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 adviser, and only Casey’s decision to use North as his chosen instrument gave the initiative to the NSC staff. The claim that the NSC was permitted to do what the CIA was not supposed to do was never more than a legalistic pretense.

At the top of the junta were Casey, North, and the two national security advisers, Robert C.McFarlane until the end of 1985 and Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter in 1986. Though the ringleaders were relatively few, they had ways of calling on others to do jobs for them.

North’s secret weapon was that he could pick up the phone and call from the White House. “I suffer the bureaucrat’s disease,” confessed the CIA’s Clair George, “that when people call me and say, I am calling from the White House for the National Security Council on behalf of the National Security Adviser, I am inclined to ‘snap to.’ “1 When the CIA’s Duane Clarridge was asked why he obeyed North without consulting his superiors, despite a CIA regulation that all requests from the White House had to be cleared with the director, he replied lamely, “Ollie North calls up and says that he needs some urgent assistance,” as if a call from Ollie North in the White House was enough to send him into action.2

Others snapped to. The most notorious case among ambassadors was that of Lewis Tambs in Costa Rica. When Tambs was appointed in 1985, North virtually instructed him to help open a “southern front” for the contras and to get permission from the Costa Rican government for the construction of an airstrip to supply the contras. The military was also let in on North’s secrets. Admiral Arthur S. Moreau, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had “detailed knowledge” of North’s operations. Colonel James Steele, the Military Assistance Group commander in EI Salvador, was “very supportive.”


An unofficial covert network did most of the work for Casey, North, and Company. The purchase and transportation of arms for the contras and later for Iran were entrusted to retired Major General Richard V. Secord and his Iranian-born partner, Albert Hakim. Secord brought in Thomas G. Clines, a former CIA agent who had been caught fraudulently over-billing the government in an arms deal with Egypt, and Raphael “Chi Chi” Quintero, a former CIA Cuban agent. All three had been tainted by an association with the most notorious of all former CIA officials, Edwin Wilson, convicted of having conspired to sell arms to Mua’mmar Al-Qaddhafi of Libya. Wilson’s former associates seem to have been all over the place. Another associate was Theodore Shackley, a former CIA station chief in Laos and Saigon who had risen to the high rank of associate director of clandestine operations. Shackley turns up repeatedly in the Iran-contra affair; he seems to have been the first to have brought Manucher Ghorbanifar, whom he met in Germany in 1984, to the CIA’s attention as a likely Iran go-between.

Another retired general, John K. Singlaub, had gone into the business of raising money for the contras and other such causes through his World Anti-Communist League and US Council on World Freedom. North said that he “certainly saw him a lot.” Other retired officers brought into Secord’s operation were retired Air Force Colonel Robert Dutton and former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gadd.

The main source of money for the contras was Carl R. “Spitz” Channell. Channell had risen in the world from manager of a motor lodge to the manipulator of nine anticommunist foundations and political action committees. He had the cooperation of North and even President Reagan, whose appearance inspired his contributors to give; North and Reagan considered themselves to be without sin so long as they did not take the money themselves.

Channell’s tax-exempt, ostensibly charitable National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty collected millions of dollars, many of them turned over to a public relations firm, International Business Communications (IBC), formed by two former government employees, Richard Miller and Felix Rodriguez, the latter also known as Max Gomez. In April 1987, Channell and Miller pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and willfully defrauding the government” by using tax-deductible, charitable donations to purchase military equipment for the contras. North for his part could not see that he had done anything wrong so long as he had not touched the checks.

International Business Communications was part of a hitherto little-known government-sponsored propaganda machine. It was set up by President Reagan on January 14, 1983, with a national security decision directive entitled “Management of Public Diplomacy Relative to National Security.” CIA Director Casey met with a group of public relations professionals in August of that year, with the result that two new groups were formed—an “Out-reach Working Group on Central America” and an “Office of Public Diplomacy.”

The term “public diplomacy” was duplicitous; the OPD distributed public propaganda on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras and other administration causes. The “public” for this propaganda was solely American; there was nothing “diplomatic” about the hard sell that characterized it. The IBC was a private public relations firm that was given hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lucrative contracts in order to influence Congress and public opinion in ways off-limits to executive agencies. North met regularly with the IBC’s Rodriquez and Miller as well as Channell.3

Recently released documents show what the Office of Public Diplomacy was up to. One is a message dated March 13, 1985, from the OPD’s Jonathan S. Miller to the director of communications in the White House, Pat Buchanan, on the subject of ” ‘White Propaganda’ Operation.” Miller boasted of “five illustrative examples of the Reich ‘White Propaganda’ operation” (a reference to Otto. J. Reich, director of the OPD). Miller cited an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal of March 11, 1985, by Professor John F. Guilmartin, Jr., an adjunct professor of history at Rice University in Houston, who “has been a consultant in our office and collaborated with our staff in the writing of this piece.” Two op-ed pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post were entirely prepared by an OPD consultant but signed by the contra leaders Alfonso Robelo Adolfo Calero, and Arturo Cruz.

Yet Section 501 of the 1985 Appropriations Act specifically prohibits the State Department from using funds “for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress.” The general counsel for the office of the comptroller general of the United States, Harry R. Van Cleve, informed Representative Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations, on September 30, 1987, that the OPD

engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies. The use of appropriated funds for these activities constitutes a violation of a restriction on the State Department annual appropriations prohibiting the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress.

When Oliver North was asked who at the State Department knew of his “full-service operation” on behalf of the contras, he could immediately recall only one name—the OPD’s Miller. The OPD thus served as the covert propaganda arm of North’s covert operations.


Other services were rendered to North by Robert Owen, who worked on contract for the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Organization, but spent most of his time as North’s chief liaison with the contras. Owen was known as “The Courier,” because he went back and forth to Central America for North or, as Owen put it, he was North’s “eyes and ears.” North testified that Owen carried money to contra leaders, reconnoitered the airstrip in Costa Rica, and carried maps and documents from North to the contras for the purpose of destroying Sandinista military equipment.

A British subject, David Walker, who operated a “security” business in the Channel Islands, was also hired to carry out covert activities. North testified that Walker’s organization was used “in support of the Nicaraguan resistance, with internal operations in Managua and elsewhere, in an effort to improve the perception that the Nicaraguan resistance could operate anywhere that it so desired.” One of the means by which this perception was supposed to be improved was a planned attack on the Sandinistas’ helicopter fleet, though finally it did not come off because Walker considered it to be too dangerous. North as usual absolved himself of responsibility for Walker’s operations on the ground that he had not “directly authorized” Walker; he had merely “encouraged Mr. Walker to be in touch with the people who could benefit from that.”

