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How Not to Deal with the Iran-Contra Crimes

1.

If John M. Poindexter feels that he has been made to bear a disproportionate share of the guilt for the Iran-contra fiasco, he can hardly be blamed. Of the four main characters in the drama, he has been judged the most harshly—guilty on all five counts. The chief problem his trial presents is not whether he did anything wrong—he did—but whether it is fair to single him out in a system of wrongdoing and punish him the most for the wrongs of the system.

The four main characters were Robert M. McFarlane, the former national security adviser; Poindexter, his successor; Oliver L. North, their immediate subordinate and “operations officer”; and former President Ronald Reagan, who set the policy for them. The main testimony at the Poindexter trial came from North and Reagan, so that our chief interest is in how they revealed themselves in their testimony. Nevertheless, we know a great deal about McFarlane’s and Poindexter’s roles from the extensive documentation, the Tower Board’s report in February 1987, the Congressional hearings from May to August 1987, and the North trial in 1989.

Of all these sources, the Poindexter trial has the least to offer. The charges were framed most narrowly in order to make a conviction more easily obtainable. Of the five counts, one accused him of conspiring to mislead Congress, two of obstructing Congressional inquiries, and two of making false statements to lawmakers. In effect, they were variations on a single theme—misleading or misinforming Congress. This is a serious malfeasance but it is only a small part of the larger story.

All the prosecutions have been similar. McFarlane and North faced virtually the same charges as Poindexter. McFarlane pleaded guilty in March 1987 to four counts of withholding information from Congress and was convicted of only misdemeanors. North refused to plead guilty to anything and as a result was indicted on twelve counts. He was convicted on only three felonies—obstruction of Congress, destroying official documents, and accepting an illegal gift of a security fence at his house. None of the convictions touched on the essential nature of the Iran-contra affairs. Both McFarlane and North got off with fines, probation, and community service.

The efforts of Judge Harold H. Greene to hold the counsel on both sides in the Poindexter trial to the charges were not entirely successful, as a result of which the trial added some details and sidelights to our knowledge of the Iran-contra affairs. In substance, however, the trial contributed little to it.

Much of the reporting in the press did not distinguish between what was new and what had already been known. For example, it was reported that the chief government counsel, Dan K. Webb, had

extracted concessions from a reluctant Mr. North, who testified that he watched Mr. Poindexter tear up a crucial document signed by the President that depicted the missile shipments to Iran as an arms-for-hostages exchange.1

The document was the Finding of December 7, 1985, which President Reagan had signed in an effort to give legitimacy to CIA participation in the delivery of TOW missiles to Iran in November 1985. That Poindexter had torn up this Finding was an old story. Poindexter himself had testified at the Congressional hearing on July 15, 1987:

And I, frankly, didn’t see any need for it at the time. I thought it was politically embarrassing. And so I decided to tear it up, and I tore it up, put it in the burn basket behind my desk. I can’t recall, but I believe that Colonel North was there in the office, but I am a little fuzzy on that point.2

North’s testimony about the same scene contributed nothing more to it. Daily newspaper reporting could not do justice to the immense background of material, now well over 50,000 pages, necessary to put the latest tidbits in perspective. Whatever else may be said about it, the Poindexter trial was not notable for its revelations.

2.

It is also questionable whether this kind of trial is the best way to judge the policy that Poindexter carried out. On the one hand, Poindexter’s position made him most responsible for what had gone on day after day and week after week in the Iran-contra affairs throughout the key year of 1986. He was the only one in the chain of command above North who either authorized or permitted North to carry on his activities in behalf of the contras and in deals with Iran.

On the other hand, Poindexter was charged with none of this at his trial. The Iran-contra affairs were not on trial. Poindexter was tried on five counts that were only indirectly related to them. Moreover, the counts were not based on what Poindexter actually did. They were based on what he knew—but did not reveal to members of Congress. For example, there was no charge that the diversion was a crime or even wrong; the charge was that Poindexter committed a crime by concealing his knowledge of it. Neither was the violation of the Boland Amendment nor the arms-for-hostages deals an issue.

