Michael Ledeen
Michael Ledeen; drawing by David Levine


We are now getting the first wave of books on the Iran and contra affairs. I use the plural, because there was no Iran-contra affair, as the title of the congressional investigation had it. There was an Iran affair and a contra affair, which most of the time were separate and distinct. They intersected at a point usually called the “diversion,” and some of the same characters, notably Oliver North, appeared in both affairs. Nevertheless, it was never one affair but two, and each had its own raison d’être.

The first wave of books on an important historical event has virtues and vices peculiar to itself. It is necessarily closer to journalism than to historical scholarship. It falls somewhere between news and history, not as hot as the first, not as cold as the second. Since there is never a final stage, we are doomed to get successive waves or stages, each with its distinctive virtues and vices.

The first wave of books on the Iran-contra affairs has been peculiarly unlucky. The books have largely based themselves on the public hearings of the select congressional committees in May—July 1987. What was not to be expected was the appearance in the meantime of the private testimony, or depositions, given to the joint committees in preparation for the public hearings.

These depositions are in many respects richer and more detailed than the public hearings. Many of these depositions are critical for a full understanding of the events. Most were given by participants who did not testify in the public hearings. Since the depositions were not televised, they did not suffer from the pressures of time and publicity that plagued the public hearings. Their early publication was unexpected, because the testimony had ostensibly been given with assurances of secrecy. For example, the former chief of staff, Donald Regan, gave his deposition on the assumption that it was “Top Secret.” But now we have almost two hundred pages of it in print.

Anyone working on the Iran-contra affairs would today be confronted with the following:

27 volumes containing 202 depositions for a total of 31,458 pages (Appendix B);

12 volumes of public hearings for a total of 9,902 pages;

3 volumes of documents for a total of 4,751 pages (hundreds of other documents are also contained in the volumes of depositions and hearings) (Appendix A);

5 volumes of a Testimonial Chronology, Witness Accounts, Supplemented by Documents for a total of 4,625 pages (Appendix D).

1 volume of Chronology with 194 pages (Appendix C);

1 volume of the “Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair” with 690 pages;

1 volume of the “Report of the President’s Special Review Board” (Tower Report) with 285 pages.

And, as if these were not enough, hundreds of thousands of documents stored in the committees’ archives in Washington, DC, are not available in print.

The task of studying at least 50,000 printed pages is alone daunting. The editing of these volumes is inadequate. There are no indexes in the volumes themselves (Appendix D: Volume 1 contains a cumbersome, all-inclusive index but not a name or subject index). Documents often seem to have been thrown together without any perceptible order. The job was clearly a hasty one, which probably accounts for the early appearance of some volumes. A good deal has been blacked out and cannot be read at all. Nevertheless, the entire collection is of inestimable value to the serious student, and any future accounts must be largely based on it.

This enormous mass could not be carefully studied—the depositions and documents least of all—by the writers of the first wave. This does not mean that these early books have nothing of value to tell us. They represent a preliminary survey and interpretation from different vantage points, they contribute additional details and sidelights, and they warn of prejudices and pitfalls. The five books that I have chosen to examine exhibit all of these traits.


While the public hearings could hardly fail to be informative, they left much to be desired. Why this was so is the main interest in Men of Zeal by the two senators from Maine, Republican William S. Cohen and Democrat George J. Mitchell, an unusual combination of authors.

Cohen and Mitchell reveal that the congressional hearings were shockingly improvised and politicized. Twenty-six members were patently too many for the joint committee, but the opportunity to get on prime-time national television day after day was too much for too many to resist. The staff did not have enough time to prepare adequately for the hearings; many staff members were not cleared quickly enough; a few senior lawyers had to cope with more than 300,000 documents and over a million pages with very little assistance. The deadline set for the entire inquiry was too short, with the result that time limitations and lack of resources forced the committee’s lawyers to concentrate on some issues and neglect others. The cia ignored requests for months and otherwise showed its contempt for the committee’s work.


The decision to turn the hearings almost wholly over to the lawyers was not necessarily wrong in itself; it was what the lawyers did that was wrong. This abdication of responsibility by the congressmen is explained by Cohen and Mitchell on the ground that they were too busy with their other congressional work to prepare adequately. Whatever the reason, the politicians could not have done worse than their lawyers, especially the chief counsels, Arthur L. Liman for the Senate and John W. Nields, Jr., for the Representatives.

Cohen and Mitchell virtually admit that Liman and Nields were not equal to the occasion. They attribute Liman’s troubles to his thinning hair and accent, Nields’s to his long hair and mannerisms. They report that thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls, many of them viciously anti-Semitic, came in denouncing Liman in the first week; Senator Cohen himself, not Jewish, received letters expressing the desire to hang him along with “that Jew, Liman”; Liman once sent Cohen a letter of appreciation with the grimly humorous comment, “But why does your name have to be Cohen?”

It may well be true that the television camera was unkind to Liman and Nields. But I do not think that was the real reason for their unsatisfactory performances. In fact, the authors undercut their own analysis by observing that committee members, “no matter how artful or photogenic, did no better than Liman.” Cohen and Mitchell cite John Mortimer, the British barrister and author, on how to deal with witnesses: “The art of cross examination…is not the art of examining crossly.” This maxim was repeatedly violated by Liman and Nields. They too often behaved as if they were less interested in eliciting information from witnesses than in arguing with and getting the better of them. Cohen in his own name notes that “almost from the moment John Nields began to question him [North], the proceedings turned hostile and confrontational.” They made themselves into would-be star performers showing off their vaunted superiority. It would have been bad enough if they had been successful; it was much worse when they were less than brilliant tangling with recalcitrant witnesses like former General Richard V. Secord and Oliver North.