The accessories of North’s activities were so many and various that they brought on an indignant outburst, addressed to North, from Representative Jack Brooks of Taxas:

The Defense Department helped, provided the missiles and the Hawk parts, modified the TOWs to meet the specs. The Department of Justice helped, provided the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents and held off the FBI. The Department of State helped. Ambassadors were used to facilitate the movement of weapons, construction of clandestine airstrips. And despite what Assistant Secretary Abrams said about not knowing nothing about nothing, he had to be authorized to tell the truth, you recall. It was very clear that you testified that he didn’t have to ask—he already knew everything you were doing in Central America. The CIA helped, you testified. You talked to Director Casey several times a week, worked closely with him. The CIA bought the missiles from the DOD [Department of Defense] and sold them to Iran. CIA operatives assisted in setting up and running the air supply into Nicaragua. And of course you were not the only one at the National Security Council involved. You testified that everything you did, all of the machination, the operations, the phone calls, the traveling, was supported by your superiors, Mr. McFarlane, Admiral Poindexter. Your secretary, Miss Hall, even testified that your travel was authorized by someone higher than you. And you’ve testified repeatedly that you thought you even had the help of the President of the United States.4

The cabal, then, was far from limited to a few people in the NSC and CIA. It manned the center of a tentacular operation that could call on support, official and unofficial, from personnel in the State and Defense departments, CIA, an underworld of retired generals and intelligence agents in the arms and “security” business, a propaganda machine that illegally corrupted the American press, “commercial cutouts,” foreign mercenaries, phony, tax-exempt, “charitable,” money-grubbing charlatans, and anyone who was susceptible to a call from the White House.

This network was the victim of its own limitations. Its leadership was very narrowly based in the White House and in Casey’s office, and its support came largely from an improvised, shadowy underworld. Its very tenebrous, conspiratorial nature turned against it as soon as it had to face the light of day. It was unable to show itself openly to rally timely support in Congress. It was able to make use of co-conspirators in the State and Defense departments but had to contend with opposition at the top in the same departments. Its greatest asset, the president whose policies it served, was given the alibi of “plausible deniability.” which enabled him to abandon it without compunction or mercy.

The traditional system of government bent under the strain of an internal conspiracy. Yet finally the traditional safeguards prevailed. The entire affair was a demonstration both of how vulnerable the system is and of what formidable resistance it can put up in an emergency.


Oliver North received so much attention during the congressional hearings that he seemed fully to reveal himself in both his testimony and his demeanor. Yet because of the narrow focus of the questioning, much was hidden from view. A deeper insight into his motivation and that of his co-workers can be gained less from what he said about himself than from what others said about him.

McFarlane, who had occasion to watch North at close range, called him a “romanticist.” Another co-worker, Alan Fiers, described him as behaving “bombastically” and as making it hard to know what he was really up to.5 McFarlane also stressed North’s political outlook:

He is quite cynical about government. Ollie is a man that is a veteran of an experience in Vietnam…. I believe that he committed himself to assuring that he would never be a party to such a thing [loss of life in Vietnam] again if he could prevent it.6

Secretary of Defense Weinberger touched on the Vietnam side of North’s attitude as a reflection of a more general condition in military circles:

I don’t think it is generally understood how deeply seared the American military was by Vietnam. We should never ever consider entering any kind of conflict, unless it’s important enough for us to win, and if we do anything other than that, we are, I think, betraying the men and women we ask to serve, and perhaps to die, for the rest of us. And that was a perception that was not only that the politicians at that time were responsible, but the press were not in any sense favorable to the United States. And without in any sense passing judgment on whether this was correct or not, this is a feeling which a very large number of people have…. They have a different agenda. They have a different set of ideas.7

Alan Fiers cast some light on North’s professional behavior:

I never knew Colonel North to be an absolute liar, but I never took anything he said at face value, because I knew that he was bombastic and embellished the record, and threw curves, speed balls and spit balls to get what he wanted and I knew it and I knew it well…. I have seen Colonel North play fast and loose with the facts…. But, on the other hand…there was a lot of fact in what he said too.8

Like Admiral Poindexter, North thought of the President more as his commander in chief than as a political leader. He proudly said, “And if the commander-in-chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so.” He reached for a classical military allusion to show how willing he was to sacrifice himself: “Every centurion had a group of shields out in front of him, a hundred of ’em,” and he was ready to “take the political spear.”

North was undoubtedly right when he protested, “I certainly was not the decision maker.” If anyone was, it was CIA Director Casey. Casey may have pulled the strings, but North was the “principal action officer” and far closer to the day-by-day activity. One gets the impression that Casey did not put as much of himself into the Iran-contra operation as North did. Casey had many more things than North to keep him busy; he was much more hardened and cynical. A CIA director who had had the nerve to commit an act of war against Nicaragua virtually on his own by mining its harbors in 1984 was not likely to be overly impressed with the Iran machinations. North was much closer generationally to most of the others in the junta; Casey had come out of World War II, North and the rest mainly from the Vietnam War.

We have one vivid account of how Casey worked. It comes from retired Major General Secord, like North a key link between the Nicaraguan and Iran covert actions. Secord conferred with Casey three times in 1985 and 1986 at meetings set up by North. This is the kind of talk that took place among the three of them at the third meeting:

I said it would take about ten million dollars [for the contras] I thought. And he [Casey] said: “$10 million dollars,” and then he mentioned a country which he thought might be willing to donate this kind of money. But then he said, “But I can’t approach them.” Why, I don’t know. I mean, why he couldn’t approach them, I don’t know, and he didn’t say, but he said that two or three times. Then he looked at me and he said: “But you can.” And I said, “But, Mr. Director, I’m not an official of the US government. I don’t think these people are particularly interested in solicitation from private citizens. I think that would be very foolish.” And he mused about it again, and North said: “Well, somebody well better start looking into this thing right away because it’s a rather desperate situation.”

The Director states that he believed that George, meaning the Secretary of State, could make such an approach, and that was the bottom line. He said he would speak to the Secretary of State about this matter. And that was the last time I remember the Director. Although, again, he thanked me for the effort that I had been involved with.9

This vignette gives some idea of how North brought his problems to Casey and how the latter handled them. Casey was his guru, his “teacher or a philosophical mentor,” as North put it. If Casey told him what to think and what to do, North had every reason to believe that the older man knew best and, above all, knew what the President wanted. North could believe that as campaign manager, Casey had made—or at least had been a major factor in making—Reagan president in 1980. Casey had demanded and had obtained an unprecedented seat in the cabinet. National security advisers had come and gone during Reagan’s regime but Casey had survived them all. North’s superiors at the NSC, McFarlane and Poindexter, were figures of relatively little political or intellectual weight. When Casey had disagreed with both Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, as he did over the decision in January 1986 to send more arms to Iran, President Reagan sided with Casey. Even the fact that Casey was a fast reader and could go through a book during a plane trip much impressed North.

