. And Shultz does not want a right-wing dictatorship such as Taiwan or South Korea to contribute because it would create a potentially embarrassing link between those countries and the Contras. Abrams suggests asking the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, for funds. Brunei is a tremendously rich Muslim oil state in Southeast Asia. Shultz is planning on visiting Brunei in late June anyway, and Abrams says the visit is a perfect opportunity for Shultz to ask for donations. Shultz agrees (see June 11, 1986), but will not ultimately ask the Sultan for money during the visit (see June 23-24, 1986). After the discussion, Abrams meets with National Security Council officer Oliver North, and asks where the money should be sent should the Sultan agree to provide funds. North tells Abrams to wait until he can clear the solitication with his boss, NSC chief John Poindexter. North tells Poindexter that he has “the accounts and the means by which this thing [transfer of solicited funds] needs to be accomplished.” Poindexter will approve the solicitation. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Five hundred and eight TOW anti-tank missiles, and 240 spare parts for Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, are shipped to Israel for transfer to Iran. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the NSC staffer running the Iran-Contra arms deals, informs National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane that money from the sales of arms to Iran is being diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras (see April 4, 1986). [PBS, 2000] North informed Israeli officials of the diversion five months before (see December 6, 1985).
Former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane briefs President Reagan and Vice President Bush on the recent trip to Iran to trade arms for hostages (see Late May, 1986). According to National Security Council member Howard Teicher, who was part of the delegation to Iran, McFarlane “explicitly described the differences they had with the Iranian officials, explaining that it was an arms-for-hostages deal. He said that the Iranians were jerking us around and would continue to. Bush didn’t say anything, but, after McFarlane said the initiative should temporarily be shut down, Reagan agreed not to proceed any longer.” For the moment, the arms-for-hostages deal is stalled. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]
Alan Fiers, the head of the CIA’s Central America task force, learns of the Reagan administration’s illegal diversion of funds from the sale of weapons to Iran to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Fiers informs his superior, Deputy Director of Operations Clair George. Instead of acting on the knowledge, George orders Fiers to conceal his knowledge of the diversions. George will order Fiers to lie to Congress about it in November 1986 (see November 25, 1986). Fiers will later plead guilty to lying to Congress (see July 17, 1991). [Time, 7/22/1991]
Unaware of the White House machinations with Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras (see 1984, May 1984, October 10, 1984, November 19, 1985, December 6, 1985, Mid-1980s, April 4, 1986, May 29, 1986, and June 11, 1986), Congress approves a $100 million appropriation for military and non-arms aid to the Contras. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), a Justice Department oversight component, receives a letter from Laurie A. Westly, chief counsel to Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), asking for its view of allegations made by the software company Inslaw against the Justice Department. The letter mentions claims of misconduct by department official Lowell Jensen. Westly also refers to litigation recently initiated by Inslaw (see June 9, 1986), specifically the claim that Jensen contributed to the bankruptcy of Inslaw and had a negative bias toward its software. She also asks whether Jensen has breached any ethical or legal responsibility as a department employee. [US Congress, 9/10/1992] It is unclear what action the OPR takes in response to this matter. However, it conducts a preliminary investigation into whether Jensen was biased against Inslaw this year, and this may be in response to this letter (see 1986). It will also begin a fuller investigation the next year (see October 14, 1987).
The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), an oversight unit at the Justice Department, conducts an initial review of bias allegations against departmental officials in the Inslaw affair. The exact timing of the review is uncertain, although it may come after a query about the case from Senator Paul Simon in June (see June 16, 1986). The review finds that there is no misconduct by Justice Department manager Lowell Jensen. According to statements made by acting OPR counsel Robert Lyon and assistant counsel David Bobzein to the House Judiciary Committee in 1990, the OPR does not perform a full review at this time because the allegations of bias are not an issue OPR would normally review. Therefore, it plans to rely on the findings of a bankruptcy court hearing the Inslaw case (see June 9, 1986). However, after the bankruptcy court finds in favour of Inslaw (see September 28, 1987), partly because it thinks the bias allegations are well founded, OPR begins a full investigation (see October 14, 1987) and concludes there was no bias (see March 31, 1989). [US Congress, 9/10/1992]
National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North has become far more outspoken among government officials about his illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras (see May 16, 1986). During a meeting of his Restricted Interagency Group (RIG—see Late 1985 and After), CIA official Alan Fiers, a member of the group, is discomfited at North’s straightforward listing of the many activities that he is causing to be conducted on behalf of the Contras, everything from supplying aircraft to paying salaries. Fiers is even less sanguine about North’s frank revelations about using illegally solicited private funding for the Contras (see May 16, 1986). North goes down the list, asking if each activity should be continued or terminated, and, according to Fiers, making it very clear that he can cause his Contra support program (which he now calls PRODEM, or “Project Democracy”) to respond as he directs. North also begins arranging, through Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, for $2 million in stopgap funding for the project. North will confirm the $2 million in an e-mail to NSC Director John Poindexter. North will conduct similar meetings in August and September 1986, at least one of which will include Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Armitage (see July 22, 1987) and other Defense Department officials (see November 13, 1990). [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 Fiers 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).
Vice President Bush, planning to leave for Iraq on a secret errand to persuade Saddam Hussein to escalate his bombing of Iranian targets in order to increase pressure on Iran to release American hostages (see July 28-August 3, 1986), is briefed by two top National Security Council aides, Oliver North and Howard Teicher, before leaving for the Middle East. Teicher will later recall: “We told him what the status was, that [US] arms had gone to Iran. We were preparing him for a possible briefing by either [Shimon Peres, the prime minister of Israel] or [Amiram] Nir [Peres’s counterterrorism adviser]. We didn’t want him to discuss it with anyone else, for security reasons. He asked us some questions, but he didn’t express any opinions.” While Bush will repeatedly deny ever discussing the Iranian arms sales with William Casey (see July 23, 1986), a former CIA official will say in 1992 that Casey did brief Bush extensively about the program. “Casey felt Bush had a methodical, orderly manner for the task,” the official will say. “[Casey] had great confidence in him to carry it out. He said he briefed Bush in great detail about the initiative to bomb Iran.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]
Vice President Bush meets with several national leaders during his trip to the Middle East (see July 28-August 3, 1986). Ostensibly Bush is visiting the region to “advance the peace process,” but in reality his trip has three reasons: to raise his own public profile as an experienced hand in foreign relations for his upcoming presidential bid, to negotiate for the release of US hostages held by Iran, and to secretly pressure Iraq to increase its bombing of Iran to aid in those negotiations.
Meeting with the Israelis - Bush meets briefly with Amiram Nir in Jerusalem. Nir, a close friend of Oliver North’s and a counterterrorism adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, meets with Bush at North’s behest. Bush will later characterize his meeting with Nir as “generally about counterterrorism,” and will admit obliquely that the two did have “some discussion of arms sales as a means to ‘reach out to moderate elements’ in the Iranian government. Arms sales would ‘establish bona fides’ with the moderate element, who ‘might use their influence with the people who were holding the hostages.’” However, the meeting is later described very differently by others, including Craig Fuller, Bush’s chief of staff, who is present at the meeting; according to Fuller, the two discuss the arms-for-hostages deal in great detail, including specifics about what arms will be delivered, and both are ready to negotiate with the Islamic radicals of the Khomeini regime who control the American hostages. The hostages are to be released in a group in return for 4,000 US-made antitank missiles. Nir himself reports the contents of the meeting to Peres, and his later account of it is virtually identical to Fuller’s. Nir also notes that his biggest question—how to get the Iranians to release the hostages all at once and not one or two at a time—went unanswered by Bush. “The [vice president] made no commitments nor did he give any direction to Nir,” Fuller notes.
Meeting with King Hussein - Bush then flies to Jordan to meet with King Hussein. Their meeting has an element not divulged to the press: Hussein has often been used as an intermediary between Reagan officials and Iraq. The CIA uses Jordan as a conduit to pass intelligence to Iraq, with the Jordanian involvement providing critical “deniability.” Bush tells the king that Iraq needs to be more aggressive in its war with Iran if it wants to win the war, and tells Hussein to tell the Iraqis to use its air force more expansively. Hussein promises to pass the message along.
