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How Not to Deal with the Iran-Contra Crimes

The prosecution’s case was largely indirect or made by implication, as in another count. On August 6, 1986, North was questioned by the House Intelligence Committee. Before the session, North had allegedly told Poindexter that he did “not think that this will be a very good idea because we will have to reveal things that I cannot reveal.” Poindexter again decided to be conciliatory and told North to meet with the committee with the words, “You can handle it, you can take care of it”—or something similar.15

As North had feared, he was asked questions about his assistance to the contras—and admittedly lied about it. North had done so well that Poindexter, who was vacationing at the time, later received reports that North had handled the committee to its entire satisfaction. On his return to Washington, Poindexter sent North a two-word message: “Well done.”

Had Poindexter told North to lie? North said that he did not go into the room with the intention of lying but had been forced to lie in order not “to reveal things that I cannot reveal.” Yet Poindexter had been forewarned by North that he was not going to reveal the truth, if he were asked about some things by the committee. At the Congressional hearings, North had testified: “He [Poindexter] did not specifically go down and say, ‘Ollie, lie to the committee.’ I told him what I had said afterwards, and he sent me a note saying ‘well done.’ “16

This tangle of events resulted in a typical argument. Webb told the Poindexter jury:

He [North] deceived, he obstructed, he did everything he could to make certain that Congress did not find out what he was doing. He was there because the defendant on trial in this case, as his commander, sent him there to do that.17

Poindexter’s counsel, Richard W. Beckler, countered with:

Oliver North testified that he never told Poindexter that he was going to lie when he went into that meeting. How could he have said he was going to lie when he didn’t even know what questions were going to be asked?18

Whereupon, on final rebuttal, another government counsel, Howard Pearl, reiterated:

North knew what Admiral Poindexter wanted him to do and that was to lie,…so there is no way that this man [Poindexter] expected him [North] to tell the truth or wanted him to tell the truth, and that is why in the end he congratulated him for not telling the truth.19

In effect, Poindexter was in this case not charged with lying; he was charged with aiding and abetting North’s lies. If Poindexter had thought that North could get through questioning by the committee without lying, he had been guilty of woefully bad judgement. Had Poindexter deliberately sent North out to lie or had he trusted too much in North’s virtuosity at fending off inconvenient questions? The most that could be said in Poindexter’s behalf was that he did not know what North would say.

Indeed, Beckler’s chief defense was Poindexter’s alleged ignorance. The jury evidently could not believe that someone in Poindexter’s position was so ignorant about so many things.

3.

Since Poindexter did not testify at his trial, little more was revealed of him than had been known previously. He remains a dour, remote, self-enclosed figure. But the testimony of North and Reagan was self-revelatory. They could not speak at length without giving away something about themselves.

For North, it was the third time on the stand, beginning with the Congressional hearings in 1987. In that performance, he had been bold, blustering, even bullying. He made no apologies, gave no excuses. Most dramatic was his willingness to “take the hit,” sacrifice himself in behalf of his commander in chief. He was North the true believer.

A somewhat different North appeared at his own trial in early 1989. He was far more humble, more repentant. When he tried to explain why he had lied in his replies to the Congressional inquiries, he wavered between expressing contrition and holding on to a shred of self-respect. North said:

I am not proud of this…. The fact is, I didn’t think it was unlawful. I didn’t think it was right, but I did not think it was against the law.

North was asked: “But you knew it was wrong?” He answered: “I have just admitted that. I didn’t think it was right. Therefore, it must be wrong.”20

North got off lightly, because his lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr., had successfully made Reagan the chief culprit of the Iran-contra affairs. Gone was North’s previously protective, self-abasing attitude toward the former president—“if the Commander in Chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in a corner and sit on his head, I will do so.” Sullivan hammered away at Reagan’s responsibility and virtually turned North’s trial into Reagan’s trial. The jury fell for Sullivan’s strategy and acquitted North on nine of the twelve counts. North was lucky in his counsel. Sullivan was far superior to Beckler, who was a bumbling interrogator and frequently irritated Judge Greene.

At Poindexter’s trial, a third North emerged. Far from being proud or humble, he was now vindictive. Time after time he shifted the blame to someone else—generally McFarlane. It was McFarlane who had lied to Congress, McFarlane who had caused the chronology to mislead. North’s other whipping boy was Israel. He had used this tactic before but never so blatantly. Why were the Iranians overcharged? Because the Israelis wanted to keep the prices high.21 Why did North lie about the oil-drilling parts as late as November 20, 1986, only five days before the scandal had erupted? Because it was part of the Israeli cover story.22 North neglected to mention that he had begun to get rid of the Israelis as soon as he had made contact with the so-called Second Channel—a young Iranian officer who took the place of Manucher Ghorbanifar’s Iranian intermediaries in dealings with North. He also did not explain why he was the prisoner of an Israeli cover story and could not at that late date have told the truth within his own government despite it.

