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Rewriting the Iran-Contra Story’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I appreciate the seriousness with which Theodore Draper has approached the Iran-Contra affair in his review of several books on the subject [NYR, January 19], including my Perilous Statecraft. He is quite right to stress that “there was no Iran-contra affair…. There was an Iran affair and a contra affair, which most of the time were separate and distinct.”This is one of the basic themes of Perilous Statecraft, as is his well-founded conclusion that William Casey was not the “mastermind” behind Ollie North’s “off the shelf” covert action capability. Indeed, my book is the only one to reach that conclusion, and I quoted Casey’s own lawyer, Milton Gould, to that effect. Gould was preparing Casey for testimony to congressional committees, just prior to Casey’s stroke in late 1986.

Draper praises Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen for telling us that the congressional hearings “were shockingly improvised and politicized,” but he neglects to mention that the politicization of the hearings led some committee members to commit some alarming excesses of zeal. Senator Cohen, for example, slandered me in public session by asking McFarlane whether he was aware that I “had entered the country carrying large amounts of cash.” McFarlane said he was not.This understandably created quite a stir among the Washington press corps, who pressed Cohen for details. He said he had misspoken.Yet, despite repeated requests, Cohen never corrected the record, nor would he face me at my depositions, ensuring that the damage to my reputation would remain undiminished.This sort of ugliness, along with many other details of the hearings and investigations, are documented in Perilous Statecraft.

Draper comes down hard on me for my support of working with Manucher Ghorbanifar.He quotes Charles Allen of the CIA, as if Mr.Allen were opposed to it. In fact, Mr. Allen agreed that it was a useful connection, as did others at CIA, including Casey. The issue was how best to advance American interests, and to enhance our knowledge and understanding of Iran. Ghorbanifar’s picture of Khomeini’s Iran was generally correct. He told us that it was Iran, not Syria, that controlled the destiny of the hostages in Lebanon. No one, myself included, believed it at the time, yet it was true.Ghorbanifar also argued that Iran was ready for rapprochement with the West, and he subsequently negotiated the normalization of relations between Iran and France. To date, Canada, France, Great Britain, and even Kuwait have followed the same course. Yet the CIA’s experts, armed with their polygraphs, said that Ghorbanifar lied about almost everything. They even said he lied when he said he could help obtain the release of hostages in Lebanon. But he was right—ask the Weir and Jenco families, along with those of the French and German hostages who are free today as a result of Ghorbanifar’s activities.The CIA’s Deputy Director of Operations, Clair George, swore in his deposition that Ghorbanifar was an Israeli agent. Draper agrees with me that that is highly unlikely.Why is he so willing to swallow the party line on the rest of Ghorbanifar’s activities? After all, it was Ghorbanifar who warned that if we pursued the hostage question to the exclusion of the vitally important US-Iranian relationship, we would “become hostages to the hostages.” And so it was. I did not say that Ghorbanifar was always accurate, or always truthful. I did, and do, say—and the record proves it—that many of the “lies” atttributed to him were either not lies, or did not come from him.

I am grateful to Theodore Draper for stressing that I was opposed to turning the Iran Initiative into an arms-for-hostages deal, although he somewhat overstates the case when he says I believed “that a serious negotiation between the two countries was possible.”Today, we can see that negotiations were indeed possible (whether they were desirable is a different matter). At the time, I believed that we should investigate this question, but also the more attractive possibility of working closely with powerful Iranians who said they could, and would, change the nature of the Khomeini regime. I had no idea if this could succeed, but I did think it needed careful assessment. Draper says, to this, that “McFarlane never took it seriously.” I think that, for once, Draper puts this important question in an incomplete context. We know that McFarlane never did anything about it, but I contend that this was due to the terrible psychological crisis into which he was entering in the latter part of 1985, and which led to his resignation a few weeks later. I believe that the Iran Initiative cannot be understood unless the drama of Robert McFarlane is seen as an integral part of the story, and I hope that Theodore Draper will look carefully at the anguish of this dedicated and honorable man, who tried to take his own life more than a year afterwards.

Finally, a quibble: Perilous Statecraft does contain a good deal of material about my role in the Iran Initiative, but that is only part of the book. Most of Perilous Statecraft is the result of research, based in part on the tens of thousands of pages of depositions and testimony. Draper is right to warn, as I did myself, that any book written at this time can only be a first approximation. But in order to evaluate all those tens of thousands of pages, and assess whose memory is reliable, and whose is fanciful, it helps to have been there.

Michael A. Ledeen
Chevy Chase, Maryland

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper, in his review of Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988, makes both general and specific complaints about our account of the Iran-contra story.We believe his general complaint is misplaced, and most of his specific complaints are demonstrably incorrect.

The questions Mr. Draper raises about the genre of narrative history are familiar. He seems troubled that our book is too readable, its style too journalistic. Some academic historians have long begrudged popular history for being just that. Yet we are astonished that Mr. Draper has singled out Landslide as a target, for we went well beyond the standards employed in most journalistic accounts by including copious source notes and ensuring that the great majority of interviews were on the record.