Meeting with Mubarak - Bush then jets to Egypt to meet with its president, Hosni Mubarak. Reporters note that Bush tells Mubarak that the US cannot increase aid to Egypt. They are unaware that Bush asks Mubarak to pass along the same message that he has asked of King Hussein: to exhort Iraq to step up its air war against Iran. By the time Bush speaks with Mubarak, the NSA, monitoring Jordanian-Iraqi communications, learns that Hussein has already passed along the message. The talking points for Bush’s meeting with Mubarak are authored by Teicher. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Affidavit. United States v. Carlos Cardoen, et al. [Charge that Teledyne Wah Chang Albany illegally provided a proscribed substance, zirconium, to Cardoen Industries and to Iraq], 1/31/1995 ; MSNBC, 8/18/2002]
Vice President Bush, secretly planning to ask Iraq to increase its bombing of Iran in order to give the US more leverage in its hostage negotiations with Iran (see July 23, 1986), leaves for the Middle East on July 28. The trip is given a public face as an attempt by Bush to, as he tells reporters, “advance the peace process.” His political handlers, already thinking about the 1988 presidential elections, want to increase his public stature as a potential world leader. Bush is accompanied by his wife Barbara, a platoon of reporters, and a television crew hired by his political action committee to document the trip for future campaign purposes. But his staffers play down the possible impact of the trip. “This is not a trip designed to establish new breakthroughs,” says one Bush adviser. “It’s like tending a garden. If you don’t tend the garden, the weeds grow up. And I think there are a lot of weeds in that garden.” Much of the trip, such as the visit to Jordan, is planned primarily as a series of photo opportunities, with Bush’s PR team even exhorting the Jordanians to feature camels in each shot (camels are few in Jordan).
Hostage Break - Bush learns while still in flight that an American hostage, the Reverend Lawrence Jenco, has just been released by his Hezbollah captors, most likely at the behest of the Iranians (see January 8, 1985). Jenco’s release, according to reporters Murray Waas and Craig Unger, is “a measure of Iran’s deep ambivalence about the negotiations. Iran need[s] weapons and [does] not want the deal to die. At the same time, the Iranians [a]re apoplectic because, according to their estimates, they were being overcharged by six hundred per cent [for US weapons], and they had not yet received parts for two hundred and forty Hawk missiles.” Jenco’s release is in return for the US expediting the shipment of the missile parts. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Affidavit. United States v. Carlos Cardoen, et al. [Charge that Teledyne Wah Chang Albany illegally provided a proscribed substance, zirconium, to Cardoen Industries and to Iraq], 1/31/1995 ; MSNBC, 8/18/2002]
Effectiveness of the Message - Bush meets with several regional leaders, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (see July 28-August 3, 1986). In the 48 hours following the meeting with Mubarak, Iraq launches 359 air strikes against Iran, including numerous strikes far deeper into Iran than it has done before. Apparently the message was effective. In return, while Bush is still “advancing the peace process,” the CIA begins providing the Iraqis with highly classified tactical information about Iranian military movements and strike targets. Evidently Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, previously suspicious of US motives and advice, felt more confident in the battle strategies advocated by such a high-level US official. When Bush returns to Washington on August 5, he is debriefed by Casey. According to one Casey aide, “Casey kept the return briefing very close to his vest. But he said Bush was supportive of the initiative and had carried out his mission.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]
Former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, the liaison between the Nicaraguan Contras and the National Security Council (see Mid-September 1985), comes to Washington to argue that retired General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987) is providing shoddy airplanes and goods to the Contras at exorbitant prices. Rodriguez meets with his patron, Donald Gregg, the foreign affairs adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983 and October 10, 1986). Gregg then meets with other administration officials to discuss Rodriguez’s concerns. Officials discuss Rodriguez’s claim that his “working w/VP [Bush] [is a] blessing for CIA,” indicating that despite later denials (see December 1986 and August 6, 1987), Bush is well aware of Rodriguez’s activities on behalf of the Contras and may be facilitating them. According to Gregg’s notes, he is particularly concerned that Rodriguez is “go[ing] around to bars saying he is buddy of Bush… we want to get rid of him from his [involvement] w[ith] private ops. Nothing was done so he still is there shooting his mouth off.” [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
President Reagan signs legislation that bans arms sales to nations that support terrorism (such as Iran), and strengthens US anti-terrorism measures. [PBS, 2000] The law, entitled the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 [White House, 8/27/1986] , does not halt the Reagan administration’s sales of arms and weapons to Iran; the arms sales go forward in spite of the law explicitly prohibiting them (see September 19, 1986, Early October-November, 1986, October 5, 1986, Early November, 1986, and November 3, 1986).
A draft memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU), the most prominent academic body in Yugoslavia, arguing that Serbs have been oppressed in Yugoslavia and are the subject of genocide in Kosovo, is leaked. This is the first policy document to include Serb grievances throughout Yugoslavia, not just in Kosovo. The SANU memorandum says that Yugoslavia’s government is “increasingly contradictory, dysfunctional, and expensive,” citing Serbia’s inability to pass a single law in the past decade as an example. The academics say that this was caused by the international communist body Comintern’s labeling of Serbia as an oppressor of other nations, before World War II. The Yugoslav leadership is accused of fomenting Serb guilt, to keep Serbs from opposing “the political and economic subordination to which they were constantly subjected.” The memorandum says Serbia’s economy has been weakened, citing the poverty of Kosovo, with per capita national income 30 percent below that of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the poorest Yugoslav republics. It calls the March-April 1981 demonstrations a declaration of “open war” on Serbs, “as the finale to a legally prepared administrative, political, and constitutional reform.” The result is said to be “physical, political, legal, and culture genocide” in Kosovo. The academics blame the 1974 Federal Constitution for dismembering the Serb nation three ways, and demand “complete national and cultural integrity” for the Serb nation. Specifically, the authors of the memorandum want the government of Serbia to declare that the federalization of Serbia and the creation of the autonomous provinces was forced. They advocate a constitutional amendment to remove provincial autonomy, as well as settlement of Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo to give the area Slavic majority. The lead author is Dobrica Cosic, a writer. Vaso Cubrilovic, author of Serb nationalist policy documents before and during WWII, expresses “senile satisfaction” regarding the SANU memorandum. Subsequently, Serbian President Ivan Stambolic publicly denounces the memorandum, but Slobodan Milosevic, leader of the Serbian branch of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, keeps party opposition hidden. In January 1987, the Federal Presidency is forced to prepare the requested amendments, with only the Slovenian leadership in opposition. Slavs will also subsequently be encouraged to move to Kosovo. [Vickers, 1998, pp. 221-222; Kola, 2003, pp. 171-173]
Costa Rica’s newly elected president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, a foe of the Nicaraguan Contras, is outraged to learn of the deal made by his predecessor for a Contra airstrip in the northern portion of his country (see Summer 1985). He stops its use for Contra resupply. On September 6, 1986, CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, the liaison for National Security Council officer Oliver North in the region (see Mid-September 1985), informs North and CIA official Alan Fiers that Arias intends to hold a press conference denouncing the airstrip, revealing its construction by North’s partner, retired General Richard Secord, and announcing that its existence is a violation of Costa Rican law. North discusses the impending conference with Fiers, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and the US Ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis Tambs. They mull over informing Arias that he will never be allowed in the White House, and will never get any of the $80 million promised to Costa Rica by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) if the airstrip is revealed. Tambs passes along these threats, and the press conference is initially canceled. Fiers later testifies (see July 17, 1991) that he, North, and Abrams are worried that the public revelation of the airstrip will expose the connections between the Contras, North, and the White House. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993] In late September, Costa Rica will publicly reveal the existence of the airstrip (see September 25, 1986).