It was not so much their hair and accents that did them in as their failure to succeed in their self-assumed roles. When Nields went after Secord, the first public witness, he immediately plunged into the intricacies of the Iran-contra bank accounts. As Cohen and Mitchell point out, this line of questioning was wrong-headed for two reasons: the practical result of linking the two affairs from the outset was “to blur the edges of each,” and Secord, “an aggressive, combative witness,” could not be effectively challenged “because crucial evidence was still being held up by Swiss authorities and others.” Nields seemed to start in the middle “of a complicated and confusing story.”

The major fiasco was the interrogation of Oliver North by both Nields and Liman. The committee had already made humiliating concessions to North’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, who was able to set the conditions for North’s testimony. During the hearings, Sullivan was permitted to bully and browbeat as if he were dealing with juvenile delinquents. The chairman, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, allowed him to get away with the most offensive outbursts. On one occasion, Sullivan burst out: “Don’t answer the question. Next question. The question, Mr. Chairman, won’t be answered.” Sullivan was particularly insolent with respect to Liman. Sullivan shouted at Liman, who had just asked North a question, “That is none of your business…. Get off his back.” Cohen and Mitchell say that Sullivan actually succeeded in intimidating members of the joint committee. Sullivan was hardly rebuked, let alone threatened with contempt proceedings.

North was a shifty, often unresponsive witness. His most effective moments came when he answered a question with a patriotic, self-serving speech that had little or nothing to do with the question. Cohen and Mitchell give one of many examples of a speech by North in response to Nields, who had asked a simple question about a fence or security system at North’s home: “Were you aware that that security system was paid for by General Secord?” North went on for almost fifteen minutes about Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist. He read from the Christian Science Monitor about Abu Nidal and mock-heroically offered to meet him on equal terms anywhere in the world. He kept going on about his eleven-year-old daughter and how proud he was of his five-and-a-half years at the National Security Council, before finally admitting that he had falsified documents about the payment of the fence.


Cohen and Mitchell comment sardonically: “We shook our heads in disbelief. That fence might keep out the neighborhood dogs or some anti-Contra activist who had poured sand in his car’s gas tank. But Abu Nidal? Hardly. Still, the theater was far more compelling than our doubts.”

They also note that North had many apologists on the committee, one of whom was Representative Bill McCollum, Republican of Florida. He said on June 25, 1987, that North was one of those who were guilty of “deliberately deceiving and lying” and were responsible for “one of the most treacherous things that has ever occurred to a President, it seems to me, in our history.” But after learning how North had gone over with the television audience, McCollum saluted him on July 14 as having “served your country admirably” and having been “a dedicated, patriotic soldier,” for which he and the country were grateful and which they “will remember forever, regardless of anything else.”

Cohen and Mitchell unobtrusively convict Vice-President George Bush of tampering with the truth in his recent autobiography. Bush pretended that he had known nothing about the arms-for-hostages deal until he had been briefed by Republican Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota almost a month after the story had been made public in November 1986. “What Dave had to say left me with the feeling,” Bush wrote, “I’d been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation.”1

The senators have no trouble tearing away Bush’s mask of ignorance. They list the dates of high-level meetings at which Bush was present and at which detailed reports were made and discussions held about the various deals. Bush was present at meetings on August 6, 1985, at which National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane reported that Iran wanted one hundred tow missiles from Israel in exchange for four hostages; on January 6, 1986, when McFarlane’s successor, John M. Poindexter, told about a plan to exchange four thousand tows for hostages; on January 17, 1986, when President Reagan signed the finding that authorized the shipment of arms to Iran; and on July 29, 1986, when Bush in Jerusalem was fully briefed on the entire matter by Amiram Nir, the Israeli prime minister’s adviser on counterterrorism. That Bush was not deliberately excluded and must have known a great deal of what was going on can be unmistakably demonstrated; our next president’s record in these affairs suggests that he has not been clever enough to tell an untruth that could not be easily exposed.

In the end, Cohen and Mitchell imply that the way the joint committee held its public hearings was gravely flawed. Among other things, they advise against future joint hearings and recommend a maximum of eleven members if a future joint hearing should be unavoidable. They warn against permitting witnesses or their lawyers “to seize control of or manipulate the proceedings.” They reject fixed deadlines in such investigations. They seem to be less certain about the wisdom of having granted North immunity. They point out that the joint committee might have waited to grant immunity to North until after the independent counsel had determined whether he had committed an indictable offense; but they immediately note that such a delay would have extended the hearings well beyond Reagan’s term of office. And they call on Congress to “take into account the power of television” and yet resist “(as the committee did) the pressure to conform its behavior to television’s demand.” The authors, however, elsewhere admit that members of the committee, as in the case of Representative McCollum, did not resist the pressure of television. This formula may merely betray the senators’ idea of heaven as a place where they can always have it both ways.

As for the Iran-contra story itself, the authors have produced a useful primer that is almost as critical of the Congress as it is of the Executive. Both senators were among the few impressive participants in the hearings, and for that they deserve our gratitude.


Oliver North is a dangerous type in a democracy. His ethos was fashioned entirely in the ranks of the military. There is an adventurist, fanatical streak in him; he admittedly regards obedience to a president like service to a czar or dictator; a cause to which he gives himself justifies all manner of evil, especially lying on a grand scale and deceiving even close colleagues. Mixed with all this is a talent for crowd-tingling demagogy, a predilection for patriotic bathos, and a self-sacrificial zealotry. The televised hearings gave him an audience of millions and one that was particularly vulnerable to his exhortations. In fact, the chances are that much of what most people remember of the hearings came from him.

Anyone who wishes to know more about North can begin with Ben Bradlee, Jr.’s, Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North. It is a popularly written account that contains a store of information about North not available in such detail elsewhere. North refused to be interviewed for it, but his Annapolis classmates, fellow Marines, and later associates seem to have talked about him willingly and mainly admiringly.

