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Reagan’s Underworld

Report of the President’s Special Review Board

by John Tower, by Edmund S. Muskie, by Brent Scowcroft
Government Printing Office, 280 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Tower Commission Report

with an introduction by R.W. Apple Jr.
Bantam Books/Times Books, 550 pp., $5.50 (paper)


The most telling parts of the Tower Commission’s report are not to be found in the report itself—which leaves many questions open—but in the appendixes. These quote abundantly from interviews held by the special review board, from documents written by the White House staff, and from the messages Colonel Oliver North and Admiral Poindexter sent each other on the “PROF System”—“an interoffice mail system run through an IBM main frame computer and managed by the White House Communications Agency for the NSC.”

The reader might expect to find recreated the heavy atmosphere of “the presidency”—in which officials carefully weigh the risks of different policies as they face crises involving life and death. But he will search in vain for any coherent, extended argument for one policy or another. Instead he finds himself in an unusually implausible James Bond movie, or in a Middle Eastern souk where buyers and sellers haggle about prices, or in the middle of a low-level mafia scam. Indeed, many of the episodes have the flavor of a popular comic strip that ran in France before the Second World War and described the antics of a small gang of rogues, Les Pieds Nickelés. The main difference, aside from the stakes, is that the White House rogues are altogether lacking in charm.

The Tower Commission concludes that “the arms transfers to Iran and the activities of the NSC staff in support of the contras are case studies in the perils of policy pursued outside the constraints of orderly process.” Much of what it reports, under two severe headings, “A Flawed Process” and “Failure of Responsibility,” is convincing and important. Before the Tower Commission’s work was done, Theodore Draper had already reached similar conclusions, in his article “Reagan’s Junta.”1 But the emphasis on “process” has the effect of diverting attention from the actual policies followed, whose nature and persistence explain many of the peculiarities of what can barely be called a process. This is the subject of the present article. The “failure of responsibility” is, as the report makes clear, largely the President’s. But it goes well beyond the defects of his “management style,” and is best understood when one considers both the beliefs and character and the patterns of behavior that Reagan developed long before he became president. This will be the subject of a second article.

The shift in America’s policy toward Iran came in two stages. First, in 1985, the Reagan administration authorized Israel to sell weapons to Iran, in the hope that the sale might lead to the release of American hostages as well as prepare for a strategic rapprochement with Iran. In 1986, the US decided to sell weapons to Iran directly. Six transactions—three Israeli and three American ones—are described by the report’s charts (B, 174–185),2 and from the accompanying documents a pattern emerges.

First, the US government relied to an extraordinary degree on two different, but dubious, “intermediaries.” The first and most durable was the Iranian Manucher Ghorbanifar, described by one former CIA official as having been an agent of SAVAK, the Shah’s dreaded secret police. He appears throughout the documents as allied with, used by (or using), the Israeli Amiram Nir, adviser on counterterrorism to then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Ghorbanifar was distrusted by the American agents who knew him, and, on January 11, 1986, he badly failed a polygraph test given to him in Washington by the CIA. (Many of the questions asked him whether he had been deceiving or lying to “us” before.) Nevertheless, he was kept on, and he made arguments for, and accompanied former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane on, the disastrous trip to Tehran in May 1986.

In the summer of 1986, on the initiative of Richard Secord, a retired general in the secret arms business, the US switched to another go-between, archly described in the report as the “Relative” of a high Iranian official. A footnote identifies him as a man named Tabatabai, who is related to Ayatollah Khomeini. The record shows that the “Relative” was quite skillful in leading North to make plans and proposals that were entirely in Iran’s interest.

Secondly, the NSC relied even more extensively on “private” American citizens who were actually former intelligence officials recruited either to complement public activities or to substitute for them, clearly in coordination with the CIA. Secord and the CIA were both engaged in the third Israeli transaction of 1985 (it turned out to be a fiasco). Secord and the CIA again worked together to resupply the contras in early 1986 (III-23), and North set up, with McFarlane’s approval, a number of nonprofit foundations, (C-5), as well as what he called Project Democracy, a network of secret bank accounts, private communications, “six aircraft, warehouses, supplies, maintenance facilities, ships, boats, leased houses, vehicles, ordnance, munitions…a secret airfield in Costa Rica” (III-23), which worked closely with the CIA (B, 126–127). Some of the people with whom the US dealt as intermediaries were suspected by North and Casey of having made a secret business deal among themselves (B-70)—Ghorbanifar, two Israeli arms salesmen, Yaacov Nimrodi and Adolph Schwimmer, and Michael Ledeen, an NSC “consultant.”

