In The New York Times Magazine of April 29, 1990, Seymour M. Hersh contributed an article, “The Iran-Contra Committees: Did They Protect Reagan?” which deals with some of the issues I have been concerned with in several of my own articles in The New York Review of Books. Hersh’s article purports to reveal aspects of the Iran-contra affairs deliberately neglected by the Congressional committees at their hearings in 1987 or that were otherwise concealed from the public. Hersh deals mainly with two matters—the allegedly crucial testimony of James R. Radzimski, and a supposedly second “diversion” of Iranian funds to Israel. The Radzimski story is the centerpiece.
Unfortunately, Hersh’s article falls into the category of “what’s-true-is-not-new-and-what’s-new-is-not-true.” Since it concerns issues that I have raised in these pages and will soon return to in an article on the Poindexter trial, I will briefly comment on the Times article here.
It is true that James R. Radzimski was an administrative assistant on the National Security Council staff. Among other things, he was the caretaker of System IV documents—those dealing with covert actions or sensitive intelligence information. His job was to enter these documents into a computer system with name, date, addresses, and the like. He looked at the documents in order to classify them with a few key words in a computerized index. He was little more than a clerk.
In the course of the Iran-contra investigation, Radzimski was interviewed in early 1987 by two FBI agents whom he told about two memoranda, one from November 1985 and the other from April 1986, that he had put into his system. This information seems to have brought him to the attention of the Congressional investigators, who interrogated him at great length; Radzimski’s printed deposition on April 29, 1987, fills ninety-two pages; he was called back on August 11, 1987, for another eighty pages. These 172 pages were printed in Appendix B: Volume 21 of the deposition series of the Congressional committees’ report.
These two memoranda make up Radzimski’s revelations. In fact, all that Hersh tells about them can be found in the depositions. His article adds nothing significant to the depositions themselves. Anyone can check the depositions to see how fairly they are reflected in Hersh’s account.
The first memorandum, according to Radzimski, came in late November 1985.1 It was a copy, and he never saw the original. All he had to do was to read it for key words to classify it for his computer system. He had had nothing to do with the events and no way of understanding the context of the document. His memory of the moment was approximate:
Radzimski: I’m fairly certain I recall, seeing a System IV document that detailed a transfer of weapons, indicated dollar figures that would be received from this. My recollection is that the memorandum is a page and a half long. It was addressed to, I believe, Admiral Poindexter. It was from Oliver North.
Radzimski: It was dated. The reason I say it was dated was the fact that if I had seen it then it was entered in System IV [sic].
Question: And did it have a System IV control number?
Radzimski: It had a System IV control number on it.
Question: Do you remember what the date was?
Radzimski: The best that I can recall is that it was in late November of ’85, but it could it have been early ’86.2
Radzimski went on: There were two dollar figures in the document, one in the millions and the other $12 million. This money “would be used for assistance to the contras.” The document also mentioned “weapons going to Iran” and “I believe it mentioned Israel in there also.”
This November 1985 memorandum is not credible. It supposedly came at the very time of the “horror story,” when North was first introduced into the Iran affair. The original deal was strictly between Israel and Iran, with North’s role limited to finding an aircraft to take the Hawk missiles to Iran; it was a “horror story” because almost everything that could go wrong went wrong and, in the end, the wrong missiles were delivered to Iran. We have unusually full documentation and testimony on this episode, including the financial arrangements, with which North had nothing to do. There is nothing remotely suggestive of $12 million of Iranian money being used for the contras at this time.
When he was questioned a second time, Radzimski’s memory of this memorandum was much more vague:
With regard to the November ’85 memorandum that I have addressed, the only clarification or further recollection of that memorandum that I recall is that there was definitely a reference to a profit. The only thing that I need to clarify on it, if you will, is I’m not certain with that it said x amount of dollars to aid the contras. It could have been two different contexts.
In other words, x amount of dollars made from the sale, or a profit, of weapons, and then the possibility that that profit could go to aid the contras. I’m not certain if there was a direct link between the two.3
As Radzimski went on, he became more and more unsure of what the memorandum had actually said.
I don’t actually recall the memorandum said the profits could be used to aid the contras, but that—what to do with the profits, one way of handling the profits or to deal with the profits could be for the assistance to the contras.4
After Radzimski’s first examination in April 1987, an FBI agent, an NSC staff member, and committee lawyers took Radzimski to the computerized index and tried to call up this document. They punched in every conceivable key word without success. Since the document was allegedly a message from North to Poindexter, these two words should have been enough. Radzimski could not explain the failure.