National Security Council officer Oliver North, who was involved in the solicitation of a secret $10 million donation from Brunei to the Contras (see After May 16, 1986), is puzzled as to why the money is not in the Swiss bank account set up to handle the funds (see August 9-19, 1986). Unbeknownst to North, a transcription error sent the money to the wrong account (see Late June, 1986). North has just received a cable from the US Ambassador to Brunei, Barrington King, stating that “[t]hose on the receiving end here cannot confirm consummation of arrangements. But they tell us that this is not unusual in view of the process involved. If you are asked on this point, we suggest that simply say that the material is apparently still in the pipe-line.” Three days later, White House officials ask King to have Brunei officials ask for a bank trace of the funds. When the money is not receipted to the account by September 26, officials in both Washington and Brunei become concerned, though the Sultan of Brunei tells US officials that “because of the procedures that had been used we might have to wait for a short while more before the transaction is completed.” [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
A meeting of Oliver North’s Restricted Interagency Group (RIG—see Late 1985 and After) takes place in the office of Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Armitage. As in previous RIG meetings, North details the specific activities of the Contras, and asks for approval for each activity (see July 1986 and After). But in this meeting, North makes an extraordinary proposal. Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has offered to conduct sabotage inside Nicaragua on behalf of the Contras for $1 million in cash. According to later testimony from RIG member Alan Fiers, a senior CIA official (see July 17, 1991), it is clear that the $1 million will not come from duly appropriated US funds, but from North’s so-called “Project Democracy,” which collects private funds from US citizens and other governments to fund the Contras. The sabotage would be conducted by mercenaries. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams meets with two aides to Secretary of State George Shultz, M. Charles Hill and Nicholas Platt, to discuss the Noriega proposal. Hill’s notes of the meeting read in part: “Noriega offers to do some sabotage (electric pylons) that we training contras to do but which they can’t do for 18 mos. Wd [would] get us on the map fast—by Oct. . Do it via mercenaries who may not know who employers are. Brits. Wd do it for cash (not from USG [US government]). Wants our go-ahead. Ollie will meet him w/approval of Pdx. [John Poindexter, the head of the National Security Council].” Ultimately, the idea is rejected. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Entity Tags: Restricted Interagency Group, Contras, Charles Hill, Alan Fiers, Elliott Abrams, Oliver North, George Shultz, Manuel Noriega, Richard Armitage, John Poindexter, Nicholas Platt, National Security Council
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security holds a press conference and announces the discovery of an illegal airstrip in northern Costa Rica that is being used to resupply the Nicaraguan Contras (see Summer 1985). US government officials have tried unsuccessfully to threaten the Costa Rican government with the loss of US aid if they make their knowledge of the airstrip public (see Early September 1986). But two of the US officials closely involved with the Contras, National Security Council officer Oliver North and CIA officer Alan Fiers, succeed in planting a false cover story about the airstrip for the press conference. The cover story denies any US government involvement in securing the airstrip or having it built, portraying it as a rogue operation by private Contra supporters. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
On the same day that CIA worker Eugene Hasenfus survives the destruction of his transport plane over Nicaragua (see October 5, 1986), Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the National Security Council staffer who is heavily involved in the secret arming of the Nicaraguan Contras, is on his way to Frankfurt, Germany. North is slated to negotiate with representatives of the Iranian government. But news of Hasenfus’s capture forces North to cut short the negotiations and fly back to Washington for damage control. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65]
Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him. [Source: Nancy McGirr / Reuters / Corbis]A CIA C-123 transport plane (see November 19, 1985) is shot down in southern Nicaragua by a Sandinista soldier wielding a surface-to-air missile. The transport plane left an airfield in El Salvador with arms and other supplies intended for the Nicaraguan Contras. Three crew members—US pilots William Cooper and Wallace Sawyer, Jr, and an unidentified Latin American—die in the crash, but one, a “cargo kicker” named Eugene Hasenfus, ignores CIA orders and parachutes to safety—and capture by the Sandinistas. Hasenfus is a construction worker from Wisconsin who signed on to do temporary work with CIA contractors, and has no intention of “going down with the plane.” The next day, newspapers around the world run stories with Hasenfus’s face peering out from their front pages.
Reveals US's Arming of Contras - The Hasenfus shoot-down will break the news of the Reagan administration’s secret arming of the Contras in their attempt to bring down the democratically elected Socialist government of Nicaragua. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 64]
Damage Control - Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see Late 1985 and After) is the designated US spokesman on the Hasenfus shootdown. Abrams coordinates with his fellow Contra supporters, the NSC’s Oliver North and the CIA’s Alan Fiers, and with the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, on how to handle the situation. Between the three, they coordinate a denial from the Salvadoran military about any Salvadoran or US involvement in the Hasenfus flight. As for themselves, they agree not to flatly lie about anything, because they cannot be sure of what Hasenfus will say, but they agree to remain as quiet as possible and hope the media sensation surrounding Hasenfus dies down with little long-term effect. According to notes taken by Corr during one meeting, everyone knows that a leak—“eventually someone in USG [the US government] will finally acknowledge some ‘winking.’ Salv role now more public”—is inevitable. It is eventually decided that the Contras themselves will take all responsibility for the flight. Fiers worries that the flight will be connected to previous humanitarian aid supplied to the Contras (see October 1985). They also confirm that Felix Rodriguez, North’s liaison to the Contras in Central America (see Mid-September 1985), is in Miami, hiding from the press. Hasenfus will later acknowledge making at least ten supply flights into Nicaragua (see October 9, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams is interviewed by conservative columnist Robert Novak and Novak’s partner, Rowland Evans. Novak, who is openly sympathetic to the Nicaraguan Contras, asks Abrams about his knowledge of the connections between the US government and the Contras as revealed by the downing of a CIA transport plane over Nicaragua (see October 5, 1986). Abrams, who provides false testimony to Congress today and in the following days, tells a similar story to Novak. Abrams goes further with Novak than he does with Congress, denying that any such person as “Max Gomez,” the CIA liaison to the Contras, even exists (Gomez is actually former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez—see October 10-15, 1986). “Whoever that gentleman is, he certainly isn’t named Max Gomez,” Abrams notes. Abrams also denies that “Gomez” has any connection to Vice President Bush (see October 11-14, 1986). Abrams adds that whoever this “Gomez” is, “he is not on the US government payroll in any way.” Novak asks if Rodriguez has any connection to the National Security Council or any other government agency, and Abrams says: “I am not playing games.… No government agencies, none.” In June 1987, Abrams will admit that he lied to Novak. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see Late 1985 and After and September 4, 1985) testifies three times to Congress that the Contra resupply operation, exposed by the downing of a CIA transport plane (see October 5, 1986 and October 9, 1986), is not a US government operation. There is no coordination whatsoever from any government official (see Summer 1985, Mid-September 1985, October 1985, Late 1985 and After, February 7-8, 1986, May 16, 1986, July 1986 and After, September 19-20, 1986, September 25, 1986, and January 9, 1986), and no one in the government knows who organized or paid for the transport flight that was shot down.
'Not Our Supply System' - Abrams tells the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while he and other government officials are aware of the Contra resupply operation, “[i]t is not our supply system. It is one that grew up after we were forbidden from supplying the resistance, and we have been kind of careful not to get closely involved with it and to stay away from it.… We do not encourage people to do this. We don’t round up people, we don’t write letters, we don’t have conversations, we don’t tell them to do this, we don’t ask them to do it. But I think it is quite clear, from the attitude of the administration, the attitude of the administration is that these people are doing a very good thing, and if they think they are doing something that we like, then, in a general sense, they are right.” In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Abrams is asked by Chairman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), “Can anybody assure us that the United States government was not involved, indirectly or directly, in any way in supply of the contras?” Abrams responds: “I believe we have already done that, that is, I think, the president has done it, the secretary has done it [Secretary of State George Shultz], and I have done it.… Now again, this normal intelligence monitoring is there, but the answer to your question is yes.” Abrams and CIA officials Clair George and Alan Fiers tell the same falsehoods to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. “We don’t know,” Abrams asserts, “because we don’t track this kind of activity.”