About half the book is devoted to the Iran and contra affairs. The account is more detailed and far livelier than that in the Cohen–Mitchell book. The story is told more or less straight until the last fifteen pages, where Bradlee offers his own views, of which the following indicates his final verdict:

North’s tragic flaw was that in his sincere zeal to promote democracy, he helped subvert it; in his desire to protect and defend the Constitution he swore to uphold, he trampled some of its most fundamental precepts.2

Bradlee might better have observed that what North desired to protect and defend was not the Constitution but a caricature of it—a Constitution that completely ignored Congress and all other safeguards against an all-powerful president. North always spoke of his allegiance to the President alone, as if the Constitution made him an elected potentate.

Bradlee fills four pages with a catalog of North’s lies—to the National Security Council, to Congress, to Secord, to the Iranians, to friends and co-workers. North must have been keenly aware of his record of deceit when he flauntingly testified that he was going to tell the whole truth—“the good, the bad, and the ugly”—a phrase that so stuck in the mind of Vice-President–elect Dan Quayle that he repeated it in his first postelection interview.3 If North had not lied so much and had not been caught lying, he would not have had to admit so readily that he had lied and would not have needed to promise that he would lie no more. Yet one of North’s most sensational revelations rests only on his say-so and suggests the danger of relying solely on the public hearings.

Bradlee, Cohen and Mitchell, and others make much of North’s statements that the director of the cia, William Casey, wanted to create an overseas “off-the-shelf,” “self-financing,” “independent of appropriated monies,” “stand-alone,” “full-service covert operation.” The senators even plead in favor of the concessions made to North on the ground that his testimony was crucial, “if only because he disclosed the existence of the so-called off-the-shelf covert capability that is so inimicable [sic] to our concept of democracy.”

But all we knew from the public hearings about Casey’s plan for a “so-called off-the-shelf capability” was what North told us. Now that we also have the private depositions, Casey’s intention is much less clear.

One of the most important depositions was given by John N. McMahon, Casey’s deputy director until his resignation in March 1986. McMahon had spent over thirty-four years in the cia. He was made deputy director in 1982 and had thus worked more closely with Casey than anyone else in the agency. His office adjoined Casey’s; the door between them was always open; he was privy to all that went on, as deputies are supposed to be. He was an honorable man, who demanded a presidential “finding” as soon as he found out, in Casey’s absence, that cia officials had engaged in unlawful cooperation with North in the ill-fated transport of arms from Israel to Iran in November 1985—the “bit of a horror story,” as North called it.

McMahon gave the “off-the-shelf capability” a quite different interpretation. He said that Casey wanted to build an intelligence capacity outside the established cia mechanism “but all part of the Central Intelligence Agency, nothing on [off?] the shelf or as described by Colonel North.” McMahon maintained that Casey’s idea was to be funded by congressionally appropriated funds, not North’s unappropriated funds, and in compliance with US laws requiring presidential findings and notification to Congress, not North’s outlaw version of it. The following exchange took place:

Counsel: As I stated before, I don’t believe we have any corroborative evidence of Colonel North’s testimony on this particular point, and what he did relate were conversations that he had and discussions he had with the Director apparently one on one in this area.

McMahon: Casey never related that or even gave a hint to me that anything like that was fermenting in his mind.4

McMahon was not the only one mystified by North’s off-the-shelf story. Robert M. Gates, McMahon’s successor as deputy director, was read North’s testimony on the subject, after which he was asked whether Casey had ever said anything to him about it. Gates replied: “No. He never said anything that would have even suggested that he was thinking about such a thing.” To Gates’s knowledge, no such entity was ever discussed by anyone at the agency. Gates said that he would have resigned if the off-the-shelf notion had been pursued and, anyway, he thought it was “fundamentally unnecessary.”5

The least that can be said about the testimony of McMahon and Gates is that it should be taken into account in any consideration of North’s off-the-shelf story. North asks us to believe that Casey had confided in him alone about a palpably unlawful, unconstitutional scheme that could not have been put into effect by Casey and North alone and would have had to draw in others in the agency as high up as McMahon or Gates. Casey was guilty of all sorts of shady practices, but this plot is inherently implausible; it was featherbrained, and no one has ever accused Casey of that particular imperfection. Whatever we may think of Casey, the issue here is one of fact, not Casey’s character or general record. Unfortunately, the details of Casey’s idea, as McMahon knew it, have been partially blacked out in his deposition. The story should not be permitted to persist without a full disclosure of what others knew about it.

In fact, the only such off-the-shelf scheme of which we can be certain was concocted and carried out by North and Secord; it was already a reality by the time North attributed it to Casey as a plan for the future.

It testifies to North’s ability to persuade that he could gain widespread credence, even when he was capable within minutes of contradicting himself. One of his most eloquent declarations comes out much less convincingly on paper than it did from the television screen.

In the printed testimony, on page 242, he says that “my mind-set changed considerably” when he learned that he was subject to a criminal investigation by an independent counsel, as a result of which he decided to fight back. Yet on pages 245–246 he says:

This lieutenant colonel is not going to challenge a decision of the Commander in Chief for whom I still work, and I am proud to work for that Commander in Chief, 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…. I am not going to criticize his decision no matter how he relieves me, sir.

North’s stirring willingness to sacrifice himself in behalf of his commander in chief became part of the folklore that received most attention. Yet President Reagan had agreed to the appointment of an independent counsel, which in effect represented a presidential decision for North to stand in a corner and sit on his head.

In this respect, North and Reagan were two of a kind. According to Fawn Hall, North’s secretary, North told her that the President had telephoned him soon after the announcement of North’s legal jeopardy and had called him “an American hero.”6 This recollection, though secondhand, is entirely credible, because Reagan gave an interview the very next day to Time magazine in which he said of North: “He is a national hero.”7

Meanwhile, Reagan made a decision to relieve North and went along with a legal threat of action by a special prosecutor, which so enraged North that he hired a lawyer to fight the charges against him. North’s reaction was hardly a way to stand in a corner, sit on his head, and refuse to criticize “his decision no matter how he relieves me, sir.” North’s actions belied his words, but the blatant contradiction went largely unheeded in the farrago of his testimony.