Yet North was not an ordinary military timeserver; he had a touch of fantasy in his makeup that made him overdo, over-estimate, and overstate. North was a strange combination of the naive, the driven, the fanatical, and the self-deceived, with little of the background and guile necessary for clandestine operations in Central America or the Middle East. He was a soldier in a civilian setting, refighting an old war in new and different circumstances. He was more than anything else a latter-day American innocent abroad.10

The Vietnam factor in the Nicaraguan operation deserves far more attention than it has received. It is not hard to understand why the military should be filled with hostility and resentment at the way the Vietnam War was waged and lost. Yet we are going to pay an even higher price for that war if it is going to fixate us in futile military actions elsewhere in the world, especially covert ones. A more chilling prospect than refighting the Vietnam War with surrogate wars and surrogate soldiers in Central America or elsewhere is hard to imagine.


The only mitigating factor in the otherwise unrelieved failure of the Iran venture was the release of three hostages; but they were saved only as a result of trading arms for each of them. Inasmuch as official policy prohibited trading arms for hostages, these transactions made a mockery of the policy. The three lucky ones, doled out at intervals, even established hostage taking and hostage keeping more firmly by proving that it could work successfully as a means of exchange for weapons.

Nothing else undertaken by the junta in the Iran case worked. Casey and North collaborated in one fiasco after another. From the time he was put in charge of the Iran operation toward the end of 1985, North did not manage to achieve one real success. The November 1985 movement of Hawks from Israel to Portugal proved to be a costly fiasco.11 The Iranians were made furious because they received the wrong number of wrong missiles and were unconscionably overcharged by Ghorbanifar, who was overcharged by Secord. A US–Iranian meeting in Frankfurt, West Germany, in February 1986 accomplished nothing. The mission to Tehran led by McFarlane in May 1986 ended acrimoniously and only made relations with Iran worse. This episode brought the so-called First Channel to an end with nothing gained by the Americans and one thousand TOWs to the credit of the Iranians. The Second Channel, beginning in September 1986, dragged on without result until the November blowup when a Lebanese paper exposed the arms sales.

For all the contempt of North and Company for professional diplomats and the traditional bureaucracy, it is hard to see how professionals could have done worse. At least the much despised bureaucrats would have had to account to someone else at various stages and might have been made to change course or cut their losses. North and Poindexter spoke of the “compartmentalization” of covert operations as if it were the supreme virtue of their craft. In fact, the exaggerated secrecy of compartmentalization protected them from criticism and supervision, with the result that they were beholden only to themselves and blundered from one miscalculation to another.

The junta was vulnerable because it was wholly dependent on an oddly assorted cast of exotic characters. The most indispensable but ultimately most ruinous of them was the fast-talking Iranian middleman, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was constitutionally incapable of telling the truth to either side. Yet, as the CIA’s Clarridge put it, “if you didn’t work the operation from Ghorbanifar, you didn’t have any operation.”

Virtually all of North’s moves were precipitated by others. Even the famous scheme to divert money to the contras was Ghorbanifar’s, if we can trust North’s testimony at the hearings. Casey, the great manipulator, did little more than send North out to be manipulated by far more experienced and adroit manipulators. A major cause of the failure was North’s lack of control of what was happening; he had no independent check on Ghorbanifar and Company; he was always following the lead of others. Operations without adequate intelligence are fatally flawed, and the United States had no intelligence sources of its own in Iran.

The Iranian interlocutors with whom the Americans dealt were never more than shadowy figures whose credentials could not be checked and who were cast in the dual role of representing the Iranian government and an opposition to it. They insistently demanded that the Americans had to prove their good faith by making arms available to Iran, thereby putting the United States in the position of begging for mercy or forgiveness. The sides were unequal even in the case of an arms-for-hostages trade, because Iran claimed that it did not have the hostages and could only use its influence with the hard-to-please Lebanese hostage takers, whereas the United States could always deliver the arms. The Iranian “negotiators” provided by Ghorbanifar or Hakim dangled future prizes of dubious plausibility in return for immediate or advance payment in one form only—arms.

An Israeli journalist has revealed that the original bid to Israel from Iran had come in July 1985 from an “Ayatollah,” Hassan Karoubi. The only American implicated in these proceedings was Michael A. Ledeen, earlier sent to Israel by National Security Adviser McFarlane to find out what the Israeli authorities knew about Iran.12 Two Israelis—the director general of the foreign ministry, David Kimche, and a special adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Press, Al Schwimmer—brought Ledeen, Karoubi, and Ghorbanifar together in Europe in October 1985. Karoubi, according to Ledeen, said “he believed that with proper support and cooperation from the United States, that a significant degree of change could be achieved in Iran peacefully through elections.”

That anyone should have believed peaceful elections would or could put a pro-American group in power in Khomeini’s Iran suggests an extraordinary degree of gullibility. Yet Ledeen came back to Washington and reported that “it now appears for the first time that we may have a real possibility of developing enough contacts with people inside of Iran” to enable the United States “to develop our contacts, leverage, influence over that country, which is something we should certainly be looking for.”13 Ledeen soon lost face when McFarlane met Ghorbanifar in December 1985 and was so “revolted” by him that he recommended having nothing more to do with him, after which McFarlane’s successor, Admiral Poindexter, refused to see Ledeen.

The entire “opening to Iran” was misconceived as well as mishandled. A hostages-for-arms deal was at least concrete and verifiable. It might have been wrong in principle, but it could have been manageable in practice. A strategic redirection of Iranian policy was something else. For this an altogether different kind of negotiation was needed. The American side, such as it was, never decided whether it wanted to influence the existing Khomeini regime or whether it wanted to overthrow it and make a long-range deal with a successor regime. These aims were not consistent and could only have worked against each other. Yet three objectives were jumbled together—releasing the hostages, overthrowing the Khomeini regime, and turning Iran’s foreign policy in the direction of the West under a new regime. Whatever the chances of success in such an unlikely, tortuous transaction may have been, Oliver North was certainly not the one for it.14


There was little to admire in the behavior of the highest American leaders. The least admirable of them was the President of the United States. His most abject abdication of responsibility came in the face of the Ghorbanifar–North scheme to divert funds from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras. When the storm broke, President Reagan behaved as if he could get off scot-free if only he could deny that he had known anything about it. For the rest, his chief defense was a vacuous memory. Unfortunately, he was aided and abetted by the press and by congressional lawyers who were obsessed with the question of “what did he know?”