No Knowledge of 'Gomez' - He also claims under questioning not to know the identity of “Max Gomez,” who he well knows is former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez (see Mid-September 1985). Senator John Kerry (D-MA) asks, “You don’t know whether or not [Gomez] reports to the vice president of the United States?” (see October 10, 1986). Both George and Abrams deny any such knowledge, though Abrams is highly aware of Rodriguez’s activities in El Salvador (he does not inform the committee of those activities). During the Congressional sessions, media reports identify Gomez as Rodriguez. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton, Elliott Abrams, Contras, Clair George, Alan Fiers, Felix Rodriguez, George Herbert Walker Bush, George Shultz, House Intelligence Committee, Ronald Reagan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, House Foreign Affairs Committee
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
The Washington Post, having gotten wind of a secret fund transfer from a third-party nation to the Nicaraguan Contras (see August 9-19, 1986), reports that Saudi Arabia may be funding the Contras. (The Post’s sources are apparently unaware of the Brunei transaction.) Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who originated and facilitated the Brunei deal (see After May 16, 1986), is asked by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) during his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (see October 10-15, 1986) if he or the CIA representatives accompanying him—Clair George and Alan Fiers—are aware of any third-party funding of the Contras, whether it be Saudi Arabia or anyone else. Abrams says, “No.” George, also aware of the Brunei transaction, says, “No.” Fiers, who was involved in discussions of the transactions, says, “No, sir.” Abrams adds, “I think I can say that while I have been assistant secretary, which is about 15 months, we have not received a dime from a foreign government, not a dime, from any foreign government.” He says that if the Contras have received funding from other nations, he is not aware of it. “The thing is I think I would know about it because if they went to a foreign government, a foreign government would want credit for helping the contras and they would come to us to say you want us to do this, do you, and I would know about that.” Abrams repeats the lie to the House Intelligence Committee. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
After the press identifies former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez as Contra liaison “Max Gomez” (see October 10-15, 1986), and learns that Rodriguez reports to Vice President Bush’s foreign policy adviser, Donald Gregg (see October 10, 1986), Bush denies any knowledge of Rodriguez’s involvement with the Contras. Bush admits to having met Rodriguez a few times, but refuses to clarify what relationship, if any, they may have. Bush tells one reporter that Rodriguez is a US counter-insurgency adviser working with the government of El Salvador, an assertion strongly denied by the Salvadoran government. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who has lied repeatedly to Congress about the government’s role in supplying and supporting the Contras (see October 10-15, 1986), tells the House Intelligence Committee that he knows nothing of any link between Rodriguez and Bush that concerns the Contras. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
The Reagan administration, led by CIA Director William Casey and National Security Adviser John Poindexter (Robert McFarlane’s replacement), decides to downplay and deny any arms-for-hostages deals as reported in the world press (see November 3, 1986), while maintaining the secret negotiations with Iran. President Reagan accepts their advice. In notes Reagan takes during a clandestine meeting about the situation, he writes, “Must say something because I’m being held out to dry.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65-66]
Ronald Reagan speaks to the nation. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]President Reagan addresses the nation on the Iran-Contra issue (see October 5, 1986 and November 3, 1986). “I know you’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing a lot of stories the past several days attributed to Danish sailors (see Early November, 1986), unnamed observers at Italian ports and Spanish harbors, and especially unnamed government officials of my administration,” he says. “Well, now you’re going to hear the facts from a White House source, and you know my name.” But despite his direct introduction, Reagan presents the same half-truths, denials, and outright lies that his officials have been providing to Congress and the press (see Mid-October, 1986 and November 10, 1986 and After).
'Honorable' Involvement - He admits to an 18-month “secret diplomatic initiative” with Iran, for several “honorable” reasons: to renew relations with that nation, to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, to eliminate Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, and to effect the release of the US hostages being imprisoned by Hezbollah. He calls the press reports “rumors,” and says, “[L]et’s get to the facts.”
Falsehoods Presented as Facts - The US has not swapped weapons to Iran for hostages, Reagan asserts. However, evidence suggests otherwise (see January 28, 1981, 1983, 1985, May 1985, June 11, 1985, July 3, 1985, July 8, 1985, August 6, 1985, September 15, 1985, December 6, 1985, December 12, 1985, Mid-1980s, January 7, 1986, January 17, 1986, Late May, 1986, September 19, 1986, and Early October-November, 1986). Reagan also claims the US has not “trafficked with terrorists,” although Iran is listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the State Department. It “has not swapped boatloads or planeloads of American weapons for the return of American hostages. And we will not.” Reports of Danish and Spanish vessels carrying secret arms shipments, of Italian ports employed to facilitate arms transfers, and of the US sending spare parts and weapons for Iranian combat aircraft, all are “quite exciting, but… not one of them is true.” Reagan does admit to his authorization of “the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts for defensive systems to Iran,” merely as a gesture of goodwill. “These modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane,” he says. (In reality, the US has already sent over 1,000 missiles to Iran over the course of a number of shipments.) He says the US made it clear to Iran that for any dialogue to continue, it must immediately cease its support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and to facilitate the release of US hostages held by that group in Lebanon. Evidence exists, Reagan says, of the Iranians ramping down their support of terrorism. And some hostages have already been freed, a true statement, though he fails to mention that others have been taken.
Admission of May Meeting - Reagan admits that former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane met with Iranian officials (see Late May, 1986). According to Reagan, McFarlane went to Iraq “to open a dialog, making stark and clear our basic objectives and disagreements.” He presents no further information about the meeting, except that the talks were “civil” and “American personnel were not mistreated.”
Exposure Risks Undermining Efforts to Facilitate Peace - The public disclosure of these “honorable” negotiations has put the entire US efforts to broker peace between Iran and Iraq in jeopardy, he says. In negotiations such as these, there is “a basic requirement for discretion and for a sensitivity to the situation in the nation we were attempting to engage.”
Reagan Says Congress Not Lied to - Reagan says that there is no truth to the stories that his officials ever lied to members of Congress about the Iranian negotiations (see Mid-October, 1986). The members of Congress who needed to know about the negotiations were informed, as were the “appropriate Cabinet officers” and others “with a strict need to know.” Since the story has now broken, “the relevant committees of Congress are being, and will be, fully informed.” [Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 11/13/1986; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65-66]
Attorney General Edwin Meese. [Source: Doug Mills / Bettman / Corbis]Attorney General Edwin Meese undertakes an internal fact-finding investigation focused on President Reagan’s involvement in the November 1985 sale of Hawk missiles to Iran (see 1985). Meese is apparently not interested in finding facts, because he refuses a request to assist from the FBI, and takes no notes during his interviews of administration officials.
'Shredding Party' - Additionally, during his investigation, National Security Council documents are altered or destroyed, including a presidential finding from December 1985 that retroactively authorized US missile sales to Iran (see November 24-25, 1985 and December 5, 1985); National Security Adviser John Poindexter will later admit to destroying this document. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North holds what is later called a “shredding party,” destroying thousands of documents that would likely implicate White House officials in a criminal conspiracy to break the law (see November 21-23, 1986). The Iran-Contra investigative committee will later fault Meese for departing from “standard investigative techniques” during his investigation.
Document Linking Iran Arms Sales, Contra Supplies Survives - Meese also finds a potentially explosive document in the desk of North, the National Security Council staffer who managed the Iran arms deals. The document, an undated memorandum apparently from April 1986, outlined “a planned diversion of $12 million in proceeds from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras” (see April 4, 1986). Meese’s investigation now diverges onto two tracks, one a continuation of the Hawk shipments, and the second an investigation into who knew about, and who had approved, the diversion.
Reagan Courting Impeachment? - Meese confirms from North that the $12 million had indeed been given to the Contras, and informs Reagan, Chief of Staff Donald Regan, and Vice President Bush. Reagan is reportedly shocked by the revelation, in part because he knows he could face impeachment for violating the Boland Amendment (see October 10, 1984). Meese informs the cabinet the next day. Apparently Meese does not want to know if any senior White House officials knew of the diversion, because he does not ask them about it. When Poindexter informs Meese that before December 1985, his predecessor Robert McFarlane handled the Iran arms sales “all alone” with “no documentation,” Meese accepts his word. Several White House officials present at the meeting—Reagan, Regan, Bush, Poindexter, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—all know that Poindexter is lying, but none correct him. After the meeting, Shultz tells his aide, Charles Hill: “They may lay all this off on Bud [McFarlane].… They [are] rearranging the record.” Investigative counsel Lawrence Walsh will later write: “The Select Committees viewed this as an isolated error. It was not.”