North had lied so much and was so deceptive in his testimony that it is a sound rule to take nothing for granted that rests solely on his word. He was notorious for his fabrications, self-aggrandizement, even fantasies.8 Yet much of what has been written about him is based solely on his testimony and might just as well have been written by himself. A careful historian or journalist would do well to warn the reader whenever North is the only source of a particularly juicy story.

One aspect of Bradlee’s book concerns journalistic ethics and I wish to point to it briefly, because it arises much more seriously in connection with the book by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus. Bradlee tells the reader that all the quotations in his book come from interviews or documentary sources; he admits to only one exception—that he decided “to recreate dialogue” in the case of former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane’s trip to Tehran in May 1986.

Bradlee does much more re-creating of dialogue than he is willing to admit. Here is one example:

On November 25, 1986, the national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, saw President Reagan to submit his resignation. Poindexter’s testimony reads: “And the President responded and said that he had great regret and that this was in the tradition of a Naval officer accepting responsibility.”9

This is the version of Chief of Staff Donald Regan, who was present:

And the President nodded and said, “I understand.” He said, “This is a shame that it has happened this way, that a man with your great naval record,” and so on, “has come to this end,” but he said, “That is it,” and there was a sort of awkward silence.10

And this is the way Bradlee has it:

“Well, John,” the president responded, “it’s really a shame that it had to end this way, and what you’re doing is in the great tradition of a naval officer accepting responsibility.”11

The differences between the three versions are relatively innocuous. The fact remains, however, that what Bradlee made the President say was not really what he had said. It is a collage of some words from Poindexter, some from Regan, and with some touches by Bradlee.

Is there any good reason why an author should take such liberties with a source or sources, apart from making his readers believe that they are getting the exact words, as if he were present? This re-created or doctored dialogue creates a kind of fictionalized journalism or popular history, as if the untainted facts, would be too onerous for readers to bear. It is open to such abuses that I shall discuss it more fully in connection with the book by Mayer and McManus, which makes use of such dialogue on a much larger scale.


The Israeli connection has never been fully clarified. One reason is that we have known about it mainly from the American side and far less from the Israeli. An Israeli chronology of events that was submitted to the congressional committees has not been made public, though snippets of it are cited in the committee’s Iran-contra report. As a result, the promised revelations from Samuel Segev, an Israeli journalist, in his book, The Iranian Triangle, with the subtitle The Untold Story of Israel’s Role in the Iran-Contra Affair, have been awaited with more than usual anticipation.12

The book does not quite live up to its promise. Much of his story is not “untold.” The entire section dealing with how Israel and the United States came to enter into a kind of partnership in the “Iran initiative” in 1985 is based on two US sources, the Tower Report and the congressional committees’ Iran-contra report. This section retells the story of the early efforts of Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi money-man, and Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman, to interest Americans in an arms-for-hostages deal; the intervention of the part-time consultant Michael Ledeen (of which more later in connection with his own book); and the joint efforts of Israel and the United States in 1985 to make contact with allegedly “moderate” elements in Iran and to gain the cooperation of Iran to obtain the freedom of the American hostages in Lebanon by sending arms to Iran.

It was convenient for the Americans to let Israel take the lead, for one reason that American participation behind the scenes through Israel lent itself to a plea of “plausible deniability.” President Reagan, according to McFarlane, suggested letting Israel “manage this program” as long as possible.13 When North was asked, “Was one of the reasons for wanting to have Israel involved so that we could say it was Israel that was selling, and Israel everyone knows sells arms?,” North replied: “Well, Israel was already involved, and we were going to continue to pursue it in such a way as part of the plausible deniability, that is correct.”14 Until the Americans decided to take the transfer of arms to Iran into their own hands in January 1986, Israel was deliberately used as an American surrogate and was given to understand that the Iran initiative was a joint enterprise.

In 1985, the Israeli side was mainly represented by Adolph Schwimmer, Ya’acov Nimrodi, and David Kimche. Schwimmer was a US-born Israeli citizen who had founded the Israel Aircraft Industries and had long had dealings with the pre-Khomeini Iran. Nimrodi, an Iraq-born Israeli, had spent a quarter of a century in Iran, among other things as military attaché and representative of Israeli arms manufacturers. Both were now in private business with ties to Adnan Khashoggi. Kimche was the director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, who met with McFarlane and other US officials.

Though Schwimmer and Nimrodi had no official status, they were interested in the arms deals for what they stood to gain financially from them, but they also acted as stand-ins for the Israeli government, which was equally anxious to hide its participation in a scheme to send arms to Iran. Thus Schwimmer was put in charge of the delivery of eighty Israel-owned but US-made hawk missiles to Iran in November 1985. Segev undertakes to explain why Schwimmer had so much trouble getting the missiles out of Israel.

At this point in his narrative, Segev might have had an untold story of Israel’s role. Unfortunately, he gives a demonstrably fictitious account designed to save face for Schwimmer.

According to Segev, Schwimmer was asked by private charter companies for a guarantee of $50 million to charter Boeing 747 cargo planes to transport the missiles from Israel to Iran, owing to the risks in making such a delivery. The sum was too much for Schwimmer and Nimrodi, and the Israeli government did not want to take official responsibility for the project. Schwimmer desperately appealed for help to the Israeli Defense Ministry, which appealed for help to the Israeli defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who happened to be in New York. Rabin called National Security Adviser McFarlane, who was in Geneva for the first Reagan–Gorbachev summit conference. McFarlane called North in Washington and told him to find a way to help.