Mr. Draper’s main point is that reconstructing dialogue for narrative purposes can invite abuse. We agree; that is why Landslide includes more than 600 source notes. Moreover, we took pains to explain to our readers the methods we used and the limits of our knowledge, in a note which read, in part:

Where dialogue is presented, the quotations have been derived either from contemporaneous notes or from interviews with several participants. No dialogue has been reconstructed from secondhand sources.

The events of the Iran-contra affair present a special problem for journalists and historians. Many of the actors’ accounts differ. Some oral accounts cannot be squared with the documentary record…. In such cases, we have tried our best to judge which accounts appear closest to the truth.

Given that warning, Mr. Draper’s suggestion that we attempted to pass off the dialogue in Landslide as equivalent to a verbatim transcript is baffling.

As for Mr. Draper’s specific complaints, we are grateful to him for pointing out that one of our notes is in error. The description of Reagan’s telephone call to North on November 25, 1986, was derived from North’s accounts to Fawn Hall and others; his citation of Reagan’s reference to the story making “a great movie” was reported in The New York Times on November 30, 1986, and confirmed through interviews with friends of North.

But Mr. Draper’s other complaints are simply mistaken. Shultz attributed the witticism on visiting hours in prison to Reagan, not Weinberger; Mr. Draper seems to have misread both Shultz’s testimony and Weinberger’s deposition. Contrary to Mr. Draper’s assertion, Landslide does not credit North with inventing the term “Project Democracy,” and Mr. Draper has confused North’s use of the name with its earlier application to a different project. And although Carl R. Channell denied it, the Iran-contra committees concluded, on the basis of testimony from four witnesses, that he did believe David Fischer was working on a fee-for-service basis when he arranged meetings with President Reagan.

Mr. Draper charges that we distorted North’s interview with Meese and other Justice Department officials on November 23, 1986. Quite the contrary: Mr. Draper seems to have misunderstood what occurred at that critical meeting. Mr. Draper writes: “North did not allegedly say that the Israelis had actually arranged to transfer the residuals to the contras; at most he may have said that they had offered to do so, or that they had advised North to do so.” This is incorrect. Meese and his aides all clearly remembered North telling them that Israel’s Amiran Nir transferred the diverted money directly into contra bank accounts. John Richardson’s notes of the interview confirm their accounts. And North himself acknowledged in his testimony that he may have given Meese that impression.

Finally, Mr. Draper complains that many of our source notes refer to documents published by the congressional Iran-contra committees without references to volume and page number. Alas, this is true; we did the reporting for Landslide before the committees’ records were printed.

We sympathize with Mr. Draper’s difficulties. Information on the Iran-contra affair is at once incomplete, unreliable, and extraordinarily complex. It is for this reason that we approached it with such care. Jane Mayer
Doyle McManus

Theodore Draper replies:

The letters of Michael A. Ledeen and Jane Mayer-Doyic McManus are characteristic of their books. Michael A. Ledeen is a gambler. He gambles that no one is going to check up on him. A few examples must suffice.

Take the reference to his book’s quotation of Milton Gould, William Casey’s counsel. It is supposed to prove that Ledeen’s book had reached the conclusion that Casey “was not the ‘mastermind’ behind Ollie North’s ‘off the shelf’ covert action capability.”

Anyone can check the Gould quotation on pp. 227–228 of Ledeen’s Perilous Statecraft. Anyone can see that Gould never mentions the off-the-shelf capability. Gould simply denies that Casey ever gave total approval of North’s activities. The nearest Gould comes to the issue is: “He [Casey] did not approve those activities and he never expressed to North or anybody else his approval of those clandestine, illegal, delictual, immoral activities.”

There is not a word here about the problem of the off-the-shelf capability, except in the most general sense that Casey never did anything wrong.

Or take Ledeen on Ghorbanifar. Ledeen did not merely support working with him; Ledeen, as Charles Allen said, “praised Ghorbanifar to the hilt.” That is all I cited from Allen. As for Allen’s view, this is what he said of Ghorbanifar:

He is very flamboyant. He’s very clever, cunning. I described him as a con man to the Director [Casey]. I said it doesn’t mean that, properly managed, and it might take a lot of effort, that you cannot manage a con man to do this. And I remember the Director joking and saying well, maybe this is a con man’s con man then. [Allen’s Deposition, p. 575]

This is a more favorable view of Ghorbanifar than others on the American side had. But all this has nothing to do with whether I cited Allen correctly about Ledeen’s praise for Ghorbanifar.

Ledeen now ways that he “did not say that Ghorbanifar was always accurate, or always truthful.” I did not say that Ledeen said that; I said that Ledeen said something else. In his book, Ledeen said that Ghorbanifar was “almost certainly innocent” of “inventing lies at key moments of the initiative” (pp. 192–193). Ghorbanifar was guilty of telling lies at key moments, even if Ledeen did not say that he was always accurate or always truthful.