Since North and Poindexter had apparently made up their minds to protect the President at all costs and cause him no political embarrassment, even to the extent of admitting, in the case of North, to lying and destroying evidence, Reagan was safe on the ground on which he had chosen to make a stand. But it was a very narrow ground. In effect, he denied what had not been charged. What had been charged was something else. Poindexter persistently contended that he knew the President well enough to be certain that the latter would have approved of his actions, and North consistently maintained that he had reason to believe the President had approved of his activities. We may never know whether the President had approved of their actions beforehand, but we can know whether he disapproved of them afterward. If the President could not bring himself to express disapproval after the disclosure to him of the “diversion memorandum” on November 24 and Attorney General Meese’s public revelation the following day, there was every reason to give credence to Poindexter’s conviction that “the President would approve, if asked.”

The only ascertainable question, then, was what President Reagan thought about North’s actions once he knew of them. This question was never asked, but the President inferentially answered it not long after the public revelation by Meese on November 25. In an interview only a week later, Reagan said of North: “He is a national hero. My only criticism is that I wasn’t told everything.”15 If this was Reagan’s only complaint, he could not have disapproved of what North did. North and Poindexter were probably right after all.

It took the President more than eight months to bring himself to make any concessions to criticism of his conduct. On August 12, 1987, he finally admitted that his preoccupation with the hostages “intrude[d] into areas where it didn’t belong.” He and his advisers clearly had decided that human sympathy for the hostages, however ill-advised the actions taken on their behalf may have been, was the safest form of finding some fault with himself. He even used the hostages to give a distorted version of his differences with secretaries Shultz and Weinberger. The difference with them had not turned, as the President claimed, on their prediction that “the American people would immediately assume this whole plan was an arms-for-hostages deal and nothing more.” Shultz had opposed the “Iran initiative,” as he testified, because he thought it was “illegal and unwise”; he had even said that he would have favored some deal with Iran if the hostages could have been released.16 Weinberger said that he was mainly opposed to the sale of arms to Iran at a time when we were asking other countries not to do so, and that he did not think we could make any “bargain” with the Iranian government to release the hostages without subjecting ourselves to blackmail.17 The President’s version was self-serving humbug.

The main point that the President seemed determined to make was that “in capital letters, I did not know about the diversion of funds, I didn’t know there were excess funds.” Once more he passed up an opportunity to deny what Poindexter had alleged—that he would have approved of this and other actions if he had been curious enough to have asked about them. The real Reagan had undoubtedly spoken his mind much earlier—that North was a national hero and that his only regret was that he had not been told everything.

The President’s odd failures of memory are unconvincing. When the Tower Commission had to decide whether to believe Reagan’s or McFarlane’s memory about Reagan’s prior approval of Israeli shipments of arms to Iran, it chose to believe McFarlane. More recently, Fred Barnes of The New Republic gave a revealing account of the President’s memory during an interview on October 2, 1987. The President, Barnes reported, recognized a photograph of himself taken for a movie in 1937, immediately named the movie, Sergeant Murphy, gave a detailed version of the plot, and even remembered being tricked into riding an unruly horse one afternoon after filming was done. But he had difficulty remembering the Iran affair, and what he did remember suggested that he had been faking contrition in his televised performance on August 12, 1987. Whereas he had then confessed that “the sale of arms got tangled up with the hostages,” he now insisted that “it was not trading arms for hostages.” As for Poindexter and North, he was most forgiving because “they must have felt that somehow they were protecting me.”18

If Reagan’s memory were better, it would be interesting to find out from him why he had fired someone on November 25 who was a “national hero” one week later.

Secretary Shultz contented himself with registering disapproval of the arms deal with Iran, but it was not as important to him as certain other affairs of state that had provoked him to offer his resignation. When a “White House aide” had blocked his use of planes to take trips, he had offered his resignation. The “White House aide” had been the same Jonathan Miller of the Office of Public Diplomacy who boasted of planting propaganda articles in the American press.19 When he had discovered that the deputy national security adviser, then McFarlane, had been sent on a trip to the Middle East without his knowledge, he had again offered to resign. And when he had publicly opposed lie-detector tests, he had threatened to resign for the third time. Iran policy evidently ranked below these crises on his scale of indignation.

At one point, according to his own account, Shultz had told Poindexter that “I wanted to be informed of the things I needed to know to do my job as Secretary of State, but he didn’t need to keep me posted on the details, the operational details, of what he was doing.”20 Poindexter had taken this to mean that Shultz was trying to protect himself from knowing too much about the Iran initiative. It was not an unwarranted inference inasmuch as Shultz had registered his disagreement and had shown no intention of doing anything further about it. In any case, Shultz’s words left it up to Poindexter to decide what to tell him, a curious evasion since Shultz already knew that something fishy was going on in relations with Iran. A secretary of state in a struggle over a major, potentially disastrous foreign policy who did not want to know about its “operational details” might just as well have said that he had decided to stay out of the line of fire.

Secretary Shultz was least admirable in his solicitation of the sultan of Brunei (population 242,000) for a contribution to the Nicaraguan contras. The basic idea had come from Shultz himself, the selection of Brunei from Assistant Secretary Elliott Abrams.21 The scheme was designed to save the secretary from the embarrassment of taking the sultan’s money with his own hands. As a matter of delicacy, the sultan was supposed to be given the number of a secret account in the inevitable Crédit Suisse bank in Geneva in order to make the contribution appear to go directly to the contras instead of through the United States to the contras. The plan—which Secretary Shultz called “a very good idea” that “seemed perfect”—was a variant of North’s technique of making the pitch and letting Channell pick up the check. In this case, the arrangement called for North to give Abrams a card with the number of the bank account, for Abrams to give the card to Shultz, and for Shultz to soften up the sultan for the solicitation. Abrams gave Shultz to understand that the bank account was controlled by the contras; the account was actually that of Secord and Hakim’s Lake Resources, Inc., also used for the Iran arms deals. Shultz explained that there had been some thought given to putting the money in a CIA account, but it was realized that this would have created an awkward problem by making it US government money. Such were the complications the official minds that had thought up this “very good idea” had to face.22

Shultz himself did not complete the deal. Abrams went to London in August 1986 to meet with a high official of the Brunei government to get the final approval. After Abrams had given him a speech on American policy in Central America and why money was needed, the official asked him, “How much?” Abrams named $10 million. Then their conversation went as follows:

He said to me, “What do we get out of this? What’s in it for us?” And I said, “Well,”—and I actually had not thought about that question much—and I said, “Well, you will—the President will know of this and you will have the gratitude of the Secretary and of the President for helping us out in this jam.” And he said, “But what concrete do we get out of this?” And I said, “You don’t get anything concrete out of it.”

