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An Autopsy

1.

The temporary success and ultimate failure of the Iran-contra affair were intimately related. Because the operation was covert, it was able to hide itself for about two years from public or congressional scrutiny. For the same reason, however, it had too narrow a base for such a far-flung, lengthy, and ambitious enterprise. Yet the resources open to it were such that they help to account for both its success and its failure.

What follows was written before the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair was published and is based on my reading of the transcripts and documents previously made available by the committees. In an afterword I briefly discuss four questions raised by the Republican minority report.

The working center of the junta was the staff of the National Security Council. The NSC was pressed into service only because the CIA was expressly forbidden by the Boland Amendment to engage in the contra side, of the operation. The displacement was unnatural; the NSC staff had never been intended to take on projects that had traditionally been the CIA’s raison d’être.

On the NSC staff, one man, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, was given a crushing burden of responsibilities—counter-terrorism, the Nicaraguan contras, the hostages in Lebanon, the “strategic opening” to the strange world of Khomeini’s fanatical Iran. North had no illusions about why he had been chosen in the Iran case for these tasks—“what Director Casey wanted was a plausible deniability, separation, that the CIA would not be directly face to face with the Iranians or the Israelis.”

It did not quite work out that way, however, with the contras. Two CIA station chiefs in Central America, John Malett in Honduras and Joseph Fernandez, alias Tomás Castillo, in Costa Rica, worked closely with North. Casey told North to get the cooperation of Alan Fiers, the chief of the CIA’s Central American Task Force, for bringing arms and supplies to the contras. North admittedly transmitted intelligence from the CIA and the Defense Department to the contras.

The CIA was also drawn into the Iran affair. In November 1985, North turned in desperation for assistance to the CIA’s chief of the European division, Duane Clarridge, and to its national intelligence officer for counterterrorism, Charles Allen, for help in getting arms to Iran out of Portugal, which was denying landing rights to the Israeli planes carrying them. This “horror story,” as North called it, led directly to President Reagan’s “retroactive finding” of December 5,1985, which was intended to give a legal excuse for the CIA’s involvement. It in turn led to the critical finding of January 17, 1986, licensing the CIA to carry out the Iran covert operation, excluding the secretaries of state and defense from knowledge of the decision, and illicitly concealing the action from Congress. This finding was a directive to the head of the CIA, not to the national security adviser, and only Casey’s decision to use North as his chosen instrument gave the initiative to the NSC staff. The claim that the NSC was permitted to do what the CIA was not supposed to do was never more than a legalistic pretense.

At the top of the junta were Casey, North, and the two national security advisers, Robert C.McFarlane until the end of 1985 and Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter in 1986. Though the ringleaders were relatively few, they had ways of calling on others to do jobs for them.

North’s secret weapon was that he could pick up the phone and call from the White House. “I suffer the bureaucrat’s disease,” confessed the CIA’s Clair George, “that when people call me and say, I am calling from the White House for the National Security Council on behalf of the National Security Adviser, I am inclined to ‘snap to.’ “1 When the CIA’s Duane Clarridge was asked why he obeyed North without consulting his superiors, despite a CIA regulation that all requests from the White House had to be cleared with the director, he replied lamely, “Ollie North calls up and says that he needs some urgent assistance,” as if a call from Ollie North in the White House was enough to send him into action.2

Others snapped to. The most notorious case among ambassadors was that of Lewis Tambs in Costa Rica. When Tambs was appointed in 1985, North virtually instructed him to help open a “southern front” for the contras and to get permission from the Costa Rican government for the construction of an airstrip to supply the contras. The military was also let in on North’s secrets. Admiral Arthur S. Moreau, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had “detailed knowledge” of North’s operations. Colonel James Steele, the Military Assistance Group commander in EI Salvador, was “very supportive.”

An unofficial covert network did most of the work for Casey, North, and Company. The purchase and transportation of arms for the contras and later for Iran were entrusted to retired Major General Richard V. Secord and his Iranian-born partner, Albert Hakim. Secord brought in Thomas G. Clines, a former CIA agent who had been caught fraudulently over-billing the government in an arms deal with Egypt, and Raphael “Chi Chi” Quintero, a former CIA Cuban agent. All three had been tainted by an association with the most notorious of all former CIA officials, Edwin Wilson, convicted of having conspired to sell arms to Mua’mmar Al-Qaddhafi of Libya. Wilson’s former associates seem to have been all over the place. Another associate was Theodore Shackley, a former CIA station chief in Laos and Saigon who had risen to the high rank of associate director of clandestine operations. Shackley turns up repeatedly in the Iran-contra affair; he seems to have been the first to have brought Manucher Ghorbanifar, whom he met in Germany in 1984, to the CIA’s attention as a likely Iran go-between.