One key instance was Ghorbanifar’s lies to both sides on the occasion of the mission to Tehran, headed by former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, in May 1986. Ghorbanifar was blamed by the Americans for having deceived both sides about what each was prepared to do, which caused much unnecessary misunderstanding and prejudiced the meeting from the start. All the Americans, except Ledeen, knew Ghorbanifar as a clever, cunning liar at key moments.

This is a good example of Ledeen’s practice of denying what he was not charges with and ignoring what he actually wrote. There is no point here in going into the questions of whether “Ghorbanifar’s picture of Khomeini’s Iran was generally correct” or whether a serious negotiation between the two countries was possible in 1985. These tributes by Ledeen to Ghorbanifar’s supposed contributions are most questionable and merely show that Ledeen is still a devotee of the Iranian “con man.”

Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus are also gamblers.

Take President Reagan’s alleged remark to Oliver North about making a “great movie.” This is how they have it in their book Landslide:

Ollie,” the president said, “you’re a national hero.” Then he added the best consolation he knew: “This is going to make a great movie one day.” [p. 351]

Before I show how this dialogue was concocted, it should be remembered that Mayer and McManus have assured the reader, as quoted in their own letter: “No dialogue has been reconstructed from secondhand sources.”

First, let us look into the “great movie” bit. It comes from an article by Shirley Christian in The New York Times of November 30, 1986. She wrote about North’s life after the eruption of the Iran-contra scandal, about which she had this paragraph:

They [friends] said he was also heartened by a telephone call of gratitude from Mr. Reagan, who, according to one acquaintance, began the conversation by suggesting that the revelations of recent days would make a great movie.

This remark comes from a reporter who cites an unnamed acquaintance about what the President supposedly said to North on the telephone.

Is it legitimate to make out of this a direct quotation, “This is going to make a great movie one day,” tacked on to “you’re a national hero,” as if Mayer and McManus knew that one remark actually followed the other? Is it legitimate to give a source note that is entirely misleading?

The source note for this passage reads: ” ‘Ollie, you’re a national hero’: North testimony, July 7, 9, 1987.” Even this is spurious. North had merely testified: “He told me words to the effect ‘I just didn’t know.’ ” That’s all there is in North’s testimony about the telephone call.

The words “national hero” come from a telephone interview with the President by Hugh Sidey of Time magazine (Fawn Hall had a somewhat different version—that North had told her the President had called him “an American hero”).

The source note would lead readers to believe that both the “national hero” and “great movie” remarks appear in North’s testimony. But Mayer-McManus now tell us that they got the “great movie” from the New York Times story. This was concealed in their source note, as if they knew it could not bear looking into.

In short, the “national hero.” the “great movie,” and the source note were all dubious concoctions. Though Mayer and McManus had assured the reader that “No dialogue has been reconstructed from secondhand sources,” the “national hero” remark was reconstructed from a wrongly attributed secondhand source, and the “great movie” bit was reconstructed from a thirdhand source.

Yet Mayer-McManus boast of six hundred source notes. Whenever I was curious about something in their book, I rarely found a note. I was curious about the “national hero”—“great movie” paragraph and found the wrong note for the first half and no note for the second. Source notes were evidently meant to imply that the authors were doing a serious work of history; they should not have been used to cover up work that is in large part fictionalized journalism or factitious popular history.

Let us go on.

I gave volume and page for what I considered to be some of their minor mishaps; they make denials without the slightest effort to back them up. There is nothing to do now but to go over some of the ground again.

Did Secretary Shultz attribute the witticism about visiting hours to president Reagan or to secretary Weinberger? Here are the words from Shultz’s testimony: “And Secretary Weinberger—’but,’ he said, ‘visiting hours are Thursday,’ or some such statement” (p. 32). Weinberger’s name is directly connected with what follows.

Did Landslide say that North invented the term “Project Democracy”? Here is what Landslide says: “The opening of the [Lake Resources] account marked the birth of a secret conglomerate that Secord, the icy operations man, would simply call ‘the Enterprise.’ North, with his more dramatic bent, gave the undertaking a far more appealing name: Project Democracy” (p. 147).

Did Carl R. Channell agree to give $50,000 to David Fischer for every meeting with President Reagan? Mayer-McManus reply that Channell believed that Fischer was working on a fee-for-service basis, etc.—which has nothing to do with the specific question of the $50,000.

As for North’s interview with Attorney General Meese, I went into this matter in considerable detail. I cited just what his two aides, William Bradford Reynolds and John Richardson, had said about the Israeli connection with the “residuals.” All that Mayer-McManus now blandly say is that Meese and his aides “clearly remembered North telling them that Israel’s Amiran Nir transferred the diverted money directly into contra bank accounts.” They do not even try to cope with the evidence that I painfully assembled.

Alas, all my efforts to clear up this matter were in vain—so far as they are concerned. I cannot ask the reader to go through all the evidence again. Those who wish to make up their own minds will have to refer to The New York Review, January 19, 1989, p. 45.

Mayer and McManus sympathize with my difficulties. I don’t sympathize with theirs, because their “difficulties” arise from an abuse of fictionalized journalism. Their letter convinces me all the more that there is a need for an acceptable code of journalistic ethics and higher standard for popular history.

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