'Case for Deniability' for Reagan - In Walsh’s opinion, Meese is not conducting an investigation at all, but instead is “building a case of deniability for his client-in-fact, President Reagan.” Walsh will characterize Meese’s actions as “an effort to obstruct a congressional inquiry.” In 2006, authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will write, “The two strands of an illegal policy came together in that memo.” The authors refer to the US arms sales to Iran and the diversion of the profits from those sales to the Contras. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 8/4/1993; PBS, 2000; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 66]
Entity Tags: Charles Hill, Edwin Meese, Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan, Robert C. McFarlane, Oliver North, Federal Bureau of Investigation, George Herbert Walker Bush, George Shultz, Jake Bernstein, Contras, Donald Regan, Lou Dubose, Lawrence E. Walsh, John Poindexter
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
Fawn Hall and her attorney, Plato Cacheris, during her June 1987 testimony before the House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. [Source: Mark Leightman / Bettman / Corbis]National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North, the prime coordinator of the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the Reagan administration, leads a coordinated effort to alter, remove, and destroy critical documents that could prove criminal intent in the burgeoning Iran-Contra investigation (see November 21-25, 1986). The enormity of the destruction of government records earns the incident the sobriquet “Ollie’s shredding party.” A key figure in the document shredding is North’s secretary, Fawn Hall. Hall, whose mother Wilma was the secretary for North’s former NSC boss, Robert McFarlane, will reluctantly become one of the first, and most damning, witnesses for Lawrence Walsh’s independent investigation of the Iran-Contra affair (see December 19, 1986). Hall has been, in the words of Walsh’s prosecutors, “generally aware” of North’s involvement in both providing illegal funds to the Contras and in illegally selling arms to Iran, maintaining his records and typing his memoranda and letters. Though she knows of the illegal activities, because she did not participate in meetings or telephone conversations with other key figures in the affair, she will later be able to testify, “I did not know many of the details relevant to the Iran and Contra initiatives.” Hall’s participation in North’s “shredding party” is her first direct participation in any criminal activities surrounding the Iran-Contra affair. After North learns that the Department of Justice is opening an inquiry into the sale of arms to Iran, North secures a number of documents from NSC files showing that he had violated the Boland Amendment (see October 10, 1984) by aiding the Contras. North marks the documents with handwritten revisions, changing the text to make it seem as if North had not violated the law. He then gives the documents to Hall, asking her to retype them to include his corrections and then replace them in the files. Hall does so, but does not finish the alterations before North calls her in to help him shred documents, including notes and phone records. Hall later estimates that she and North shredded documents in piles of 12-18 pages for close to an hour, shredding in all a stack of documents almost two feet high. The shredding and alterations continue through November 23. She will later testify that she had never shredded such a large quantity of documents. [Reeves, 2005, pp. 367; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 12/13/2007]
Attorney General Edwin Meese announces the results of his internal “investigation” of US arms sales to Iran (see November 21-25, 1986). In the conference, Meese announces that President Reagan did not learn of the US shipments of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles (see 1985, November 24-25, 1985, and August 4, 1986) until February 1986. Investigators for Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh will later conclude that Meese lied; not only did Meese never ask Reagan about his knowledge of the Hawk shipments, he ignored evidence and testimony that proved Reagan did indeed know of the shipments, such as a statement from Secretary of State George Shultz that Reagan had told him that he had known of the Hawk shipments in advance. But Meese will also, reluctantly, admit that the US had illegally diverted between $10 million and $30 million in funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see April 4, 1986). National Security Adviser John Poindexter immediately resigns, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is fired from the National Security Council staff. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 8/4/1993; PBS, 2000]
Alan Fiers, the head of the CIA’s Central America task force, testifies to Congress that neither he nor any of his superiors in the agency knew of the illegal diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Fiers is lying. He was ordered by his superior, Deputy Director of Operations Clair George, to conceal his knowledge of the fund diversions (see Summer 1986). Fiers will admit to lying five years later, and plead guilty to misdemeanor charges arising from his false testimony (see July 17, 1991). [Time, 7/22/1991]
Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who has already lied repeatedly under oath to Congress about third-party funding of the Contras (see October 10-14, 1986), lies again to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his knowledge of any such funding (see August 9-19, 1986). Appearing before the committee with senior CIA official Alan Fiers, who has himself lied to Congress about the same activities, Abrams tells the committee: “Well, we—after the Hasenfus shootdown (see October 5, 1986) we were asked about, you know, what did you know about the funding of Hasenfus and his operation. And the answer here is the same answer. That is, that we knew there were private contributions coming in, because they sure weren’t surviving on the money that we were giving them, which at one time was nothing and then the 27 million came along (see August 1985). So there was money coming in. But there was no reason to think it was coming from foreign governments, and I certainly did not inquire as to which individuals it was coming from.” Abrams denies ever discussing third-party funding with anyone on the National Security Council staff, which would include Oliver North, Abrams’s partner in the $10 million Brunei deal (see June 11, 1986). A frankly disbelieving Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) says: “Well, you would say gee, they got a lot of problems, they don’t have any money. Then you would just sit there and say, what are we going to do? They don’t have any money. You never said, you know, maybe we could get the money this way?” Abrams replies: “No.… We’re not—you know, we’re not in the fundraising business.” Two weeks later, Abrams will “correct” his testimony, but will still insist that he knows nothing of any such third-party funding. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
After Oliver North is fired by President Reagan over his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair (see November 25, 1986), North’s secretary Fawn Hall (who was also fired) recalls that she has not finished shredding documents that North had ordered destroyed (see November 21-23, 1986). She also realizes that other documents relating to the Iran arms sales and the Contra funding have not yet been destroyed. Hall is not allowed to remove any documents from the suite of offices used by North and other NSC officers. To avoid detection, Hall conceals documents in her clothing, inserting some inside her boots and others inside the back of her skirt. She receives the assistance of another NSC officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Earl, who helps her sneak documents out of the office suite. Earl also helps her adjust the documents so they cannot be seen under her clothes. During the process, Hall telephones North, who is not in the office; fearful of being overheard, she whispers to him that there is a problem with the documents and he needs to come in. He agrees, and says that he will be joined by his lawyer, Thomas Green. After Green and North arrive, the two men help shield Hall as she leaves the building with the documents hidden on her person. After the three get into Green’s car, Hall gives North the documents, and tells him that other potentially incriminating materials are still in the offices. Green drops Hall and North off in a parking lot, and, as Hall is leaving the vehicle, Green asks her what she will say if asked about the shredding. Hall replies that she will say, “We shred every day.” Green responds, “Good.” [United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 12/13/2007]
Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testifies to the House Intelligence Committee about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair (see Mid-October, 1986). Like CIA official Alan Fiers (see November 25, 1986), Abrams testifies that neither he nor his superiors at the State Department knew anything of the illegal diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986); like Fiers, Abrams is lying (see Late 1985 and After). Several days later, Abrams testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) accuses Abrams of lying during the first session, and Abrams replies, “You’ve heard my testimony.” Eagleton retorts, “I’ve heard it, and I want to puke.” [Time, 7/22/1991; Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993] Abrams will later admit to lying to both the House and Senate (see October 7, 1991).