The second document of April 1986 is easier to explain. For there was such a document—the famous “diversion memo” discovered on November 22, 1986, by the two lawyers sent by Attorney General Meese to North’s office to examine his papers. This memo contains a paragraph in which $12 million is mentioned to be used to buy supplies for the contras. The $12 million was mentioned in Attorney General Meese’s press conference on November 25, 1986, and the entire paragraph was printed in the Tower Report of February 1987, two months before Radzimski’s first deposition.
Radzimski’s story to Hersh adds nothing to what we know about this memorandum. The real sensation would have been the alleged November 1985 memorandum, not the later one. Yet Radzimski’s memory was so dubious that he had originally testified to seeing the $12 million in the November 1985 memorandum but not in the April 1986 document, where it belonged.5 Later, he said that he had seen the $12 million for the first time in the April 1986, memorandum.6 To make matters even more mysterious, Radzimski had not put the second memorandum in his computer index either.7
In effect, of Radzimski’s two revelations, one was unbelievable and the other unnecessary. No hint of this appears in Hersh’s article.
But Hersh goes further. His aim is to provide the missing link between former President Reagan and the diversion of funds. Hersh asserts that Radzimski saw documents “that directly linked President Reagan to approval of the diversion of funds to the contras.” The documents were the two memoranda. Later, Hersh takes out an insurance policy and adds:
Radzimski was careful to state that he did not personally know whether Poindexter actually forwarded the diversion memorandum to the President. But such a step had been taken, he said, with all previous action documents he knew of.
It is still an open question how much Reagan knew of the diversion and what he did about it. Reagan has denied any knowledge of it, but he has denied other things that he later admitted. But that is not the question here. The question is whether Radzimski “directly linked President Reagan to approval of the diversion of funds to the contras.”
Hersh’s more sensational assertion is not even borne out by his insurance policy. Even if Radzimski had personally known whether Poindexter had actually forwarded the diversion memorandum to the President, it would not directly link Reagan to approval of funds to the contras. The diversion memo itself has the usual “approve” and “disapprove” recommendations to the President. The problem is that there is no indication whether the President approved or disapproved or whether he saw it at all.
In Radzimski’s depositions, the following exchange took place:
Question: And did you see a check mark where there is usually a box that says approved, disapproved, recommendation? Had anybody put a check mark in the approved or disapproved column?
Radzimski: I don’t recall. I would say I don’t recall, even if the original had come back to me.8
Under more questioning, it turned out that Radzimski could not have known whether the President had approved or disapproved:
Question: As to the question of what action might have been taken on the basis of this particular document, the spring 1986 document that you referred to, that would be true as to either or any part of the memorandum. You simply would not know, since you had a copy, what was ultimately done with that document—whether it was approved, referred to someone else. You simply could not know that?
Radzimski: That is correct.9
In short, Hersh went far beyond the bounds of responsible journalism. There was no need for him to suspect a conspiracy of silence to understand why Radzimski was not given the full television treatment by the committees. He would have been a laughingstock if he had testified publicly. The committees published his depositions and that was quite enough.
The alleged second diversion of payments to Israel can be dealt with more quickly. According to Hersh, this money was used for the covert electronic monitoring of the highway between Damascus and Beirut; a series of attempted penetrations of the Amal and Druse sects inside Lebanon, and a continuing effort to locate Arab terrorists suspected of blowing up the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.
The trouble with these activities is how Hersh interprets them. Clearly such activities had nothing in common with the diversion of funds to the contras. The Israelis and Americans were working together against terrorism in the Middle East, and it would be strange if this activity did not cost some money, even though $1 million would not have gone very far. To blow up this relatively modest sum for these purposes as another “diversion” does violence to the language.
Hersh’s article is sensationalism run amok. It does no credit to him or to The New York Times Magazine.
May 31, 1990
Radzimski was never quite sure about the date. He also said that “it was probably more December now than November” (Radzimski deposition, p. 910). ↩
Radzimski deposition, p. 818. ↩
Radzimski deposition, pp. 870–871. ↩
Radzimski deposition, p. 872. ↩
Radzimski deposition, p. 853. ↩
Radzimski deposition, p. 902. ↩
Arthur L. Liman, the Senate Committee’s chief counsel, was so suspicious of Radzimski’s inconsistencies that he asked him: “Is it possible, having dealt with so many documents over your tenure at the NSC, having read all of the publicity about the diversion, that your mind has played a trick on you? Is it possible?” Radzimski answered: “It is possible”—but added that he still “had 100 percent belief in it.” (pp. 888–889). ↩
Radzimski deposition, pp. 835–836. ↩
Radzimski deposition, pp. 933–934. ↩