Abrams, who had copied the secret account number on the card that North had given him, gave the piece of paper to the Brunei official but still did not know as they parted whether the money was coming through.

Though the final approval was given to the US ambassador in Brunei in September 1986, getting the money took a good deal longer. Abrams was so worried that he called North every couple of weeks to find out whether it had arrived. In desperation, he sent a frantic message to the embassy in Brunei:

We cabled the ambassador and said, “We should go ask them, hey, where’s the money? What’s happening?” Finally, at roughly, oh around the end of October, I actually drafted a cable which used the word “embezzlement,” because I could not figure out what had happened to this money.

The draft was never sent because the entire Iran-contra affair blew up at the end of November and made the department draw back from wanting to get the money. On December 1, Secretary Shultz sent the ambassador a cable to tell the Brunei government to stop the deposit of the money, if it had not already done so, owing to the unhappy developments of the past few days. It was too late; Brunei had finally come across.

In fact, North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, had transposed the first three numbers on the card, with the result that the sultan had deposited $10 million in someone else’s Swiss account. It was a fitting ending to another “horror story.”23 The sultan of Brunei could not have been less interested in the fate of the contras; he had been asked to make a payment to please the President and secretary of state of the United States.

The incident was not ended for Elliott Abrams. When he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 10, 1986, he was asked whether any other country was providing assistance to the contras on behalf of the United States. He answered: “No, sir.” He added: “The thing is, I think I would know about [it] because, if they [contras] went to a foreign government, a foreign government would want credit for helping the contras, and they would come to us to say, ‘You want us to do this, do you?’ and I would know about that.” Abrams could speak with confidence about what he would have known, because he had played out this little scenario with the Brunei official in London two months earlier.

Abrams again equivocated in testimony before the same committee on November 25, 1986. Asked by Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey whether he had ever discussed “problems of fund-raising by the contras with members of the NSC staff,” Abrams denied doing it because, as he later explained, he had been involved in fund-raising for the contras, not by the contras—an exceedingly nice distinction. It was not the only time that he and others had given misleading answers by taking advantage of questions that were clear enough in intent but not precisely enough worded. He had also volunteered that “other than the Middle Eastern thing which I recounted to you, we’re not, you know, we’re not in the fund-raising business” and “the State Department’s function in this has not been to raise money, other than to try to raise it from Congress.”

Abrams later explained that he had dissembled because he had not felt himself authorized to tell the truth about the Brunei solicitation. When the committee had called him back on December 8, it had with much difficulty wrung an apology out of him.24 Thus a solicitation to Brunei starting in June 1986 had dragged on for about six months only to result in one fiasco after another, sometimes farcically; it had not even paid off for all the effort put into it; and it had ended in the ignominy of the leading official in the State Department in charge of Latin American affairs.

Apart from his early opposition to the Iran arms deals, Secretary Shultz did not distinguish himself in this affair. It is hard to think of a secretary of state who so demeaned his office by lending himself to a solicitation from the government of Brunei or by authorizing it to be made by his assistant secretary as if the United States were a mendicant: Perhaps the most scathing comment on the episode was made by Abrams himself, too late for it to do any good: “I have to tell you that I think it is shameful for the United States to be going around rattling a tin cup.”25

One of the few beneficiaries of the Iran-contra crackup was Secretary of Defense Weinberger.

He had consistently opposed the Iran arms deals, then had obeyed President Reagan’s order transmitted through National Security Adviser Poindexter in January 1986 to sell Department of Defense arms to the CIA for ultimate sale to Iran. He then patiently waited for the Iran policy to explode and took revenge during the next phase of the Iran crisis.

An acute observation was made by the CIA’s Duane Clarridge. He pointed out that by 1985 there was a conflict in the government between those “who felt that we should pursue the strategic opening [with Iran] and that there were elements within Iran that could be worked with” and “a second group which felt there was no such thing as a ‘moderate element’ and that what we really should be doing is teaching the Iranians a lesson.” He observed: “I think you see reflections of it today in certain attitudes in regard to the [Persian] Gulf.” The upshot, he said, was that

the group that had been interested in opening up relations with Iran or with some people in Iran, and that was progressing, there was some hope; obviously that has come to naught and the group more interested in teaching the Iranians a lesson or finding an excuse to teach them a lesson have now moved into the ascendancy.26

The leader of the second group, now in the ascendancy, was obviously Secretary Weinberger, who paradoxically found an excuse for teaching the Iranians a lesson when an Iraqi pilot sent a missile into the US frigate Stark on May 17, 1987. Right up to his resignation on November 4, Weinberger was the most enragé of our overheated warriors. He preempted the responsibility of the President and Congress to define how far we were willing to go to teach Iran a lesson, assuming that that is our goal. Even the President of the United States cannot constitutionally declare war, but Weinberger virtually arrogated that power to himself.

In September 1986, during a visit to Bahrain, Weinberger declared that Iran will be a threat to the Gulf until there is a “totally different kind of government there.” After his tour of the area, he declared on This Week with David Brinkley that “there would need to be a totally different type of government in Iran, because no one can deal with an irrational, fanatical type of government of the kind that they have now.”

In effect, Weinberger committed the United States to a struggle with Iran until the present Khomeini regime is overthrown. This is tantamount to a war aim that goes far beyond anything even President Reagan, let alone Congress, has ever expressed. It has generated typical war-propaganda myths such as Weinberger’s bland insistence that Kuwait is an innocent “neutral” in the Iran-Iraq struggle and, therefore, deserves to be defended by us. Iraqi planes attack Iranian shipping with impunity and incur deafening silence from the United States, which pretends to protect everyone’s right to free passage in the Gulf. A new military distinction has implicitly been made between good Iraqi bombs and bad Iranian mines. This double standard led to a tit-for-tat US military exchange with Iran that escalated every time Reagan said it was not war.

In this way there is a connection between the American arms deals with Iran and American intervention in the Iran-Iraq war. It is a connection that makes a mockery of President Reagan’s main rationale for the Iran arms deals. He had always insisted that they were justified by long-term geopolitical imperatives based on Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East and the transitoriness of the present Iranian regime. Now a wild gyration of Reaganite policy has exchanged sending arms to Iran against Iraq for becoming a de facto ally of Iraq against Iran. American weapons cannot distinguish between Khomeini supporters and ordinary Iranians. This American “lesson” can only be taken by most Iranians as a threat against their country, which will en-venom US-Iran relations for a long time to come. The injection of the United States into a local war has only made it more costly for everyone concerned, including the Kuwaitis, who must have thought themselves so clever to have lured us into it.