At this point, Segev’s story gets into trouble. North, in Segev’s version, sent Secord to Israel, where Secord hit on a plan for Israel to send the eighty missiles to Lisbon on an Israeli plane rather than on a chartered plane. Secord undertook to obtain landing rights for the Israeli plane in Lisbon, where the missiles were to be transferred to three other planes chartered by Secord. But Secord failed to get landing rights in Lisbon, thereby becoming primarily responsible for the fiasco that followed. Schwimmer and Nimrodi, Segev claims, “suddenly realized that the people the White House had assigned to the project were incompetent.”15 Poor Schwimmer, according to Segev, was blameless; Secord’s “mishandling of the arrangements” was entirely responsible.

The curious thing about this tale is that Segev’s notes give as its source the joint congressional committees’ Iran-contra report. The story told there is quite different. The report clearly says that Secord did not first go to Israel. The problem, according to the report, had arisen because “the government of Country 15 [Portugal] was unwilling to grant the special clearances” for an Israeli plane to land in Lisbon. Secord went directly to Lisbon, where he tried without success to get the clearance.

It was Schwimmer, not Secord, who had caused the original problem by failing to make sure that he had a suitable plane and Portuguese clearance. Subsequently, an Israeli El Al plane had actually taken off for Lisbon only to be called back for lack of permission to land. Schwimmer afterward telephoned North to say that he had released this El Al plane in order, as North reported scornfully, “to save $.” North then went to high cia officials for help and succeeded in getting a cia “proprietary” company in Germany to provide Secord with a plane, which flew a first installment of eighteen hawk missiles directly from Israel to Iran, thereby avoiding the Portuguese problem. This delivery proved to be worse than nothing at all when the Iranians complained bitterly that they had received the wrong missiles.

Only now was Secord sent to Israel by North to find out what had gone wrong. Segev has the whole sequence of Secord’s presence in Israel muddled, so that Segev can make Secord responsible for the trouble from the outset. Secord reported that “Schwimmer and Nimrodi had promised Ghorbanifar that the missiles being provided could shoot down high-flying Soviet reconnaissance planes and Iraqi bombers,” whereas in reality they were intended for low-flying planes.16

On both the American and the Israeli side this contretemps had far-reaching consequences. North’s resort to the cia for a proprietary plane led to the need for the retrospective presidential “finding” that set in motion much of the turmoil the following year. In Israel, as far as the Americans were concerned, Kimche, Schwimmer, and Nimrodi were removed from the affair and replaced by Amiram Nir, Prime Minister Peres’s adviser on counterterrorism.

I have gone into the difference between Segev’s version of the November 1985 fiasco and that in the congressional report in some detail, because it tells much about the tendentiousness of Segev’s “untold story.” An account that purports to be based in large part on the congressional report is nothing of the kind. It is full of blatant misstatements and distortions with the intent of absolving Schwimmer and Nimrodi of all blame and of heaping it all on Secord. Nir, who took over from them, thereupon becomes Segev’s main Israeli villain; he never does anything right. Peres does not come off well, because he was responsible for imposing Nir. The Americans were altogether hopeless.

As dubious a guide as Segev may be to the Israeli side of the story, he has much to learn about the American side. On a single page, he is capable of committing three glaring blunders. He has cia Director William Casey instigating the replacement of James Baker by Donald Regan as the White House chief of staff. This explanation will come as a surprise to Regan, who told about the incident in his recent book, For the Record, in which it is credibly described as Regan’s own idea.17 Segev also has McFarlane resigning as national security adviser because Regan tried to block his “free access to the Oval Office”; McFarlane as national security adviser had a regularly scheduled half hour with the President at 9:30 am every working day and needed no access from Regan in order to see the President. Finally, Segev puts North in Turkey in 1980 as an officer in the backup Marine force during the abortive attempt to rescue the hostages; in 1980, North was spending part of that year at Camp Le-jeune in North Carolina and the rest at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, nowhere near Turkey.18

Segev’s version of what went on within Israel is hard to judge because he rests most of his inside information on “interviews with participants or their aides and on government papers not yet officially declassified.” No doubt Schwimmer and Nimrodi were among his main informants. Unfortunately, we may never get Nir’s side of the story; he was reported on December 1, 1988, to have been killed in a plane crash in Mexico.

Nir’s death enabled Bob Woodward to make public another of his dead man’s tales. In The Washington Post of December 4, 1988, Woodward and Walter Pincus disclosed that Woodward had engaged in a thirteen-hour interview with Nir in London in June 1988. The main revelation was a secret agreement, “formalized in an exchange of letters between Reagan and Peres.” It remains to be seen whether these letters will come to the surface. Meanwhile Woodward and Pincus also write that the agreement may have been signed at a lower level or merely provided for an exchange of counter-terrorism information and was unduly used by Nir and North for much more extensive activities “outside normal intelligence channels.”

Woodward and Pincus take out so many insurance policies in telling of this Reagan. Peres written agreement that it is hard to know what it will finally amount to. As for the US-Israel collaboration, this was never a secret, and a written agreement adds little to its authenticity. In the Achille Lauro affair of October 1985, the interception of the Egyptian plane carrying the four Palestinian terrorists was carried out with the indispensable cooperation of Israeli intelligence; North said that the feat could not have been accomplished without Nir’s contribution.19 In May 1986, Nir was taken along with McFarlane’s mission to Tehran because Nir insisted that the Israelis had to have a part in the effort. The Israelis might have been wiser to play a less conspicuous part in the Iran affair, but the temptation to be accepted by the United States as virtually an equal partner seems to have been too strong for them to resist.

For reasons that mystify me, Segev’s book has been praised by Abba Eban for its “lucid and objective spirit,” by former Ambassador Samuel Lewis for its “authoritative detail,” by former Under Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco as “an illuminating book for both experts and non-experts,” and by others in a similar vein. It is enough to make one lose any remaining faith one may have in blurbs on book jackets.


Michael A. Ledeen’s Perilous Statecraft is a different kind of book, but with some of the same problems.