Another retired general, John K. Singlaub, had gone into the business of raising money for the contras and other such causes through his World Anti-Communist League and US Council on World Freedom. North said that he “certainly saw him a lot.” Other retired officers brought into Secord’s operation were retired Air Force Colonel Robert Dutton and former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gadd.

The main source of money for the contras was Carl R. “Spitz” Channell. Channell had risen in the world from manager of a motor lodge to the manipulator of nine anticommunist foundations and political action committees. He had the cooperation of North and even President Reagan, whose appearance inspired his contributors to give; North and Reagan considered themselves to be without sin so long as they did not take the money themselves.

Channell’s tax-exempt, ostensibly charitable National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty collected millions of dollars, many of them turned over to a public relations firm, International Business Communications (IBC), formed by two former government employees, Richard Miller and Felix Rodriguez, the latter also known as Max Gomez. In April 1987, Channell and Miller pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and willfully defrauding the government” by using tax-deductible, charitable donations to purchase military equipment for the contras. North for his part could not see that he had done anything wrong so long as he had not touched the checks.

International Business Communications was part of a hitherto little-known government-sponsored propaganda machine. It was set up by President Reagan on January 14, 1983, with a national security decision directive entitled “Management of Public Diplomacy Relative to National Security.” CIA Director Casey met with a group of public relations professionals in August of that year, with the result that two new groups were formed—an “Out-reach Working Group on Central America” and an “Office of Public Diplomacy.”

The term “public diplomacy” was duplicitous; the OPD distributed public propaganda on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras and other administration causes. The “public” for this propaganda was solely American; there was nothing “diplomatic” about the hard sell that characterized it. The IBC was a private public relations firm that was given hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lucrative contracts in order to influence Congress and public opinion in ways off-limits to executive agencies. North met regularly with the IBC’s Rodriquez and Miller as well as Channell.3

Recently released documents show what the Office of Public Diplomacy was up to. One is a message dated March 13, 1985, from the OPD’s Jonathan S. Miller to the director of communications in the White House, Pat Buchanan, on the subject of ” ‘White Propaganda’ Operation.” Miller boasted of “five illustrative examples of the Reich ‘White Propaganda’ operation” (a reference to Otto. J. Reich, director of the OPD). Miller cited an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal of March 11, 1985, by Professor John F. Guilmartin, Jr., an adjunct professor of history at Rice University in Houston, who “has been a consultant in our office and collaborated with our staff in the writing of this piece.” Two op-ed pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post were entirely prepared by an OPD consultant but signed by the contra leaders Alfonso Robelo Adolfo Calero, and Arturo Cruz.

Yet Section 501 of the 1985 Appropriations Act specifically prohibits the State Department from using funds “for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress.” The general counsel for the office of the comptroller general of the United States, Harry R. Van Cleve, informed Representative Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations, on September 30, 1987, that the OPD

engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies. The use of appropriated funds for these activities constitutes a violation of a restriction on the State Department annual appropriations prohibiting the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress.

When Oliver North was asked who at the State Department knew of his “full-service operation” on behalf of the contras, he could immediately recall only one name—the OPD’s Miller. The OPD thus served as the covert propaganda arm of North’s covert operations.

Other services were rendered to North by Robert Owen, who worked on contract for the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Organization, but spent most of his time as North’s chief liaison with the contras. Owen was known as “The Courier,” because he went back and forth to Central America for North or, as Owen put it, he was North’s “eyes and ears.” North testified that Owen carried money to contra leaders, reconnoitered the airstrip in Costa Rica, and carried maps and documents from North to the contras for the purpose of destroying Sandinista military equipment.

A British subject, David Walker, who operated a “security” business in the Channel Islands, was also hired to carry out covert activities. North testified that Walker’s organization was used “in support of the Nicaraguan resistance, with internal operations in Managua and elsewhere, in an effort to improve the perception that the Nicaraguan resistance could operate anywhere that it so desired.” One of the means by which this perception was supposed to be improved was a planned attack on the Sandinistas’ helicopter fleet, though finally it did not come off because Walker considered it to be too dangerous. North as usual absolved himself of responsibility for Walker’s operations on the ground that he had not “directly authorized” Walker; he had merely “encouraged Mr. Walker to be in touch with the people who could benefit from that.”

  1. 1

    Joint hearings, August 5, 1987 (George).

  2. 2

    Joint hearings, August 4, 1987 (Clarridge).

  3. 3

    The fullest account that I have seen of this “vast psychological warfare operation” is “The Contra Lobby” by Peter Kornbluh in The Village Voice (October 13, 1987).

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