On November 25, 1986, the biggest political and constitutional scandal since Watergate exploded in Washington when President Ronald Reagan told a packed White House news conference that funds derived from covert arms deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran had been diverted to buy weapons for the U.S.-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
In the weeks leading up to this shocking admission, news reports had exposed the U.S. role in both the Iran deals and the secret support for the Contras, but Reagan’s announcement, in which he named two subordinates — National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter and NSC staffer Oliver L. North — as the responsible parties, was the first to link the two operations.
The scandal was almost the undoing of the Teflon President. Of all the revelations that emerged, the most galling for the American public was the president’s abandonment of the long-standing policy against dealing with terrorists, which Reagan repeatedly denied doing in spite of overwhelming evidence that made it appear he was simply lying to cover up the story.
Despite the damage to his image, the president arguably got off easy, escaping the ultimate political sanction of impeachment. From what is now known from documents and testimony — but perhaps not widely appreciated — while Reagan may not have known about the diversion or certain other details of the operations being carried out in his name, he directed that both support for the Contras (whom he ordered to be kept together “body and soul”) and the arms-for-hostages deals go forward, and was at least privy to other actions that were no less significant.
In this connection, it is worth noting that Poindexter, although he refused to implicate Reagan by testifying that he had told him about the diversion, declared that if he had informed the president he was sure Reagan would have approved. Reagan’s success in avoiding a harsher political penalty was due to a great extent to Poindexter’s testimony (which left many observers deeply skeptical about its plausibility). But it was also due in large part to a tactic developed mainly by Attorney General Edwin Meese, which was to keep congressional and public attention tightly focused on the diversion. By spotlighting that single episode, which they felt sure Reagan could credibly deny, his aides managed to minimize public scrutiny of the president’s other questionable actions, some of which even he understood might be illegal.
Twenty years later, the Iran-Contra affair continues to resonate on many levels, especially as Washington gears up for a new season of political inquiry with the pending inauguration of the 110th Congress and the seeming inevitability of hearings into a range of Bush administration policies.
For at its heart Iran-Contra was a battle over presidential power dating back directly to the Richard Nixon era of Watergate, Vietnam and CIA dirty tricks. That clash continues under the presidency of George W. Bush, which has come under frequent fire for the controversial efforts of the president, as well as Vice President Richard Cheney, to expand Executive Branch authority over numerous areas of public life.
Iran-Contra also echoes in the re-emergence of several prominent public figures who played a part in, or were touched by, the scandal. The most recent is Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense (see below and the documents in this compilation for more on Gates’ role).
This sampling of some of the most revealing documentation (Note 1) to come out of the affair gives a clear indication of how deeply involved the president was in terms of personally directing or approving different aspects of the affair. The list of other officials who also played significant parts, despite their later denials, includes Vice President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, CIA Director William J. Casey, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, and numerous other senior and mid-level officials, making this a far broader scandal than the White House portrayed it at the time.
In that connection, what follows is a partial list of some of the more prominent individuals who were either directly a part of the Iran-Contra events or figured in some other way during the affair or its aftermath:
Elliott Abrams – currently deputy assistant to President Bush and deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy, Abrams was one of the Reagan administration’s most controversial figures as the senior State Department official for Latin America in the mid-1980s. He entered into a plea bargain in federal court after being indicted for providing false testimony about his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Contras, although he later accused the independent counsel’s office of forcing him to accept guilt on two counts. President George H. W. Bush later pardoned him.
David Addington – now Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, and by numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power, Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney.
John Bolton – the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time.
Richard Cheney – now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees’ Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
Robert M. Gates – President Bush’s nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987 because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when he was re-nominated in 1991. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
Manuchehr Ghorbanifar – the quintessential middleman, who helped broker the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all sides’ goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections.
Michael Ledeen – a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11, introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring contacts inside Iran.
Edwin Meese – currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan’s controversial attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry by the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
John Negroponte – the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S. military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Negroponte’s profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
Oliver L. North – now a radio talk show host and columnist, he was at the center of the Iran-Contra spotlight as the point man for both covert activities. A Marine serving on the NSC staff, he steadfastly maintained that he received high-level approval for everything he did, and that “the diversion was a diversion.” He was found guilty on three counts at a criminal trial but had those verdicts overturned on the grounds that his protected congressional testimony might have influenced his trial. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from Virginia in 1996. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
Daniel Ortega – the newly elected president of Nicaragua was the principal target of several years of covert warfare by the United States in the 1980s as the leader of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. His democratic election in November 2006 was not the only irony — it’s been suggested by one of Oliver North’s former colleagues in the Reagan administration that North’s public statements in Nicaragua in late October 2006 may have taken votes away from the candidate preferred by the Bush administration and thus helped Ortega at the polls.
– John Poindexter – who found a niche deep in the U.S. government’s post-9/11 security bureaucracy as head of the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program (formally disbanded by Congress in 2003), was Oliver North’s superior during the Iran-Contra period and personally approved or directed many of his activities. His assertion that he never told President Reagan about the diversion of Iranian funds to the Contras ensured Reagan would not face impeachment.
– Otto Reich – President George W. Bush’s one-time assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Reich ran a covert public diplomacy operation designed to build support for Ronald Reagan’s Contra policies. A U.S. comptroller-general investigation concluded the program amounted to “prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” although no charges were ever filed against him. Reich paid a price in terms of congressional opposition to his nomination to run Latin America policy, resulting in a recess appointment in 2002 that lasted less than a year.