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How Not to Deal with the Iran-Contra Crimes

I then related in more detail to the President, and also added what I had just learned from Admiral Poindexter about his knowledge and participation [in the diversion].25

Chief of Staff Regan was present and confirmed that Meese had told Reagan about North’s admission to Meese “that he had diverted some of these funds to the Nicaraguan Contras.”26 In the climactic press conference on November 25, 1986, at which Meese first reported on the Iran-contra affairs, Meese spoke publicly of the “diversion.”27

Yet in his deposition at the Poindexter trial, Reagan made the astounding statement that “to this day, I don’t have any information or knowledge that…there was a diversion…. I, to this day, do not recall ever hearing that there was a diversion.”28 He said that he did not even know that the report of the Tower Board in February 1987 had referred to the diversion. As if he had never read the report, he said that he now heard about its reference to the diversion for the first time.29 When he was asked whether “this [was] the first time in this courtroom that you came to realize in fact that a diversion had actually occurred,” Reagan answered, “Yes.”30

How are we to explain this extraordinary aberration? Had the Reagan of 1990 so deteriorated in less than five years that he could remember nothing about the diversion—for which, however, he said he could “not escape responsibility” in a speech on March 4, 1987, following the release of the Tower Board report? Had Reagan always been fuzzy about what had been going on around him? It might be easier to understand if one believed that Reagan was faking at the Poindexter trail, but he seemed altogether genuine in his avowal of utter ignorance of the very scandal that had brought on the greatest crisis of his administration. One would have had to know Reagan intimately for at least the past five or ten years to make any sense of this apparent amnesia.31

Finally, one of Reagan’s protestations was peculiarly double-edged, though he did not seem to realize it. He repeated again and again that he had always instructed Poindexter and others to stay “within the law.” Reagan felt it necessary to say: “I emphasized that at every time.”32 Does it not seem odd that a president should say that he had told the leading officials of his administration that they should remember to stay “within the law,” as if he could not take it for granted that they were going to do so as a matter of course?

For what it was worth, Reagan’s deposition told far more about Reagan than about Poindexter. It also told far more about the Reagan of 1990 than the Reagan of five or ten years earlier.


The trials of North and Poindexter made it appear that the fault was with individuals, not with the system of which they were a part. By Washington standards, they were charged with venial sins. If every top official were punished for not telling the truth to Congress unless forced to do so, the government would come to a halt.

Another case of concealment and obstruction, which has drawn little attention, shows how flagrant the practice was. On October 5, 1986, a cargo plane carrying arms and ammunition belonging to the North-Secord operation in behalf of the contras was shot down in northern Nicaragua. Only one member of the crew, Eugene Hasenfus, survived and was captured. The incident was almost immediately reported to Vice-President’s Bush’s assistant for national security affairs, Colonel Samuel J. Watson III, who was the first to learn about it, and soon afterward it was reported to North. North later testified:

The flight happened to have been paid for by General Secord’s operation, the airplane was paid for by his operation. Those were not US Government moneys, but those were certainly his activities, and I was the US Government connection.33

Damage control quickly went into action. On October 7, Secretary of State George Shultz said that the plane had been “hired by private people” who “had no connection with the US Government at all.”34 On October 8, President Reagan also denied that there had been any US government connection with the flight and compared the efforts to arm the contras to those of the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in the Spanish Civil War—a strange allusion to a Communist-organized and led force for a devoutly anti-Communist president.35

It later came out that Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, had been the source of Shultz’s misleading information. Abrams testified that he had assured Shultz that no government official had been “engaged in facilitating this flight or paying for it or directing it or anything like that.”36

Abrams stepped forward as the chief government spokesman on the incident. His chief defect was that he grossly over-estimated his own cleverness. On the Evans-Novak television program on October 11, he seesawed between practiced evasion and outright deception. He even had the effrontery to blame Congress for the death of the two US pilots. On October 10 he gave the same performance for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and on October 14 for the House Intelligence Committee.

The House committee was treated to this kind of testimony:

Abrams: I will say that no American Intelligence or Defense or any other kind of government officials was engaged in facilitating this flight or paying for it or directing it or anything like that, there is no US Government involvement, no government involvement, including anybody in the embassies overseas.37

Later, at the Congressional hearings, Abrams declared that this and similar statements were “completely honest and completely wrong.” 38 The question of his honesty mainly turned on whether he had asked North about the latter’s connection with the flight and whether North had denied having had any involvement. This is how Abrams explained why he had allegedly not known what North was doing:

Question: Sir, let me go back to my question. If you did not ask Colonel North in so many words, “Ollie, were you involved with this flight?” “Ollie, did you know who paid for this flight?” If you didn’t ask him any of those questions in so many words, it was because you decided not to ask him any such question, isn’t that correct?