Thirdly, many of the activities described in the report were illegal, or undertaken without authority. The initial authorization for the Israeli shipments did not meet the conditions set by the Arms Export Control Act. A presidential finding of January 17, 1986, “formally approved the Iran initiative as a covert intelligence operation under the National Security Act” (IV-9); this gave legal authority in the US arms transfers, but the notification of Congress “in a timely fashion,” required by the law, never occurred. As for resupplying the contras in 1985 and 1986, this was of course a violation of the Boland Amendment passed by Congress in October 1984. That law specifically forbade direct or indirect military aid to the contras and denied funds for this purpose to the CIA, the Department of Defense, “or any other agency or entity of the US involved in intelligence activities.” The President’s Intelligence Oversight Board ruled that this provision did not apply to the NSC—even though the NSC was clearly “involved” in such activities (C, 1–2).

The commission was hampered by the lack of records on key points. Some may have been destroyed by North, but it is hard to believe that there would have been no other copies available if records of meetings with the President had been kept. The commission found repeatedly that such meetings left no other traces than the frequently divergent recollections of the participants—the President proved to be particularly vague, or contradictory, or forgetful. At the two meetings held with Shultz, Weinberger, and Casey, on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986, no minutes appear to have been taken, and no decision to have been made (III, 10–11). Meese told the Tower Commission that at the meeting of January 7, he did not want anything on paper because the subject was too sensitive (B-61). The crucial authorization of Iran arms sales of January 17, 1986, was adopted without the participation of Casey, Weinberger, or Shultz.

The lack of serious preparation at a high level explains in part the comedy of errors of the Tehran meeting—when McFarlane discovered that the deal he thought had been agreed on was not at all what the Iranians had in mind—and the extravagant promises of yet more arms by North to the “relative” in two meetings at Frankfurt in October 1986. The report blames Shultz and Weinberger for having merely “distanced” themselves from a policy they opposed, Casey for having failed to warn the President about the risks, and Donald Regan for not insisting on “an orderly process” (IV-11).

The evidence of the administration’s ineptitude is so flagrant it is sometimes hard to believe. Was the President telling the truth when he “told the Board that he had not been advised at any time during this period [1985] how the plan would be implemented” (III-13)? The same question can be asked about his claim that he was not “advised of the downside risks if the NSC staff ran the operation.” It is not surprising that, according to North, those “primitive, unsophisticated” Iranians with whom he dealt “have not the slightest idea of what is going on in our government or how our system works”: Who could? (B-35). Weapons kept being delivered even though no hostages were released (III-14). Two hostages were released later—one after the failure at Tehran, clearly so that a connection so useful to Iran would not be broken, and one after the Frankfurt meetings. But many more were taken, or kept. “Repeatedly, Lt. Col. North permitted arms to be delivered without the release of a single captive” (IV-7). Indeed, his eagerness to supply the Iranians now in the hope of future compensation reminds one of the Vichy regime’s policy of meeting or even anticipating German demands, in the hope of eventual concessions to French sovereignty.

There is also evidence of much deception within the administration. Shultz seems to have been lied to several times by Poindexter and by Casey (III-15). McFarlane, according to the report, was misled by North and Casey into expecting too much from the Tehran meeting (III-16), and by Poindexter, who told him that State and Defense approved the trip (B-100). Poindexter instructed North to keep Shultz ignorant of the financing of the contras, and Casey ignorant of some of North’s activities (C-10). After the first revelations of the scandal, the NSC staff concocted several chronologies that were highly misleading in their attempt to protect the President by showing him even less involved than he was. Although the commission sometimes equivocates about the President’s responsibility, in fact, the record, for all its uncertainties, shows that Reagan was frequently briefed and gave his assent to what was being planned with respect to Iran. After the Tehran meeting McFarlane reported to him—“The President didn’t comment really, but that was not untypical,” McFarlane said (B-127). Before the Frankfurt meeting, Reagan “considered the new Iranian interlocutor” at his morning briefing on September 9, 1986 (B-152).

Congress was obviously kept out of everything—it was kept in the dark about Iran, and it “may have been actively misled” about the contras (III-21). McFarlane’s denials of any wrongdoing on the part of the NSC, addressed to two members of the House in August and September 1985 (C-6), are proof of a deliberate deception of Congress. Certainly, the Congress was not told that the ambassador to Costa Rica defined his mission there as the opening of a second front for the contras (C-12)—the airstrip being “essentially [his] initiative.” Elliot Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, clearly knew about this, even though both he and Casey denied knowing about North’s private network (C-14).


It is too easy to say that such incompetence and illegality result from the President’s “style” of leadership and from the mediocrity of many of his officials—a combination that had already occurred during his first term as governor of California. One has to go deeper.

  1. 1

    The New York Review (January 29).

  2. 2

    All references in this article are to the original edition.

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