Two days after sneaking classified documents out of the National Security Council (see November 25, 1986), Oliver North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, downplays the significance of the “shredding party” she and North engaged in days before, when they had worked to destroy evidence of North’s criminal activities surrounding the Iran-Contra affair (see November 21-23, 1986). When asked by Jay Stephens of the White House counsel’s office about reports of her and North shredding documents in North’s office, Hall replies as she has been coached to respond by North’s lawyer, Thomas Green. Hall later testifies, “I told him that we shred every day, and I led him to believe that there was nothing unusual about what had occurred.” [United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 12/13/2007]
John Tower. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]President Reagan appoints former Senator John Tower (R-TX) to head a commission to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. The so-called “Tower Commission” will issue its final report three months later (see February 26, 1987). [PBS, 2000] Tower left the Senate in 1985 and attempted to win the position of defense secretary for Reagan’s second term. Instead, Reagan appointed him to lead the US team of arms reduction negotiators in Geneva. Tower also became very rich very quickly lobbying for a variety of defense contractors. Between his overt lobbying for the defense industry and his notoriously libertine lifestyle—even consorting with prostitutes known to be KGB agents—Tower was unable to secure the position of defense secretary. But he is a Reagan loyalist, and well-known to the White House from their thorough vetting of his background and private life; perhaps this makes Tower a good administration choice to lead the investigative commission. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 85-86]
Barbara Walters, in a 1988 photo. [Source: Raul Vega / Corbis]ABC News reporter Barbara Walters covertly provides the White House with documents from Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar, according to a Wall Street Journal article published in March 1987. The documents, prepared by Walters and given to the White House at Ghorbanifar’s request, report that Ghorbanifar believed, correctly, that National Security Council staffer Oliver North diverted profits from the sale of arms to Iran to Nicaragua’s Contra insurgents (see April 4, 1986). Walters will provide the White House with further documents on the arms sales in January 1987. The documents are given to Walters either just before or just after her interviews with Ghorbanifar and Saudi businessman and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi for the ABC News program 20/20. The documents will eventually be turned over to the Tower Commission (see February 26, 1987). The White House will claim that the documents contain little more than reiterations of Ghorbanifar’s comments to Walters in the interview. ABC News will say that Walters’s actions—essentially acting as an information peddler or middleman between the Arab arms merchants and the US government—are “in violation of a literal interpretation of news policy.… ABC policy expressly limits journalists cooperating with government agencies unless threats to human lives are involved.… Ms. Walters believed that to be the case.” ABC does not explain why Walters believes “threats to human lives” were involved; this assertion also contradicts ABC’s assertions that the documents contained little more that what was said in the interview. [New York Times, 3/17/1987; Nation, 3/28/1987]
A day before he is slated to testify before the Senate on the US’s secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan Contras, CIA Director William Casey suffers two seizures and is hospitalized. The 73-year old Casey is diagnosed with brain cancer. [New York Times, 12/24/1986] He will undergo surgery three days later (see December 18, 1986) and, unable to continue his duties as CIA director, will resign shortly thereafter (see February 2, 1987). He will die six months after the surgery (see May 6, 1987).
Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that before the Iran-Contra revelations of October 1986 (see October 5, 1986, October 10-15, 1986, and October 11-14, 1986) he had never even heard of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, the liaison between the Nicaraguan Contras and the National Security Council (see Mid-September 1985). As he has done so many times before, Abrams is lying. When he took his position in July 1985 (see April 19, 1985 and After), Rodriguez was already working out of the Ilopango airfield in El Salvador. Notes taken by the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, indicate that Abrams knew of Rodriguez by September 1985 at the latest (see September 4, 1985). During that month, Abrams and Corr discussed Rodriguez in at least one meeting. (Corr will later say he cannot recall any such meeting.) Rodriguez was also a frequent topic of discussion in meetings held in late 1985 by the Restricted Interagency Group (RIG—see Late 1985 and After) chaired by Abrams. And Abrams was aware of concerns within the government about Rodriguez’s involvement in disbursing humanitarian funds allocated by the US Congress to the Contras (see October 1985). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]
CIA Director William Casey, one of the key figures in the Iran-Contra affair, undergoes surgery for a brain tumor (see December 15, 1986). [PBS, 2000] The lymphoma tumor will be removed and proven to be malignant. Doctors will refuse to give details about the size and placement of the tumor, any possible cognitive or physical loss caused by the tumor, or any prognosis for possible recovery. The particular cancer is a “B-cell lymphoma of the large cell type,” a quite rare and extraordinarily aggressive form of cancer. Experts say that most cancers of this type occur in people whose immune systems have been compromised, often by treatment for other cancers or people who suffer from AIDS. Casey may have undergone treatment for cancer at an earlier date [New York Times, 12/24/1986] ; it will later be learned that Casey had undergone treatment for prostate cancer. [New York Times, 5/7/1987] Casey will resign as CIA director shortly after his cancer treatments begin (see February 2, 1987). He will die six months after the surgery (see May 6, 1987).
Congress announces the creation of a special counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. Lawrence Walsh is named the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] Walsh, a retired federal judge, later says that he is worried from the outset about the potential for what he calls a “carnival atmosphere” surrounding the hearings. In creating the special counsel and the concurrent Congressional investigation (see January 6-7, 1987), Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) want to head off any possibility of impeachment. “That is the last thing I wanted to do,” Wright later recalls. “Ronald Reagan had only two years left in his [second and final] term. I was not going to allow a procedure that would lead to his impeachment in his final year in office.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 67-68]
Warren Rudman and Daniel Inouye. [Source: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images]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]
Entity Tags: Robert C. Byrd, James C. (‘Jim’) Wright, Jr., Jake Bernstein, Henry Hyde, Daniel Inouye, Contras, Bill McCollum, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Lee Hamilton, Ronald Reagan, Robert Michel, Warren Rudman, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Lou Dubose
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
Alann Steen and his wife on their honeymoon in 1986. [Source: Evelyn Floret / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images]Four teachers at Beirut University College—Americans Alann Steen, Jesse Turner, and Robert Polhill, and Indian-born US resident Mithileshwar Singh—are kidnapped by Hezbollah militants. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
President Reagan testifies before the Tower Commission. His chief of staff, Donald Regan, had previously told the commission that the US had not given its approval for the August 1985 sale of TOW missiles to Iran via Israel (see August 6, 1985 and August 20, 1985), but Reagan shocks both Regan and White House counsel Peter Wallison by admitting that he had indeed approved both the Israeli sale of TOWs to Iran and had agreed to replenish the Israeli stocks. Reagan uses the previous testimony of former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane as a guide. After Reagan’s testimony, Regan attempts to refocus Reagan’s memories of events, going through the chain of events with Reagan and asking questions like, “Were you surprised” when you learned about the TOW sales? Reagan responds, “Yes, I guess I was surprised.” Regan hammers the point home: “That’s what I remember. I remember you being angry and saying something like, ‘Well, what’s done is done.’” Reagan turns to Wallison and says, “You know, I think he’s right.” [Cannon, 1991, pp. 630-631]
President Reagan testifies for a second time to the Tower Commission (see January 26, 1987). His testimony is incoherent and confused; some observers outside the White House begin speculating that Reagan suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia. Commission investigators note that while the Meese investigation claimed Reagan did not know of the August 1985 shipment of missiles to Iran (see August 20, 1985 and November 21-25, 1986), Reagan himself claimed in his previous testimony he did know of the shipments. When asked to clarify the inconsistency, Reagan shocks onlookers by picking up a briefing memo he had been given and reading aloud, “If the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.” [PBS, 2000] White House counsel Peter Wallison is stunned. “I was horrified, just horrified,” he later recalls. “I didn’t expect him to go and get the paper. The purpose of it was just to recall to his mind before he goes into the meeting” what he, Wallison, and Chief of Staff Donald Regan had agreed was the proper chain of events—that Reagan had not known of the shipments beforehand, and had been surprised to learn of them. [Cannon, 1991, pp. 631-632]