Poor Ollie! The heroic centurion, whom North had evoked at the Congressional hearings, had become the helpless victim of circumstances.

4.

Reagan’s behavior at the Poindexter trial presents different problems. The main problem is the relationship between the Reagan who gave a televised deposition at the Poindexter trial and the Reagan who was the chief magistrate of the Republic in the course of the Iran-contra affairs. Only about five years separated the two. If they were more or less the same man in possession of more or less the same wits, one wonders how the country had survived with such a leader.

In considering Reagan the president, two misconceptions need to be avoided. One is that his personality was all of a piece. It is entirely conceivable that Reagan was utterly incapable of putting his mind on some things and intensely interested in other things. If we can believe his first budget director, David A. Stockman, economics was beyond his range, even if he was able to pronounce the panaceas of the supply-side doctrine. On the other hand, Reagan was almost consumed by his passion for the hostages and the contras. On these issues, the evidence shows that he made the main political decisions and that he tolerated no opposition. It was only on the Iran deals that he disregarded the advice of both his secretary of state and secretary of defense, who rarely agreed on anything. When it is considered that Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was his closest friend in the cabinet, an intimate associate from his California days and the most consistent opponent of his Iran policy, Reagan’s decision to break with him on this issue could not have been taken lightly.

The other pitfall is to assume that Reagan carried through from policy to action even in those cases which engaged his mind and emotions. His energies were limited; he was accustomed to performing, not managing; he was constantly cosseted by his staff and especially by his wife, who well knew his limitations. Even in his favorite programs, he made do by giving general directions and letting his subordinates carry them out as best they could. In one respect, he was an easy man to work for, because he demanded little; in another respect, he was hard to work for, because he put so much responsibility on those who served him.

At the Poindexter trial, Reagan was for once unprotected. No script had been written for him; no director or chief of staff arranged his entrances and exits. He seemed to go in and out of lucidity. He must have been lucid when he declared of the Iran-contra affairs: “It was a covert action that was taken at my behest.”23 But sometimes he seemed hopelessly confused and he mixed up one phase of the Iran deals with another.

For example, he said that the Iran affair had started when “a group of individuals, citizens of Iran, journeyed to a third country” and “wanted to discuss with us better relations” between Iran and the United States. [Translation: Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian exile, and Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi entrepreneur now on trial in New York, first made contact with Israelis in the summer of 1985. They were free-lance speculators, not “citizens of Iran.”] Reagan went on: “And so, a delegation of ours—I believe it was all from the National Security Council—journeyed to that same country to meet with these people.” [Translation: In May 1986, a year later, McFarlane led a delegation that was not all from the NSC or its staff, and it went to Tehran, not Israel.]

Much of Reagan’s deposition was of this sort; it would require an extended commentary to separate the fact from fiction in his testimony. Either he did not remember at all, or he dimly remembered a jumbled version of what had been told him, or perhaps he was acting a part for which he had been coached. Sometimes he gave one answer and quickly contradicted himself. A typical case occurred when the subject of the arms-for-hostages deals came up. First, he insisted that the deals had been made with “private citizens” who were Iranians, with “no involvement of the government of Iran in this at all.” Whereupon he was reminded that the Finding had provided for dealing with the government of Iran. Reagan quickly changed his mind: “Well, yes, through the government which is taking steps to facilitate the release.”24

On the seemingly all-important matter of the famous diversion, Reagan’s memory apparently deserted him altogether. As far as we know from the record so far, Reagan had first learned about the diversion from his attorney-general, Edwin Meese III, on November 24, 1986, soon after Meese had obtained confirmation of it from Poindexter and North. Meese testified about his meeting with Reagan:

  1. 15

    North testimony, Poindexter trial, pp. 1031–1033.

  2. 16

    North testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 181.

  3. 17

    Webb, Poindexter trial, p. 3144.

  4. 18

    Beckler, Poindexter trial, p. 3261.

  5. 19

    Pearl, Poindexter trial, pp. 3307–3308.

  6. 20

    North testimony, North trial, p. 7431.

  7. 21

    North testimony, Poindexter trial, pp. 1372–1373.

  8. 22

    North testimony, Poindexter trial, pp. 1198, 1571.

  9. 23

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 9.

  10. 24

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 261.

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