If John M. Poindexter feels that he has been made to bear a disproportionate share of the guilt for the Iran-contra fiasco, he can hardly be blamed. Of the four main characters in the drama, he has been judged the most harshly—guilty on all five counts. The chief problem his trial presents is not whether he did anything wrong—he did—but whether it is fair to single him out in a system of wrongdoing and punish him the most for the wrongs of the system.
The four main characters were Robert M. McFarlane, the former national security adviser; Poindexter, his successor; Oliver L. North, their immediate subordinate and “operations officer”; and former President Ronald Reagan, who set the policy for them. The main testimony at the Poindexter trial came from North and Reagan, so that our chief interest is in how they revealed themselves in their testimony. Nevertheless, we know a great deal about McFarlane’s and Poindexter’s roles from the extensive documentation, the Tower Board’s report in February 1987, the Congressional hearings from May to August 1987, and the North trial in 1989.
Of all these sources, the Poindexter trial has the least to offer. The charges were framed most narrowly in order to make a conviction more easily obtainable. Of the five counts, one accused him of conspiring to mislead Congress, two of obstructing Congressional inquiries, and two of making false statements to lawmakers. In effect, they were variations on a single theme—misleading or misinforming Congress. This is a serious malfeasance but it is only a small part of the larger story.
All the prosecutions have been similar. McFarlane and North faced virtually the same charges as Poindexter. McFarlane pleaded guilty in March 1987 to four counts of withholding information from Congress and was convicted of only misdemeanors. North refused to plead guilty to anything and as a result was indicted on twelve counts. He was convicted on only three felonies—obstruction of Congress, destroying official documents, and accepting an illegal gift of a security fence at his house. None of the convictions touched on the essential nature of the Iran-contra affairs. Both McFarlane and North got off with fines, probation, and community service.
The efforts of Judge Harold H. Greene to hold the counsel on both sides in the Poindexter trial to the charges were not entirely successful, as a result of which the trial added some details and sidelights to our knowledge of the Iran-contra affairs. In substance, however, the trial contributed little to it.
Much of the reporting in the press did not distinguish between what was new and what had already been known. For example, it was reported that the chief government counsel, Dan K. Webb, had
extracted concessions from a reluctant Mr. North, who testified that he watched Mr. Poindexter tear up a crucial document signed by the President that depicted the missile shipments to Iran as an arms-for-hostages exchange.1
The document was the Finding of December 7, 1985, which President…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.