CIA Director William Casey abruptly resigns due to terminal brain cancer (see December 18, 1986). Casey’s illness makes him unavailable to testify before the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation, a huge boon for committee Republicans who are determined to keep the truth of Iran-Contra from being revealed (see January 6-7, 1987). Casey had been one of the prime movers behind the Iran arms sales, and was National Security Council staffer Oliver North’s prime supervisor in what insiders call “the Enterprise”—the ad hoc organization run by North and retired General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985) that trained, supplied, and even at times fought for Nicaragua’s Contras. North and Secord’s organization managed to evade Congressional oversight and ignore laws passed to limit US involvement in the Nicaraguan insurgency (see October 10, 1984). According to upcoming testimony from North, Casey saw “the Enterprise” as such a success that it should serve as a model for other US covert operations around the globe. It was Casey’s idea to have foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia (see July, 1984) and Brunei (see June 11, 1986) supply money to the Contras, over the objections of White House officials such as Secretary of State George Shultz, who told Casey in reference to the phrase “quid pro quo” that he should remember that “every quid had a quo.” As one Democratic congressmen later puts it, Casey was the “godfather” of the entire Iran-Contra operation, and his unavailability to the committee is a tremendous blow to its ability to find the truth. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 70]
President Reagan sends a memo to the Tower Commission in an attempt to clarify his previous rambling and incoherent testimony (see January 26, 1987 and February 2, 1987). The memo does not improve matters. It reads in part: “I don’t remember, period.… I’m trying to recall events that happened eighteen months ago, I’m afraid that I let myself be influenced by others’ recollections, not my own.… The only honest answer is to state that try as I might, I cannot recall anything whatsoever about whether I approved an Israeli sale in advance or whether I approved replenishment of Israeli stocks around August of 1985 (see August 20, 1985). My answer therefore and the simple truth is, ‘I don’t remember, period.’” [PBS, 2000]
The Tower Commission issues its final report about the Iran-Contra affair. Among its conclusions, it finds that President Reagan’s top advisers were responsible for creating the “chaos” that led to the affair. It also finds that Reagan was largely out of touch and unaware of the operations conducted by his National Security Council (NSC) staff, and allowed himself to be misled by his closest advisers (see February 20, 1987). Reagan had failed to “insist upon accountability and performance review,” thus allowing the NSC process to collapse. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; PBS, 2000]
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. [White House, 3/4/1987; White House, 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]
Entity Tags: Oliver North, Jake Bernstein, David S. Addington, Bruce Fein, Brendan Sullivan, Arthur Liman, James C. (‘Jim’) Wright, Jr., John Poindexter, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Lawrence E. Walsh, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Warren Rudman, Lee Hamilton, Lou Dubose
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
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. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Public testimony begins in the joint House and Senate investigations of the Iran-Contra affair. General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985) is the first witness (see May 5, 1987). [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
'Hero's Angle' - The televised hearing area in Room 325 of the Senate Office Building, built to accommodate over two dozen committee members, their staff, witnesses, lawyers, and television reporters and camera operators, features a series of two-tiered stages. Film director Steven Spielberg will later tell Senate counsel Arthur Liman that from a visual viewpoint, the staging is a terrible mistake; the witnesses appear on television “at the hero’s angle, looking up as though from a pit at the committees, who resembled two rows of judges at the Spanish Inquisition.” Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will note with some sardonicism that the committee’s two lawyers could not have been better choices to play television villains. Liman is “a nasal-voiced New York ethnic with ‘spaghetti hair,’” and House counsel John Nields is “a balding lawyer with long locks down to his collar who couldn’t keep his distaste for the witnesses from creeping into his voice.”
Opening Statements; Cheney Blames Congress, Not the White House - The hearings open with the usual long-winded opening statements from the various committee members. Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY), the leader of the Republican hardline contingent, makes it clear from the outset where he intends to go in the investigation. “Some will argue that these events justify the imposition of additional restrictions on presidents to prohibit the possibility of similar occurrences in the future,” he says. “In my opinion, this would be a mistake. In completing our task, we should seek above all to find ways to strengthen the capacity of future presidents and future Congresses to meet the often dangerous and difficult challenges that are bound to rise in the years ahead.” He then introduces his counter-argument: Congress’s dithering, not the Reagan administration’s clear violation of the law, is the crux of the problem with the Iran-Contra affair. “One important question to be asked is to what extent did the lack of a clear-cut policy by the Congress contribute to the events we will be exploring in the weeks ahead?” Cheney and his colleagues will argue that because Congress had supported the Contras in the past, its decision not to continue that support was an unforgivable breach, “a form of actionable negligence,” in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, that made it necessary for the Reagan administration to establish “a parallel support network as a ‘bridging’ mechanism until Congress could be brought around to a sensible policy.” Oliver North will echo this concept in his own testimony (see July 7-10, 1987), driving committee Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-NH) to retort: “The American people have the Constitutional right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks, or what Oliver North thinks or what I think or what anybody else thinks makes not a whit if the American people say, ‘Enough.’” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 72-75]
Entity Tags: Richard Secord, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Contras, Arthur Liman, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Reagan administration, Lou Dubose, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Steven Spielberg, Oliver North
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
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. [New York Times, 5/7/1987]
Former CIA Director William Casey (see February 2, 1987) dies as a result of his inoperable brain cancer. Casey was a key figure in the Iran-Contra machinations. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will later write, “In death he would become a helpful scapegoat for Oliver North and a resting place for missing information that would have filled out the contours of the scandal.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 70] Casey had been named as one of the architects of the scheme to use profits from illegal arms sales to Iran to secretly fund the Nicaraguan Contras (see May 5, 1987). He had been hospitalized since April 25, and unable to testify in the Iran-Contra hearings. The immediate cause of death is what doctors call “aspiration pneumonia,” which may mean that Casey inhaled food or food particles in his lungs that set up a toxic chemical reaction. A physician not involved in Casey’s treatment says that Casey may have had trouble swallowing properly. The hospital in Glen Cove, Long Island refuses to give any more details. Despite the swirling Iran-Contra controversy, President Reagan says of his longtime colleague and friend: “His nation and all those who love freedom honor today the name and memory of Bill Casey. In addition to crediting him with rebuilding America’s intelligence capability, history will note the brilliance of his mind and strategic vision, his passionate commitment to the cause of freedom and his unhesitating willingness to make personal sacrifices for the sake of that cause and his country.” [New York Times, 5/7/1987]
USS ‘Stark’ after being struck by Iraqi missile. [Source: US Department of Defense]Two missiles from an Iraqi F-1 Mirage warplane strike the USS Stark, killing 37 of the sailors aboard. The frigate is a member of a US naval task force sent to the Persian Gulf to keep the Gulf open for shipping during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi fighter locks weapons on the Stark three minutes before firing; the commander of the ship refuses to issue the standard “back off” warning to the Iraqi pilot. The first missile bores deep into the ship but fails to explode; the second missile explodes, incinerating the crew’s quarters, the radar room, and the combat information center. The ship burns for two days. [PBS, 2000; Peniston, 2006, pp. 61-63]
Diverting Blame onto Iran - The Pentagon later claims that the Stark indeed warned the fighter pilot not to approach. Iraq quickly apologizes for the attack. The US continues to patrol the Gulf, and continues its program of re-registering Kuwaiti oil tankers under the American flag in order to protect them from Iranian attacks. A diplomat says that given the scale of casualties in the incident, the American public is going to start asking “what the hell is the US doing in the Gulf?” Iran calls the attack on the Stark a “divine blessing.” US officials quickly divert blame for the attack on Iran, accepting an Iraqi explanation that the fighter pilot must have mistaken the US warship for an Iranian vessel. [Guardian, 5/19/1987]
Excusing Iraq, Punishing 'Stark' Commander - “We’ve never considered them hostile at all,” says President Reagan in regards to Iraq’s military. “They’ve never been in any way hostile.… And the villain in the piece is Iran.” Senator John Warner (R-VA), a former secretary of the Navy, denounces Iran as “a belligerent that knows no rules, no morals.” Fellow senator John Glenn (D-OH) calls Iran “the sponsor of terrorism and the hijacker of airliners.” Iraq later determines that the Stark was in its so-called “forbidden zone,” and refuses to produce the pilot for any disciplinary action. The only punishment for the attack is suffered by the captain of the Stark, Glenn Brindel, who is relieved of his command, and his executive officer, who is punished for “dereliction of duty.” [TomDispatch (.com), 5/3/2007]
Lawsuits Dismissed - Two wrongful death lawsuits arising from the attacks will later be dismissed due to the “state secrets” privilege (see June 13, 1991 and September 16, 1992).