Ledeen is the only author in this group who actually participated in the Iran affair. As a result, his book is mainly an apologia for himself, not for someone else. It is lively, gossipy, opinionated, and unrepentant, whatever else it may be.

Ledeen has the distinction of having been “present at the creation” of the affair, at least in its American aspect. As a part-time consultant to National Security Adviser McFarlane in 1985, he says that he was “asked” to meet with “one of the smartest and most experienced intelligence officials in Western Europe.”20 When Ledeen asked him how “we could be usefully involved in Iranian affairs when we knew nothing about the country,” this unnamed official told him: “Talk to the Israelis, they know all about it.”

Ledeen came back to Washington and reported what he had been told to McFarlane, who agreed to his suggestion that it would be a good idea for him to go to Israel and meet with Prime Minister Peres. Ledeen, according to his account, was given no other mission except to find out what the Israelis knew about the situation in Iran. It turned out that one of the smartest and most experienced intelligence officials in Western Europe had been wrong: Peres told Ledeen that “Israeli intelligence was not particularly good” and that he was “personally dissatisfied with it.” Yet a false lead and an unenlightening meeting with Peres enabled Ledeen to insert himself into the still nascent “Iran initiative.”21

Soon Ledeen became acquainted with Kimche, Schwimmer, and Nimrodi on the Israeli side and through them with the two main connivers, Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar. Ledeen is particularly high on Schwimmer, whom he describes as the “ideal Israeli counterpart” of Khashoggi and as Peres’s closest personal friend. In a short time, Ledeen’s connections with the Israelis and his rapport with Ghorbanifar became his chief stock-in-trade in Washington. He himself, after all, knew as little as everyone else in Washington about what was happening in Iran, but he had the advantage that he could always bring back allegedly hot intelligence from the Israelis or Ghorbanifar, the latter an inexhaustible source of whatever the Americans wanted to hear.

When Ledeen comes to tell the story of the November 1985 shipment of hawks from Israel to Iran, his version is like Segev’s in that it absolves Schwimmer—and it is just as mythical. “In the first half of November,” Ledeen writes, “North undertook to commission a jumbo jet that would carry the eighty Hawks from Israel to Iran.”22 In fact, North did not get into the act until November 17, when Rabin had called McFarlane for help and McFarlane had called North to do what he could for the hapless Israeli organizers.23

In his book, Ledeen is still soft on Ghorbanifar, who, he laments, “was accused of many things of which he is almost certainly innocent, from having been an agent of Israel to inventing lies at key moments of the initiative.”24 Ghorbanifar most probably was not an agent of Israel, though the Israelis also had an important stake in him, but that he invented lies at key moments is as close to a certainty as anything in this affair. Ledeen must be the only American who still thinks that Ghorbanifar told no lies at key moments.

In his earlier deposition, Ledeen had been somewhat more forthcoming. He had attested to Ghorbanifar’s reliability and had told how he had come to believe that “Ghorbanifar was indeed a person with whom we could and should work.” Ledeen had urged the cia to deal with him “because of his contacts and his knowledge and sources.” Ledeen had thought that Ghorbanifar could do “things” for the United States “which, so far as I could tell, nobody else could, and that we just could not walk away from such a useful character.”25

All this has been toned down in his book. Others in a position to know how Ledeen promoted Ghorbanifar have been less reticent. Charles Allen, the cia’s chief intelligence officer for counterterrorism, who was able to observe Ledeen in this period and who figures in Ledeen’s book, first learned about Ghorbanifar from Ledeen. Allen recalled: “He [Ledeen] said that Ghorbanifar was a good fellow, praised Ghorbanifar to the hilt.”26 Another high cia official, Clair George, the deputy director for operations, related that the Israelis said that “Ghorbanifar was the greatest thing since bagels,” and Ledeen told Casey that Ghorbanifar was “a great guy.”27

In effect, if Ghorbanifar was responsible for much of the havoc caused by the Iran initiative, Ledeen was responsible for being his most ardent American sponsor. Ledeen’s latest effort to rehabilitate Ghorbanifar is consistent with his past attachment to the Iranian con man.

In his book, Ledeen has some difficulty explaining what his role was. As a part-time consultant for McFarlane, he was merely supposed to “listen, ask questions, and then inform the policymakers in Washington.”28 If he had restricted himself to listening and informing, he would hardly have played an important enough role to devote a book to himself. But Ledeen sometimes forgets that he was only supposed to be a messenger and lets on that he engaged in more substantive discussions. For example, we are told: “At a day-long discussion in a suite at the elegant Prince de Galles Hotel in Paris in the second week of September [1985], Ghorbanifar, Kimche, Schwimmer, Nimrodi, and I looked at the possible paths of action.” 29

At such sessions in the elegant Prince de Galles Hotel and in the less elegant suites of official Washington, Ledeen argued forcefully for a policy that would downplay arms-for-hostages and instead stress the long-term strategic interest in an Iran–US understanding. This much seems true; it is vouched for by others. Yet he based his belief that a serious negotiation between the two countries was possible at that time on very tenuous grounds.

Ledeen’s claim rests primarily on a meeting in October 1985 between himself, Ghorbanifar, Schwimmer, Nimrodi, and a so-called “Senior Iranian Official,”30 whose identity he still conceals, supposedly to protect him. This Iranian, however, was neither senior nor official. He was, according to Segev, Ayatollah Hassan Karoubi, said by Ghorbanifar, who produced him, to have been “Khomeini’s ‘right-hand man’ “—undoubtedly one of Ghorbanifar’s imaginative improvisations.31

We have two versions of what happened at this meeting. Karoubi, according to Ledeen, bitterly complained against the Israeli–US policy of sending weapons to Iran and pleaded instead for other types of assistance to the Iranian “moderates” to change the regime or influence the post-Khomeini succession.32 Karoubi’s word was all that Ledeen had to go on in promoting the idea that a basic realignment of Iran could at that time be taken seriously.

