Reagan’s Underworld

Report of the President's Special Review Board

by John Tower and Edmund S. Muskie and 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)
Oliver North
Oliver North; drawing by David Levine


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…

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