Thus we are not through paying the price for the Iran arms folly. An administration that thought it was wise to side with Iran now equally mindlessly thinks that it is wise to side with Iraq.


Beyond the immediate question why the Iran-contra covert operations collapsed in failure arise other, larger questions.

One is institutional. It is instructive from this point of view to look into Oliver North’s mind to see what he thought about the presidency and foreign policy. To be sure, North is not an authority on these matters, but he reflected a significant misconception.

At one point in the hearings, North said as if it were self-evident:

I deeply believe that the President of the United States is also an elected official of this land. And by the Constitution, as I understand it, he is the person charged with making and carrying out the foreign policy of this country. I believed, from the moment I was engaged in this activity in 1984, that this was in furtherance of the foreign policy established by the President. I still believe that [italics added].27

North was not the only one to believe that. Admiral Poindexter was under the impression that he was justified in concealing information from Congress because all that mattered was the “President’s policy.” He testified boldly: “My objective all along was to withhold from the Congress exactly what the NSC staff was doing in carrying out the President’s policy.”28 Poindexter could have said this only because he thought that the Constitution entrusted foreign policy to the president and to no one else.

As it happened, North and Poindexter did not understand the Constitution very well. Yet their understanding, such as it was, clearly influenced their actions. Since they are not the only ones with this understanding, it is worth considering what the Constitution actually says and what the significance of this misrepresentation is.

We may begin this brief inquiry with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the anniversary of which we have been celebrating. Here are some views expressed by several of the founders on the power of the presidency:

Edward Rutledge (South Carolina): “said…he was not for giving him [the President] the power of war and peace.”

Roger Sherman (Connecticut): “said he considered the Executive magistracy as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect, that the person or persons ought to be appointed by and accountable to the Legislature only, which was the depositary of the supreme will of the Society.”

James Wilson (Pennsylvania): “The only powers he conceived strictly Executive were those of executing the laws, and appointing officers, not appertaining to and appointed by the Legislature.”

Edmund Randolph (Virginia): “regarded it [the Executive] as the foetus of monarchy.”

James Madison (Virginia): “agrees [that] executive powers…do not include the Rights of war and peace.”29

These statements are quite representative of the opinions expressed at the convention. The consensus on the presidency and foreign affairs was probably best expressed in The Federalist, No. 75, by Alexander Hamilton:

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world to the sole disposal of a magistrate, created and circumstanced, as would be a president of the United States.30

Hamilton later wanted to interpret the foreign power of the presidency more broadly and brought on the great debate between Pacificus (Hamilton) and Helvidius (Madison). Hamilton advocated interpreting the presidential power as virtually unlimited except where the Constitution contained specific exceptions and qualifications. Madison, it is generally agreed, got much the better of the argument. He stated:

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department…. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement…. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

Hence it has grown into an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war; hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence.31

The Constitution itself says surprisingly little about foreign policy and foreign affairs. Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the power to provide for the common defense and to declare war. Article II, Section 2, empowers the president to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, provided two thirds of the senators present concur; to appoint ambassadors with the advice and consent of the Senate; and to be the commander in chief of the armed forces.

It is clear, then, that the Constitution does not charge the president with “making” foreign policy. It would be more nearly correct to say that the Constitution implicitly charges Congress with making and the president with executing foreign as well as domestic policy. Indeed, in foreign affairs the Constitution limits the president the most with respect to his ability to declare war. Presidents have made war without declaring it, but they have done so by pretending that they were waging something other than war.

Nevertheless, so much has changed since the Constitution was written that a literal interpretation hardly conveys the present-day reality. The Constitution’s very terseness on the subject of foreign affairs opened the way for practices and interpretations that have almost invariably benefited the enlargement of presidential prerogatives. The late constitutional scholar, Edward S. Corwin, asked where the Constitution vested authority to determine the course of American foreign policy. “Many persons are inclined to answer offhand ‘in the President,’ ” he replied, “but they would be hard put to it, if challenged, to point out any definite statement to this effect in Constitution itself.” What the Constitution actually says, he observed, “is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy”—a conflict which presidents since George Washington have been winning.32 Presidents have used and abused their constitutional role of commander in chief to operate “on the very fringes of constitutionality (and arguably beyond that),” a recent study notes.33 Congress has rarely chosen or succeeded in sharing the responsibility for foreign policy with the President. Congress has in fact been largely craven in the face of presidential initiatives and has stepped in only after some executive action has misfired or resulted in a debacle. Congressional actions in foreign affairs have usually been cleanup operations, such as these very hearings after the Iran-contra fiasco.

Others have made North’s mistake in a slightly more veiled form. Senator James McClure of Idaho said at the congressional hearings that “Article II of the Constitution gives the President authority to conduct foreign affairs.”34 But Article II never uses or implies the term “conduct,” if it is taken to mean anything more than to execute what Congress legislates. Article II merely gives the president authority to make treaties, provided two thirds of the senators present concur, and to appoint ambassadors, again with the advice and consent of the Senate. These qualifications hardly suggest that the president can conduct foreign policy as he pleases.

Another way of blaming Congress also takes off from North’s testimony. The true-blue editorialist of The Wall Street Journal of July 14, 1987, commended North for having explained “how Congress drove the executive branch to run the Contra operations out of basement offices and commercial intermediaries.” This is how the reasoning went:

The Boland amendments said that the Pentagon and CIA no longer could use any appropriated funds to aid the Contras. So if the president wanted to keep the Contras alive until congressional funding resumed, it’s no surprise that an overworked National Security Council staffer was left to do the work that would have kept much of the CIA busy. “Plain and simple,” Lieutenant Colonel North told the congressmen, “you are to blame because of the fickle, vacillating, unpredictable, on-again, off-again policy toward the Nicaraguan democratic resistance.”

In effect, according to this line of reasoning, Congress was to blame for passing a law that the President signed but did not like. So, of course, he had to take steps to get what he wanted in other ways. Or, to put it the way Lieutenant Colonel North did, whenever someone in his position decides that Congress is being fickle, vacillating, unpredictable, on-again and off-again, which is not rare in the annals of American politics, Congress is to blame if he is caught running operations opposed to the law out of basement offices and commercial intermediaries. We do not have to decide whether Congress was in this case what he says it was in order to recognize that this is a plain and simple formula for presidential law breaking. If we ever get a more dangerously subversive junta than this one, we may be sure that it will claim immunity from the law for some such political reason. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial was entitled “High Noon for the Constitution.”