Segev tells a very different story about Karoubi. He is said to have demanded 150 HAWK missiles, 200 Sidewinder missiles, and 30 to 50 Phoenix missiles. Segev also says that Ledeen did far more than merely listen. Ledeen allegedly told Karoubi that the US would be willing to enter “a new era of relations with Iran” and provide it with arms, intelligence, technicians, and advisers in various fields after the liberation of all the hostages.33

The Israelis recorded one of their discussions with Karoubi34 and may also have a record of the October meeting in which Ledeen took part. In any case, Segev’s version is very different from that of Ledeen. Either way, Karoubi soon vanished from the scene and was never heard of again.

Ledeen took Karoubi so seriously that he had promised without authorization a response in thirty days. McFarlane, to whom he reported the great news about Karoubi, never took it seriously and let the thirty days pass without responding. Ledeen forever after considered that the failure to follow up on Karoubi’s views was the “great blunder” of the Iran initiative.

One of the strangest aspects of the affair during 1985 is that Ledeen, a part-time consultant without diplomatic or other official status, was the sole American at these various meetings, usually with three Israelis and the ineffable Ghorbanifar. McFarlane evidently did not take these efforts very seriously or was busy with other things. Secretary of State Shultz and the State Department were left entirely in the dark. Yet Ledeen was professedly trying to play down the hostages, who were President Reagan’s main concern, and to set up a fundamental turn in Iran–US relations.

Ledeen came to the end of his short run soon after the November 1985 “horror story.” In McFarlane’s absence, he went to see John M. Poindexter, who was taking McFarlane’s place, and was abruptly dismissed by Poindexter from the project. Ledeen speculates that Poindexter considered him to be “unreliable, incompetent, or both.” Poindexter himself explained that he was “never completely comfortable with Mr. Ledeen,” because “he talked too much and I didn’t think he was a particularly discreet emissary to be using” and “we were concerned with Ledeen not really being very knowledgeable about what he was dealing with.”35 It surely was “perilous statecraft” for McFarlane to have entrusted the first six months of the Iran initiative to a part-time consultant with a minimum of supervision.

In the end, Ledeen was grateful to Poindexter for having saved him from being further implicated in the Iran fiasco. Thanks to Poindexter, Ledeen had the last hollow laugh.


I have left for last another recent book on the Iran-contra affairs, Landslide, by two journalists, Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, because it raises a question of journalistic ethics. Before I get into that, however, the book itself is worth considering.

This time the main character in the drama is President Reagan, as the subtitle, The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988, indicates, though the supporting cast of North and others necessarily comes in for much attention.

The real subject of the book is the political character of Ronald Reagan and his administration. The first three pages tell about the report allegedly given to the new chief of staff, former Senator Howard Baker, by a trusted, politically experienced confidant, Jim Cannon, who was asked by Baker to “scout out the territory” before taking office. Cannon is said to have interviewed the President’s aides, who told him

how inattentive and inept the president was. He was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job. They said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him—even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work—all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.

For about four hundred pages, Reagan never gets any better. The authors’ condemnation of and contempt for him is ceaseless and implacable. They see him unsparingly: “He moved in a world of myths and symbols, not facts and programs.” “Despite his position and power, Reagan often appeared to be living in contented isolation.” “The line between fact and fiction, or accuracy and expediency, was one Reagan crossed early.”

They give him credit for getting through his first term successfully only because the troika—Chief of Staff James A. Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, and White House Counselor Edwin Meese—saved him from himself. They attribute many of his troubles in the second term to his new chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, who comes off in their account as power-hungry, small-minded, and politically incompetent. No one does well in this theater of absurd fecklessness, but Reagan and Regan get the worst notices.

This relentless case for the prosecution might be harder to believe if much of it had not already appeared in books by those who had formerly worked for Reagan—Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, Press Secretary Larry Speakes, Deaver, and Regan. They essentially tell the same story of Reagan’s indolence, ignorance, and incompetence. The difference is that Mayer and McManus have exhibited them against the background of a detailed, running account of the Iran and contra affairs, which Speakes, Deaver, and Regan merely touched on.

The subtitle of the book, The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988, must be charged to premature wishful thinking. The most remarkable thing about President Reagan’s role in the Iran and contra affairs is that he came out of them with nothing more than a temporary dip in his political standing. As The Economist of November 12, 1988, noted after the recent election, Reagan “has ended up hugely popular.” He probably helped considerably to elect President-elect Bush. It would take us too far afield to speculate on why Reagan has been able to make his successors pay for his sins of omission and commission, but this is the real question of his administration, not the premature announcement of his “unmaking.”

Like so many other books of this genre, this one mixes the true, the probably or perhaps true, the dubious, and the indefensible. The authors have put together a racy, headlong story at the price of some tampering with their sources. They sometimes get their facts wrong, but these mishaps tend to be minor and not enough to be seriously troublesome.36

What is more troublesome concerns a question of journalistic ethics. I have already alluded to the “re-created” dialogue in Bradlee’s book. Whatever his lapses may be, they are nothing like those of Mayer and McManus. Page after page in their book abounds with dialogue, some of it hyped up—whether or not the intention was to dramatize rather than to deceive—so flagrantly that a question must be raised: How much of this is permissible?

The authors tell the reader in a note on sources: “Where dialogue is presented, the quotations have been derived either from contemporaneous notes or from interviews with several participants. No dialogue has been reconstructed from secondhand sources.”

It is impossible to check the dialogue from their interviews, but the dialogue from contemporaneous notes is open to question. Of the many cases that I have noted, the following three are typical and should give some notion of what the problem is.

  1. “In August 1985, Israel went ahead with a shipment of 508 TOW missiles in Iran—with no explicit US approval, McFarlane said. ‘No one in [the] US government…had contact with Israel’ on the shipment of those TOWs, he said.”