Abrams: Sure. That’s logically correct.39

Abrams was accompanied to the committee hearing by two high CIA officials, Clair George, the deputy director of operations, and Alan Fiers, the chief of the Latin American Task Force. Both later testified that they had known Abrams’s statements to be misleading but had refrained from saying anything. George said that he had been thinking, “Excuse me, Elliott, but maybe you are the only guy in town that hasn’t heard this news.”40 Abrams, however, had heard enough to ask North to take care of getting the bodies of the two pilots home and to raise money to pay for the service.41

An even more flagrant case of Abrams’s misrepresentations occurred at hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on November 25 and December 8, 1986. Abrams had previously met in London with the foreign minister of Brunei to get a contribution of $10 million for the Nicaraguan contras—a handout that went awry in the most farcical episode of the entire affair.42 On November 25, the very day of the Reagan-Meese press conference, Abrams told the committee:

We don’t engage—I mean the State Department’s function in this had not been to raise money, other than to try to raise it from Congress. 43

Soon afterward, Abrams realized that his testimony might get him into trouble. He spoke to a member of Senator Bill Bradley’s staff about his desire to clarify his previous testimony, and the committee held another meeting on December 8 for him. At this meeting, the senators were in no mood to be trifled with. The Iran-contra affairs had became a national scandal and enough information had come out publicly to make the Congressional oversight committees realize that they had been systematically duped and deceived. Instead of quickly coming to the point, Abrams first tried to doubletalk his way out of his predicament. Abrams’s sparring with committee members finally brought an outburst from Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri:

Senator Eagleton: Page 15 [of the November 25 transcript]. We’re not, you know, we’re not in the fundraising business. No one intimidated that out of you. That was your answer.

Abrams: Senator, I can always say to you that I am—

Eagleton: You’re not in the fundraising business. Today I asked were you at any time in the fundraising business.

Abrams: We made one solicitation to a foreign government.

Eagleton: Were you then in the fundraising business?

Abrams: I would say we were in the fundraising business. I take your point.

Eagleton: Take my point? Under oath, my friend, that’s perjury. Had you been under oath that’s perjury.

Abrams: Well, I don’t agree with that.

Eagleton: That’s slammer time.

Abrams: I don’t agree with that, Senator.

Eagleton: Oh, Elliott, you’re too damn smart not to know—

Abrams: I think that the—

Eagleton: We’re not in the fundraising business. You were in the fundraising business, you and Ollie. You were opening accounts, you had account cards, you had two accounts and didn’t know which account they were going to put it into.

Abrams: You’ve heard my testimony.

Eagleton: I’ve heard it, and I want to puke.44

Abrams was guilty of misleading Congress in both the Hasenfus and Brunei cases but he did not suffer any penalty for his misconduct. Secretary Shultz even came to his defense as “a very able, energetic fine person;…the country needs people like that;…he is good, really good.”45 With this standard of forgiveness it is hard to see how anyone should have been punished for deceiving Congress in the Iran-contra affairs.

There is a difference between McFarlane, North, Abrams, and Poindexter. The first three finally admitted that they had lied and, under pressure of their own consciences or the consequences of the law, expressed some form of contrition. McFarlane was the most remorseful, North and Abrams far less so. Poindexter has been faithful to the bitter end to a different code of conduct—no excuses, no regrets. He rather than North threw himself in front of his commander in chief and took the spears.

Poindexter’s trial is probably the last important inquest on the Iran-contra affairs. Like its predecessors, it was an exercise in public relations more than a serious examination of the forces that brought about the breach of trust on the highest level of government. At a time of the Reagan administration’s greatest crises, the independent counsel was appointed to stave off a potential threat of impeachment and to appease public dismay. Once launched, the legal process took on a life of its own and became excessively “legal” in order to get convictions on any grounds that could stand up in a court.

The Reaganite system of government should have been on trial. A few strategically placed insiders, under cover of the presidency, seized control of two critical policies and carried out a juntalike operation with no accountability or oversight. If it had not been for the press, Congress would have been blissfully ignorant of what went on, and even when Congress made inquiries, it was easily hoodwinked. The concealment from and obstruction of Congress were serious offenses; but they were secondary to the main offenses against responsible constitutional government—offenses that were part of the operations themselves.

As matters stand, the main issues—such as the resort to private and foreign sources to circumvent the constitutional requirement of Congressional funding—have not been resolved. They are difficult, if not impossible, to bring into a court of law; they are political problems for which political answers must be found. To some extent, the substitution of narrow legal charges for broad political considerations has deflected attention from the main issues. For this reason, we must continue to live with the specter of the Iran-contra affairs.

  1. 25

    Meese testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 255.

  2. 26

    Donald T. Regan, For the Record (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 38.

  3. 27

    The Washington Post, November 26, 1986 (text of the press conference).

  4. 28

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, pp. 156, 240.

  5. 29

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, pp. 156, 240.

  6. 30

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 289.

  7. 31

    In his forthcoming book, Fighting for Peace (Warner, 1990), former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger says that Reagan’s memory was “phenomenal,” when he was governor of California (p. 11). If so, Reagan’s deposition seems, at least, to represent a phenomenal deterioration. But did it start when he was still president?

  8. 32

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 53.

  9. 33

    North testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 182.

  10. 34

    The Washington Post, October 8, 1986.

  11. 35

    The New York Times, October 9, 1986. The Abraham Lincoln outfit was a battalion, not a brigade.

  12. 36

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  13. 37

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  14. 38

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  15. 39

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 67.

  16. 40

    Clair George testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 220; see also Alan Fiers testimony, pp. 147, 156.

  17. 41

    North testimony, Congressional Hearings, pp. 158, 182.

  18. 42

    Abrams went to North to put the money in a secret account in Switzerland; North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, typed the wrong number of the account on a card, which Abrams gave to the Brunei foreign minister; Abrams desperately tried to locate the money for weeks and finally gave up the effort.

  19. 43

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, Exhibit EA-30, p. 662.

  20. 44

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, Exhibit EA-30, pp. 700–701.

  21. 45

    George Shultz testimony, Congressional Hearings p. 94.

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