To prove its case, the prosecution chose a very limited number of incidents that provided evidence of concealment and obstruction. They were so limited that one incident—the Hawk missile shipment in November 1985—appears in four of the six counts. No doubt many newspaper readers and television viewers thought that Poindexter’s conviction was a condemnation of the Iran-contra policies. It was nothing of the sort. Poindexter’s malfeasances—what he did or did not tell Congress—were only indirectly related to the policies. The policies themselves were ruled off-limits.3

To get a real sense of what the trial was about, it is necessary to look more closely at the substance of the charges. The events on which they were based were few.

In 1985, then National Security Adviser McFarlane received inquiries about North’s activities in behalf of the contras from the Congressional intelligence “oversight” committees. Their oversight had been so negligible that they had learned of his activities from newspaper reports. Both Poindexter and North opposed telling the committees anything but McFarlane preferred a more conciliatory approach. McFarlane and North subsequently confessed that they had concocted replies that were lies to the committees.

In June 1986, almost a year later, the committees again read newspaper reports about North’s activities and again sent inquiries, this time to Poindexter as McFarlane’s successor. North still adamantly opposed telling the committees anything, but now Poindexter was more conciliatory. In his reply, Poindexter took the peculiar course of hiding behind McFarlane’s duplicitous denials of the year before. In an almost insultingly brief letter, Poindexter merely said that McFarlane had “made it clear that the actions of the National Security Council staff” had fully complied with the letter and spirit of the law.4 In effect, Poindexter gave assurances that what McFarlane had said in 1985 was still true.

The prosecution argued that Poindexter had known better and had been guilty of deliberate deception and concealment. The defense pleaded that Poindexter had not really known what had happened in 1985 and could not be held responsible for his predecessor’s lies. Ignorance was Poindexter’s first line of defense.

Poindexter was again caught up in a McFarlane-North imbroglio in the matter of the celebrated “horror story”—the ill-fated shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran in November 1985 by a CIA “proprietary” aircraft, which, as it turned out, delivered the wrong missiles. North’s cover story had metamorphosed the missiles into oil-drilling parts. In a meeting in Poindexter’s office on November 20, 1986, a year later, North still tried to put the cover story into a chronology of events that was being prepared for the next day’s Congressional testimony by CIA Director William J. Casey and a Congressional briefing by Poindexter.

At the Congressional hearings, Poindexter had admitted that “I was aware that the chronologies were inaccurate.”5 He also claimed that he did not know what was accurate, but that did not stop him from telling the committees on November 21 what he knew was inaccurate. In effect, Poindexter was again in trouble about something that had happened in November 1985, had not been revealed by him to Congress in November 1986, and was now charged against him in March 1990.6

This charge makes one acutely aware of the difference between a prosecutorial and a historical approach. The evidence clearly shows that North had kept Poindexter informed in November 1985. In one such message, North had advised Poindexter that Hawk missiles, not oil-drilling equipment, were being sent to Iran.7 The prosecution, however, claimed that Poindexter “was the man supervising and directing” the operation.8 The prosecution even alleged that Poindexter “was the man in charge of this country because Mr. McFarlane was over in Europe with the President, so this is the man in charge.”9

McFarlane was in Europe, in easy communication with North; McFarlane, not Poindexter, called North from Geneva and told him to assist the Israelis in getting the missiles to Iran; and Poindexter was certainly not the man “in charge of this country.” Those were hectic days and North was going full blast on his own but informing Poindexter of his plans and actions. There is no evidence that Poindexter, who had not previously been concerned with the Iran affair, was now supervising and directing the operation. On the other hand, the defense went so far as to contend that Poindexter was “not involved in that operation” at all.10 In short, the prosecution claimed too much and the defense admitted too little.

Another example of prosecutorial zeal dealt with the diversion of Iranian funds to the contras. In the Congressional hearings, North had testified that the idea had come from the Israeli emissary, Amiram Nir, and the Iranian go-between, Manucher Ghorbanifar. Before carrying it out, North had presented it to Poindexter, who testified that he had “personally approved it.”11 North testified both in the Congressional hearings and in Poindexter’s trial that Poindexter had approved the diversion when North had presented it to him.

But the prosecution was not satisfied merely with Poindexter’s approval. Instead, the prosecution seemed to want to make Poindexter jointly responsible for the idea. Webb told the jury that “North sat down with Poindexter and discussed with him an idea, which is: Let’s overcharge the Iranians…. Then we’ll divert some of the residual money off to the contras.”12 This dramatization made it appear that North had thought of the diversion only when he talked to Poindexter about it. Webb also assured the jury that “the diversion was the main way that the contras were being assisted in 1986.”13 In fact, the “main way” had been money contributed by Saudi Arabia, with an assist from President Reagan himself.