The book’s notes direct the reader to a handwritten record in Select Committee Documents made by Charles J. Cooper, an assistant attorney general. There are about five thousand pages of these printed documents; without a volume and page reference, the note is virtually useless to all but the most curious and tenacious of knowledgeable readers.

In any case, the relevant source for McFarlane’s alleged statement reads:

M[cFarlane] knows of no one in U.S.G[overnment]. who had contact w[ith] Is[rael]. re transfer of 508 TOWs.37

In Landslide, McFarlane is made to say explicitly that no one had contact with Israel about the shipment of the TOWs. In the original, McFarlane merely said that he knew of no one in the US government who had had such contact. There may have been someone, but he did not know of one.

Yet this metamorphosis is relatively innocent. The next is more serious.

  1. Landslide contains an account of the interrogation of Oliver North by Attorney General Edwin Meese in the presence of three of the latter’s aides during which North was first confronted with the “diversion” memorandum. This account fills almost three pages, virtually all in dialogue form.38

It is based on six different sources. Mayer and McManus have made a collage of phrases from all of them, put together in such a way that the reader would be led to believe that the dialogue flowed in just the sequence given by the authors. In fact, they have stitched together phrases out of different contexts from different sources.

The entire account is too long to be given here, but part of the Mayer–McManus version is enough to show how it was concocted:

How did it happen? Meese asked.

“The Israelis, in January 1986, approached us,” North said. “They arranged to take residuals from these transactions and transfer them to the Nicaraguan resistance.”

One reference to the Israelis appears in the handwritten notes taken by William Bradford Reynolds, an assistant attorney general, who had discovered the diversion memo. The relevant portion reads:

Nir—Jan 1986

Meeting with O[liver] N[orth]—Nir said Israelis would have taken funds from residual acc’t and transfer to Nicaraguan acc’t.39

When Reynolds was asked to explain this reference, he said:

He [North] said—in—his statement was the Israelis came up with the idea of taking residual funds and transferring them to Nicaragua for the contras.40

It will be noticed that Reynolds’s original note used the conditional—“would”—and his later explanation referred to nothing more than an Israeli “idea.” Yet Mayer and McManus have North saying that the Israelis had arranged for the diversion to the contras as if it were an accomplished fact.

Another version, which may have been the primary source, was given by John Richardson, the attorney general’s chief of staff. It reads:

Nir: Israelis, in Jan 86, approach w[ith]/ 2 ways to help—Arrange to take residuals from these transactions to N[icaragua].41

Another reference by him to the Israelis reads:

Israeli suggest[ion] to sweeten pot?

—Disc[ussed] Israeli help gen[era]lly—

N[orth] & R[abin]

Don’t recall asking them.

Israeli offers.42

Thus Richardson’s version on this point agrees in essence with Reynolds’s—North did not allegedly say that the Israelis had actually arranged to transfer the residuals to the contras; at most he may have said that they had offered to do so, or that they had advised North to do so. The trouble would have been avoided if the authors had simply quoted what Reynolds or Richardson had said. By “re-creating” their own version in dialogue form, they went beyond the evidence or their own sources into a journalistic no man’s land.

This is not the only distortion in this account of North’s climactic interview with Meese on the diversion memo. But this one is all the more gratuitous, because the authors’ note refers to North’s public testimony. In it he had merely credited Amiram Nir with the original proposal to build up “residuals” but with no reference to transferring them to the Nicaraguan contras—a refinement that had allegedly come from Manucher Ghorbanifar. They thus made North say something in contradiction to his own testimony as well as in disregard of their own professed sources.

  1. Mayer and McManus create some dialogue with no basis at all in their sources. One example is what President Reagan is supposed to have said to North in a telephone call made soon after Meese’s press conference announcing North’s downfall:

“Ollie,” the president said, “you’re a national hero.” Then he added the best consolation he knew: “This is going to make a great movie one day.”43

The note leads one to North’s testimony. There one finds that North said, “He told me words to the effect ‘I just didn’t know.”‘44 That is all; no national hero, no movie. The “national hero” reference, as I have noted, came from Reagan’s interview with Hugh Sidey of Time magazine. As for the movie, it is not in North’s testimony or the Sidey interview.

North’s two aides, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Earl and Lieutenant Commander Craig P. Coy, happened to be near North during the President’s telephone call. Earl said that North had told them the President had said to him “that he, the President, recognized or that it was important that he, the President, not know—words to that effect.”45 Coy could only recall that the President “had in fact called and said he was sorry he had to let Ollie go, but he had to—something along those lines.”46

The only firsthand version of what the President may have said has come from North and there are three at second hand by Hall, as previously noted, by Earl, and by Coy. Where Mayer and McManus got the movie bit is something of a mystery. The book’s note at this point is entirely misleading. It reads: “‘Ollie, you’re a national hero’: North testimony, July 7, 9, 1987.” North’s testimony has here been confused with Time magazine. Indeed, the notes on sources in the back of the book mainly tantalize. Whenever I was curious about where something came from, I found nothing; and notes such as “Select Committee Documents,” without volume and page, are virtually useless. The authors presumably included some pages of notes to give readers confidence that they had a reason for everything in the book; if so, only the trusting reader will be taken in.

This sort of treatment raises disturbing questions. Is such dialogue justified by any acceptable code of journalistic ethics? Should even popular history be written this way? Should journalism or popular history be fictionalized? Should any real person in a real event be made to say positively what is only alluded to or merely hinted at in the sources? Does it make no difference who said what—whether, for example, North himself said something or someone else said that he had said it?

These methods invite unacceptable abuses. Yet more and more journalistic books have adopted this style of dialogue. It is time for publishers, editors, writers, reviewers, and readers to examine their consciences and decide whether they approve of it.

This Issue

January 19, 1989