What Congress likes least is to be totally ignored, though ignorance comes in handy during a post-mortem. North and Poindexter might have been saved from disgrace, if they had not shared the popular misconception that the Constitution gives the president sole responsibility for foreign policy. Since this view cannot be upheld by appeal to the Constitution, their belief in a presidential monopoly made them most vulnerable once their covert operations were exposed. No heed seems to have been paid to what to do in the event that the Iran-contra affair leaked out and brought down on them the wrath of Congress, all the more self-righteous and furious for having been ignored for so long. If it was right and constitutional to ignore Congress, and only the President’s fiat counted, the conspirators had reason to feel safe from congressional probing and legal punishment. If it was wrong and unconstitutional, however, they were truly defenseless, especially if the President elected to put all the blame on them. In its 200th year, the Constitution showed that it could not be defied or misrepresented with impunity forever.

Oliver North provided the occasion for still another insight into the depths of the Iran-contra affair. In his most accusatory style, he said: “The Congress of the United States left soldiers in the field unsupported and vulnerable to their communist enemies.”35

North was relatively mild. One of his main supporters was Patrick J. Buchanan, the former director of communications in the Reagan administration. In defense of North, he charged that “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has made itself the silent partner—the indispensable ally—of revolutionary communism in the Third World.” 36

Lurking in the background of this whole affair, then, was the ghost of McCarthyism, which rises whenever a scapegoat is needed for a foreign setback. The injection of domestic pro- or anticommunism into this issue en-venoms rational disagreement by openly or implicitly hinting at treason and betrayal, Pushed to the extreme, it is a formula for latent civil war. Even in the present American political climate, which is far from anything resembling civil war, it should warn us that other democratic countries have been vulnerable to such destructive agitation.


It would be a grave mistake to think that what happened in the Iran-contra affair is an aberration. Much of it was rather like many other affairs in the past, only more so. In 1975, Senator Frank Church called the CIA “a rogue elephant on the rampage.” He would have had to use the same words in 1987.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the latest covert operations have set new standards of political debasement. In past episodes, the CIA was charged with carrying out covert operations and took responsibility for them. In the present, the CIA or at least its director corrupted and hid behind the National Security Council staff, thus achieving a new low in covert sleaziness. Never before has a presidential “finding” gone so far as to contain a provision that the finding itself should be concealed from Congress. Never before has a president deliberately hidden a foreign operation from the secretaries of state and defense. Never before has a president handed over effective execution of a major policy to a junta-like cabal without accountability or control.

These innovations were not designed to fool outsiders. Iran knew what was going on; Israel knew what was going on; the Sandinistas knew what the contras were doing; one foreign intelligence service knew more than the secretary of defense and had informed him of meetings between Oliver North and Iranian go-betweens. These perversions of American principle and practice were wholly domestic in intent; they were aimed at Congress and at anyone in the administration opposed to the President’s policy. In countries with weaker constitutional traditions and arrangements, they would have been regarded as precursors of a possible coup by government insiders. Even in American conditions, which make such a takeover hard to take seriously, they constituted a serious challenge to the way the American political system has long functioned.

If the CIA can plot assassinations of foreign government leaders, overturn governments, conduct paramilitary operations, carry out individual acts of war, hire and train mercenaries, control the appurtenances of a shadow government such as “proprietary” airlines, corrupt other organs of government, with or without the knowledge and approval of the president or Congress, all of which the CIA has done in the past, something has crept into the American system of government that can become politically cancerous. Casey was not an anomaly; he was the product of the entire history of the CIA.

At their best, covert operations put an almost unbearable strain on constitutional government because they are hidden from the view of all but a very few. At their worst, covert operations make a mockery of the constitutional system and represent a clear and present danger of immense potential for harm.

The worst has happened so often that it cannot be passed off as mere error or accident. When James Schlesinger was CIA director in 1973, he asked every CIA employee to inform him of any improper activity that had come to their knowledge. The list ran to 683 pages and came to be known as the “Family Jewels.”37 That was fourteen years ago; no doubt the list would be much longer today after seven years of Casey’s freewheeling regime.

How disastrously the CIA can bungle an operation has again been shown by a fine, new study of the “perfect failure” that occurred at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.38 No American can read the story of the treatment of a Soviet defector, Yuri Nosenko, by James J. Angleton, for decades the head of counterintelligence, without shame.39

Whatever is wrong with covert operations is made all the worse by the practice of what North called “plausible deniability” and Poindexter, going further, termed “absolute deniability.” It is a code of conduct that was officially adopted in June 1948 in NSC 10/2, which provided that covert operations were to be “so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”40

The idea is probably as old as the existence of rulers and no doubt will be with us for just as long. It should be noted, however, that this early, official version excluded “unauthorized persons” from knowledge, not anyone as authorized as the President of the United States. The North-Poindexter version is much more extreme. North merely assumed that the President had approved of his actions; he did not say that he knew it for a fact. Poindexter brazenly vouched for the President’s ignorance, because he had deliberately not given the President an opportunity to know.

This was not the first time that the question of a president’s knowledge had arisen. There were at least eight CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1961 and 1965. Had Presidents Kennedy and Johnson known of them? Richard Helms, the CIA’s deputy chief of operations at the time, later answered the question for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the so-called Church committee:

It was made abundantly clear…to everybody involved in the operation that the desire was to get rid of the Castro regime and to get rid of Castro…. The point is that no limitations were put on this injunction…[but] one…grows up in [the] tradition of the times and I think that any of us would have found it very difficult to discuss assassination with a President of the United States. I just think we all had the feeling we’re hired out to keep these things out of the Oval Office.41

In other words, the CIA had responded to a knowing presidential hint—“get rid of Castro.” Two decades later the hint was: “Get the hostages out.” To make this system work, presidents also have to hint that they do not care to know how it is done. Congressmen have behaved in the same way. In a moment of candor, Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts once admitted:

It is not a question of reluctance on the part of CIA officials to speak to us. Instead, it is a question of our reluctance, if you will, to seek information and knowledge on subjects which I personally as a member of Congress and as a citizen, would rather not have, unless I believed it to be my responsibility to have it because it might involve the lives of American citizens.42

Yet there is deniability and deniability. The plausible kind does not necessarily imply that the president should not know. It used to mean only that responsibility could not be pinned on him. The deniability had to be made plausible to others, especially to foreigners. The North–Poindexter version unwittingly cut the ground from under the whole idea by substituting presidential ignorance for plausible deniability. There is a need for plausibility only if the president does know and does not want to be caught knowing. If the president allegedly does not know, the question changes from plausible deniability to implausible ignorance. And if someone like Admiral Poindexter decides what the president should know or how he should act, the former in effect takes the place of the president, and we suddenly have “President” Poindexter instead of President Reagan.