Here again, the very nature of the trial excluded any real confrontation with the substantive issue of the diversion. It was not on trial. Even Poindexter’s deliberate decision—if we can believe him—not to tell President Reagan about it was not on trial. Only what Poindexter’s knowledge of the diversion implied about other things was on trial. “No one is charging that John Poindexter committed any crime just because there was a diversion,” Webb told the jury. “The crime that is charged is that the diversion is evidence that he clearly was aware that we were assisting the contras”—which he had denied in reply to the Congressional inquiry.14

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:

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.

5.

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. 1

    The New York Times, April 8, 1990.

  2. 2

    Testimony of John M. Poindexter, p. 20.

  3. 3

    Judge Harold H. Greene, instructed the jury in the Poindexter trial: “It is important that you understand that before you are specific, particular criminal charges, as distinguished from broad policy or political disputes. And so your verdict will resolve only the five criminal charges that are alleged in the indictment. What that necessarily means is that you are not to decide the merits of some of the broader issues mentioned in the course of this trial.” Instructions to the jury, Poindexter trial, pp. 20–21.

  4. 4

    Poindexter testimony, Joint Hearings, Exhibit JMP-14, p. 447.

  5. 5

    Poindexter testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 108.

  6. 6

    Virtually the entire government case rested on the November 1985 shipment of arms and not on the subsequent shipments. As Webb explained: “No one is suggesting that John Poindexter lied to Congress about any of these shipments in 1986. It’s only the November 1985 Hawk missile shipment that the indictment alleges that there is [sic] lies and false statements and obstruction going on about that shipment in November of 1986.” Transcript of Poindexter trial, p. 3164.

  7. 7

    North to Poindexter, November 20, 1985, in Joint Hearings, Part III, Appendixes to Parts I and II, Exhibit OLN-43, pp. 257–258.

  8. 8

    Dan K. Webb, Poindexter trial, pp. 3166–3167. Another apocryphal report in The Washington Post, April 8, 1990, stated: “North testified that Poindexter supervised the 1985 shipment of US arms to Iran, even though Poindexter had told Congress that he did not learn about the shipment until two months after it occurred.” North repeatedly testified that he had taken orders from McFarlane, who was still his superior, by telephone. The following exchange took place:

    Question: During all the time that you were doing all of this, Admiral Poindexter was not assisting you in carrying out this mission, was he? He was not working on it side by side with you that weekend, was he?

    North: I don’t recall the Admiral being on the phone with me, as you asked before, but I did keep the Admiral apprised as to what I was doing. (Congressional Hearings, p. 1360)

  9. 9

    Howard Pearl, associate US counsel, Poindexter trial, p. 3315.

  10. 10

    Richard W. Beckler, Poindexter trial, p. 3228.

  11. 11

    Poindexter testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 36.

  12. 12

    Webb, Poindexter trial, p. 3155.

  13. 13

    Webb, Poindexter trial, p. 3163.

  14. 14

    Webb, Poindexter trial, p. 3163.

  15. 15

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

  16. 16

    North testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 181.

  17. 17

    Webb, Poindexter trial, p. 3144.

  18. 18

    Beckler, Poindexter trial, p. 3261.

  19. 19

    Pearl, Poindexter trial, pp. 3307–3308.

  20. 20

    North testimony, North trial, p. 7431.

  21. 21

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

  22. 22

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

  23. 23

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 9.

  24. 24

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 261.

  25. 25

    Meese testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 255.

  26. 26

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

  27. 27

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

  28. 28

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

  29. 29

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

  30. 30

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 289.

  31. 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?

  32. 32

    Reagan deposition, Poindexter trial, p. 53.

  33. 33

    North testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 182.

  34. 34

    The Washington Post, October 8, 1986.

  35. 35

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

  36. 36

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  37. 37

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  38. 38

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 65.

  39. 39

    Abrams testimony, Congressional Hearings, p. 67.

  40. 40

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

  41. 41

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

  42. 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.

  43. 43

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

  44. 44

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

  45. 45

    George Shultz testimony, Congressional Hearings p. 94.

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