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]
Members of the Army Inspector General’s Office travel to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to investigate indications of corruption within the highly secretive Continuity of Government (COG) program, commonly referred to as the Doomsday project, which is designed to keep the government functioning in times of emergency. The investigators approach veteran Army intelligence officer Tom Golden, who was assigned to a watchdog position within the secret program in 1984 (see January 1984). Golden informs the Army Inspector General’s Office of several instances of waste, fraud, and abuse inside his unit at the base (see July 1987). He speaks personally with chief of the inspector general’s intelligence oversight division, Colonel Ned Bacheldor, who assures Golden his status as a whistleblower will be kept confidential. Bacheldor will in fact leak Golden’s name to members of the COG program, who will in turn launch a retaliatory smear campaign against Golden (see After July 1987). Bacheldor leaves the Army Inspector General’s Office midway through the investigation to join the COG unit at Fort Huachuca. The Army Inspector General’s Office expands its investigation to include the leak, but word of the new investigation is released to those on the base. Before investigators can be dispatched, members involved with the COG project at Fort Huachuca destroy documents pertaining to the probe. Despite facing several obstacles, the investigation concludes that two recently awarded no-bid contracts are illegal and whistleblower Tom Golden has been targeted for retaliation. The contracts are canceled and a high-ranking general is reprimanded, but questionable practices will continue within the program and the smear campaign against Golden will last for years (see After July 1987). “The Army couldn’t even stop what was going on,” Golden will tell CNN in 1991. “It was a program the Army did not have jurisdiction over.” The House Armed Services Committee will have similar troubles investigating Golden’s case, but will reach conclusions similar to the Army (see Summer 1988-1989). [Emerson, 8/7/1989; CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]
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]
Following an incident where a Pakistani procurement agent was arrested in the US trying to buy components for a nuclear weapon (see Before July 1987), there is a serious row about it between a CIA manager and a CIA analyst at a Congressional hearing. The hearing is called by Stephen Solarz (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, to vet intelligence concerning Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. CIA manager General David Einsel says it is “not cut and dried” that the arrested Pakistani, Arshad Pervez, and his handler, Inam ul-Haq, are agents of the Pakistani government. Richard Barlow, a CIA analyst there to help Einsel, is surprised by the false answer, as it is a criminal offense to lie to Congress. He realizes, “Einsel’s testimony was highly evasive, and deliberately so.” He will also later comment: “These congressmen had no idea what was really going on in Pakistan and what had been coming across my desk about its WMD program. They did not know that Pakistan already had a bomb and was shopping for more with US help. All of it had been hushed up.” When Barlow is asked the same question, he says it is “clear” Pervez is working for Pakistan, at which point Einsel screams, “Barlow doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Solarz then asks whether there are any more cases involving the Pakistan government. Einsel says there are not, but Barlow replies, “Yes, there have been scores of other cases.” Barlow is then hustled out of the room and returns to CIA headquarters. A senior government official not cleared to attend the briefing comes in and tries to repair the damage, saying that Barlow was referring to intelligence reports, but “not all intelligence reports are accurate.” The official will later indicate that he is not proud of what he does, saying, “I didn’t know what I was getting into.” [New Yorker, 3/29/1993; Guardian, 10/13/2007] Barlow will subsequently be forced out of the CIA because of this hearing (see August 1987-1988).
Longtime US Army intelligence officer Tom Golden, who is currently acting as a watchdog within the ultra-secretive Continuity of Government (COG) program (see January 1984), notifies the Army Inspector General’s Office of several instances of waste, fraud, and abuse within the highly classified COG project. Golden additionally speaks in confidence about his findings to the chief of the inspector general’s intelligence oversight division, Colonel Ned Bacheldor. Golden tells the Inspector General’s Office that contracts are being awarded based on personal relationships among military officials and company employees. He says government personnel have rotating careers at contracted companies and some are being hired at excessive rates for limited work. Golden says the multi-billion dollar communication system at the heart of the COG program does not function properly and is costing exorbitant amounts of money to fix, and alleges the problems are being covered up by military officials (see Late 1985 and December 1990). Golden reports a high-ranking officer within the COG program, Brigadier General Eugene Renzi, who was awarded a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to the BETAC Corporation, which employed the general’s son. US News and World Report describes BETAC as a “consulting firm composed of former intelligence and communications specialists from the Pentagon.” Golden also notes the BETAC contract included $400-a-day consultant jobs for several COG officials, including one of Renzi’s aides. As a result of Golden’s report, two contracts will be found to be illegal and will be subsequently canceled. Renzi will also be reprimanded. The Army assures Golden his name will remain confidential, but his status as a whistleblower will be leaked weeks later by Bacheldor, who will soon leave the Inspector General’s Office to join the COG program. Golden will soon become the target of a retaliatory smear campaign led by members of the secret project, including Renzi and Bacheldor (see After July 1987). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/16/1990; Knight Ridder, 12/18/1990; CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]
Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifies before the joint House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. During the course of his testimony, he says he does not know if President Reagan had any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). North also testifies that William Casey, the recently deceased CIA director (see May 6, 1987), knew of and approved the diversion of funds to the Contras. North admits that the Iranian arms sales were initially designed to help facilitate the release of the American hostages being held by Hezbollah. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Tour de Force - North’s testimony is a “tour de force,” in the words of authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, that allows Republicans the opportunity to reverse the field of the hearings and go on the offensive instead of defending the conduct of the Reagan administration. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, wears his full-dress Marine uniform throughout his entire testimony with rows of ribbons festooning his chest. Handsome and full of righteous patriotism, he is striking on television, and contrasts well with the nasal, disdainful committee lawyers (see May 5, 1987) who spend four days interrogating him.
Need to Free Hostages Trumps Law - For the first two days, North and House counsel John Nields spar for the cameras. North says that Casey had directed him to create the so-called “Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987), the clandestine organization that supported the Nicaraguan Contras with money, weapons, and sometimes US personnel. North admits to shredding untold amounts of evidence after the operation came to light (see November 21-25, 1986). He also admits to lying to Congress in previous testimony. But all of his actions are justified, he says, by the need to get Iran to free the American hostages. “I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten Americans home for it,” he declares in response to one question about US arms sales to Iran. Senate counsel Arthur Liman will later write, “He made all his illegal acts—the lying to Congress, the diversion [of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Contras], the formation of the Enterprise, the cover-up—seem logical and patriotic.”
Targeting Covert Operations - Nields’s preferred line of questioning—covert operations—makes many committee members uncomfortable. Some House Democrats want to use the investigation to further their own goals of limiting covert actions, and others simply want the truth to be revealed. In contrast, House Republicans are united in opposition to any details of covert operations being revealed on national television and thus hampering the president’s ability to conduct future operations as needed. After the first day of North’s testimony, committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) exults on PBS that North “probably was as effective as anybody we’ve had before the committee in coming forward very aggressively and stating what he did, saying why he did it, arguing that he was in fact authorized to take the activities that he did.”
Leaky Congress Unfit to Know of Covert Ops, North Contends - North echoes Cheney’s position that the question is not whether White House officials broke the law, but whether Congress was fit to consider the question of national security at all. North goes so far as to question the propriety of the hearings themselves: “I believe that these hearings, perhaps unintentionally so, have revealed matters of great secrecy in the operation of our government, and sources of methods of intelligence activities have clearly been revealed, to the detriment of our security.” North’s message is clear: Congress is not fit to handle covert operations or, by and large, to even know about them. Best for the legislature to allow the White House and the intelligence community to do what needs doing and remain quiet about it. North’s contention that Congress has leaked vital national security information is shot down by Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who not only forces North to admit that he has no evidence of his contention, but that the White House, not Congress, is the main source of leaked classified information. Indeed, North himself has leaked information (see July 7-10, 1987). Inouye’s co-chair, Warren Rudman (R-NH) will later say: “The greatest leaks came out of the White House. North and company were the biggest leakers of all during that period.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 75-78] Nields, addressing North’s implication that the NSC has no obligation to tell the truth to Congress, says towards the end of his session with North: “We do believe in a democracy in which the people, not one lieutenant colonel, decide important policy issues, don’t we? … You denied Congress the facts North had admitted to lying about the government’s involvement with the Hasenfus plane. You denied the elected representatives of the people the facts.” [Boston Globe, 7/9/1987]
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).
Entity Tags: William Casey, Warren Rudman, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Arthur Liman, Bush administration (41), Contras, Daniel Inouye, Hezbollah, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Lou Dubose
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
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…” [Washington Post, 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?” [Boston Globe, 7/9/1987]
Entity Tags: Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Andrew Kohut, ABC News, Dan Rather, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Tom Brokaw, USA Today, Oliver North
Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair
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]
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