What is cause for most worry is that reforms have come and gone without doing away with such political perversions. During the Carter administration, CIA Director Stansfield Turner tried to curb the beast. No sooner was he out of office and William J. Casey in than the rogue elephant rampaged even more ruinously than before. New rules have once again been imposed on the CIA and NSC staff without any assurance that the old evils will not reappear in new guises.

One reason for concern is the very size of the covert establishment. According to one informed estimate, the CIA budget in the mid-1980s came to perhaps $1.5 billion per year, of which the operational side amounted to perhaps a third.43 This money pays for thousands of employees; it enables the CIA to wage small wars of its own, as in Laos, Angola, and Nicaragua; “stations” are spread out all over the world. Organizations are first given work to do; then they tend to find work in order not to wither from neglect and disuse; huge budgets must be justified.

Institutional changes have been tried without long-term success. A conniving CIA director with the backing of a president who thinks in slogans can change or get around the rules whatever they are. The congressional oversight committees usually know as much as they are told and often do not wish to be responsible for knowing too much. When the Nicaraguan harbors were mined by the CIA in 1984, the Senate Intelligence Committee learned about it after the damage was done. To his credit, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan resigned from the committee in protest—an act now so rare that it was regarded as a personal eccentricity. Casey apologized and Moynihan relented. Casey did not change his ways; he merely became stealthier and soon inveigled Oliver North into covering for the CIA.

Yet Moynihan’s short-lived protest suggests what is needed to hold covert operations in check. It is too much to expect an administration to police itself. In our system the only safeguard is the old one of checks and balances. It is as old as it is because no one has thought of anything better in a democratic, constitutional order. It is easy for senators and representatives to strike a high and mighty moral pose in congressional hearings on executive malfeasance. During the entire Iran-contra hearings, almost no attention was paid to the inattention and ineffectiveness of Congress while all the skull-duggery was going on. If checks and balances cease to work in our system, the rogue elephant will almost surely rampage again.


The report of the congressional Iran-contra committees of November 18, 1987, was released for publication too late for an extended study in this issue. Even a preliminary reading, however, may prove of interest. In what follows I have limited myself to a few considerations in the light of my articles, without trying to do justice to the report as a whole. For this purpose the minority report of eight Republican committee members is most useful, because it raises some of the same issues that I dealt with in my articles.

1. Was there a “grand conspiracy”? The minority report finds that “Poindexter and North did falsify the documentary record in a way that we find deplorable.” It also says that “it was a fundamental mistake for the NSC staff to have been secretive and deceptive about what it was doing.” And “it was self-defeating to think a [pro-contra] program this important could be sustained by deceiving Congress.” Mention is also made of “the NSC staff’s deceits.”

The minority report’s denial of a “grand conspiracy” thus falls of its own weight. If there was no conspiracy, what need was there to “falsify the documentary record,” to be “secretive and deceptive,” deceive Congress, and practice “deceits”? All these cases of admitted malfeasance are typical of a conspiracy seeking to go undetected.

2. Were the Boland amendments “vaguely worded” and did they go “well beyond the law itself”? In my article in The New York Review of October 8, 1987, I discussed the third Boland amendment of October 1984, the one at issue here. It was not vaguely worded in intent or scope; the only way to evade it was to claim that it did not cover the NSC staff, a claim masterfully rebutted during the hearings by Senator George J.Mitchell of Maine. The amendment was worded clearly enough for National Security Adviser McFarlane to recognize that the NSC staff was covered by it. Assistant Secretary of State A. Langhorne Motley assured Congress that the administration was not soliciting funds from third countries for the contras, because, as he agreed, the Boland Amendment prohibited such solicitation.

The Boland Amendment was passed by Congress and signed by the President. Its unconstitutionality could only have been tested in the Supreme Court, to which it was never brought. It is certainly not within the purview of two Republican senators and six Republican representatives to determine whether a law is constitutional or not.

Here again the minority report gets tangled up in its own contradictions. It finally admits that “the Administration decided to work within the letter of the law covertly, instead of forcing a public and principled confrontation that would have been healthier in the long run.” If the amendment was unconstitutional, why did the administration decide to work within the letter of the law? If there was no confrontation, in what sense was the law unconstitutional? And if the letter of the law was obeyed, why “covertly”? One gets the impression that the minority wishes to have its constitutional cake and eat it too.

3. Did the President know of the diversion? I have discussed this question at length in the present article. The minority rehearses at tedious length the lack of evidence for the President’s knowledge. As I have pointed out, this is not a question that bears on the testimony of Poindexter or North. The more relevant question is whether they were right to believe that President Reagan would have approved of their actions, if he had been curious enough to inquire about them. If he did not or would not have approved of their actions, he has had plenty of opportunity since the revelations to make his disapproval clear. Instead, he quickly glorified North as a “national hero” and had only one criticism of him—that he “wasn’t told everything.”

4. Once more the Constitution. Throughout the report of almost seven hundred pages references are made to the Constitution, some of them outlandish. For example, the minority report claims: “We do firmly believe that the Constitution protects much of what the NSC was doing—particularly those aspects that had to do with encouraging contributions and sharing information.” There is not by the wildest stretch of the imagination anything in the Constitution itself to bear out this statement, especially the ludicrous idea that the Constitution to any extent at all protected the NSC’s scrounging of contributions to the contras.

There has been a vast accretion of legislative acts and judicial decisions since the Constitution was written. This body of precedent should not be confused with what is in the Constitution. If the Constitution protects the NSC’s mooching, we should be able to find that protection somewhere in the Constitution, not in some vague, all-purpose discretionary power given to the president. When members base their actions on something other than what the Constitution itself says, that should be made clear. Presidents and Congresses have been known to play fast and loose with the Constitution; the Korean War, for example, was fought for four years without a declaration of war, though the Constitution explicitly says that Congress shall declare war. If such a precedent becomes enshrined as “constitutional,” Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution might just as well not have been written.

The Constitution is a most flexible document, but it is not flexible enough to enable a president to make foreign policy by himself, as North and Poindexter thought, or to protect the NSC’s “rattling a tin cup” to get third-country contributions for the contras in defiance of a duly enacted prohibition, as the minority pretends.

November 18, 1987
This is the last of three articles.

This Issue

December 17, 1987