An Autopsy


The temporary success and ultimate failure of the Iran-contra affair were intimately related. Because the operation was covert, it was able to hide itself for about two years from public or congressional scrutiny. For the same reason, however, it had too narrow a base for such a far-flung, lengthy, and ambitious enterprise. Yet the resources open to it were such that they help to account for both its success and its failure.

Elliot Abrams
Elliot Abrams; drawing by David Levine

What follows was written before the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair was published and is based on my reading of the transcripts and documents previously made available by the committees. In an afterword I briefly discuss four questions raised by the Republican minority report.

The working center of the junta was the staff of the National Security Council. The NSC was pressed into service only because the CIA was expressly forbidden by the Boland Amendment to engage in the contra side, of the operation. The displacement was unnatural; the NSC staff had never been intended to take on projects that had traditionally been the CIA’s raison d’être.

On the NSC staff, one man, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, was given a crushing burden of responsibilities—counter-terrorism, the Nicaraguan contras, the hostages in Lebanon, the “strategic opening” to the strange world of Khomeini’s fanatical Iran. North had no illusions about why he had been chosen in the Iran case for these tasks—“what Director Casey wanted was a plausible deniability, separation, that the CIA would not be directly face to face with the Iranians or the Israelis.”

It did not quite work out that way, however, with the contras. Two CIA station chiefs in Central America, John Malett in Honduras and Joseph Fernandez, alias Tomás Castillo, in Costa Rica, worked closely with North. Casey told North to get the cooperation of Alan Fiers, the chief of the CIA’s Central American Task Force, for bringing arms and supplies to the contras. North admittedly transmitted intelligence from the CIA and the Defense Department to the contras.

The CIA was also drawn into the Iran affair. In November 1985, North turned in desperation for assistance to the CIA’s chief of the European division, Duane Clarridge, and to its national intelligence officer for counterterrorism, Charles Allen, for help in getting arms to Iran out of Portugal, which was denying landing rights to the Israeli planes carrying them. This “horror story,” as North called it, led directly to President Reagan’s “retroactive finding” of December 5,1985, which was intended to give a legal excuse for the CIA’s involvement. It in turn led to the critical finding of January 17, 1986, licensing the CIA to carry out the Iran covert operation, excluding the secretaries of state and defense from knowledge of the decision, and illicitly concealing the action from Congress. This finding was a directive to the head of the CIA, not to the national security…

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