The Iran-contra affairs refuse to go away. New information forces us to revisit them again and again. In the recent past, five new sources stand out—a book, Turmoil and Triumph, by former Secretary of State George Shultz; another book, Undue Process, by former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams; the fourth interim report by Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel, containing voluminous notes by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; forty-five pages of extracts from the diary of then Vice-President George Bush from November 4, 1986, to January 2, 1987; and still another book, With Reagan, by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

The new material is self-revelatory about its authors. But it does more. It casts new light on a sixth figure in the story and enables us to answer the question: Who was finally responsible for the arms-for-hostages deals?

These sources do not come without problems. They need to be read critically and often reveal more than their authors intended. They raise questions of what is credible in them, what is consistent with everything else that we know, and what the same authors have said elsewhere. Typical of the problems is the section on the Iran affair in Shultz’s book.1

Turmoil and Triumph is in large part an apologia pro vita sua. It seeks to establish that George Shultz was an indefatigable, intrepid warrior against the arms-for-hostages deals from beginning to end. If he had not tried to claim so much, his account would raise fewer questions.

Yet it needs to be said at the outset that of all the leading figures in these events, Shultz was the least responsible for them, and, in the end, played the most honorable role. He was one of the two cabinet members—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was the other—who at an early stage protested against the arms-for-hostages deals and tried to stop them.

The finest moments of both Shultz and Weinberger came early on. A first arms-for-hostages deal had occurred in August—September 1985 through the delivery of missiles to Iran from Israel. The deal was approved by Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane and, as we now know, by Reagan himself. The Israelis attempted to deliver more missiles to Iran in November 1985 with the knowledge and implicit approval of McFarlane and Reagan, but this one misfired. On December 7, 1985, at a meeting called by President Ronald Reagan of his top-level advisers, Shultz and Weinberger, who had already made their opposition known in August, came out strongly against any arms-for-hostages deals with Iran. At another meeting on January 7, 1986, Shultz and Weinberger again made clear their opposition.

Yet Shultz is not content to take credit for these two occasions and lays claim to “three major battles” and on a later page to a “fourth time.”2 In the reference to three battles, he says that “each time I felt—or had been assured—that my view had prevailed.” Curiously, his own account belies the claim that he had ever “prevailed.” The only incidents that might remotely qualify as “battles” occurred on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986. All that happened was that both Shultz and Weinberger stated their positions firmly. In no version is there any hint of an altercation.

Moreover, Shultz’s book imprudently exaggerates his success on both occasions. In his congressional testimony, Shultz said of the first “battle” on December 7, 1985, that he felt he and Weinberger “had made a real dent” and “perhaps we had won the argument,” though he also noted that the President had made no decision and was “rather annoyed with me.”3 In his book, Shultz goes somewhat beyond his testimony and says that “my sense was that the point of view that Cap [Weinberger] and I argued had won the day,” though no decision was made at the meeting. In fact, Reagan’s own book disclosed that he had even then ended to reject the position of Shultz and Weinberger.4 If Shultz felt or thought he had been assured that he had “prevailed,” he was deceiving himself.

As for the second time, on January 7, 1986, Shultz testified that he and Weinberger had found themselves isolated and alone, with the President clearly on the other side.5 Later, Reagan’s book revealed that he had definitely ruled against them. On January 7, 1986, there was no more of a “battle” than there had been on December 7, 1985, unless a statement of opinion is elevated to the status of a “battle.” Even less than on the previous occasion could Shultz have felt or received assurances that his view had “prevailed.”

After waging the two early “battles”—if that is what they can be called—Shultz stayed out of trouble. Once the President had made up his mind, Shultz minded his own business and does not claim that he did otherwise, except for a confused incident in May 1986, which is made into a “third battle.”


This incident concerned an approach to Roland W. (Tiny) Rowland in London by Manucher Ghorbanifar, the chief con man, Adnan Khashoggi, his Saudi backer, and Amiram Nir, the Israeli emissary. They allegedly tried to get Rowland, head of the Lonrho group of companies, to join in a scheme to sell grain, spare parts, and weapons to Iran. Oliver North soon told the national security adviser, John Poindexter, that the Rowland connection was a “cover story,” not a real approach, and in any case the connection had been terminated. In Tokyo, Shultz received a cable about the incident, took it seriously, and went to see President Reagan to protest. Shultz could not find Reagan and instead talked to Donald Regan, the chief of staff, who was also “upset.” Shultz was soon assured by Poindexter that “this is not our deal.”6

In his book, Shultz says that he told Regan, “Stop! This is crazy.” He asked Regan to go to the President and “Get him to end this matter once and for all…. If this activity continues, the president will be gravely damaged.” In fact, Shultz had no more than a hazy idea of what the real story was and had no one with whom to do battle. All that Shultz accomplished was to get Regan “alarmed,” but nothing else happened. This little contretemps had no effect on future events and hardly deserves to be blown up into a third “battle.”

In this incident and others like it, Poindexter, who replaced McFarlane in December 1985, was far more important than Regan. If there is a villain in Shultz’s book, it is John Poindexter, an admiral in the US Navy—worth noting only because of the kind of charges Shultz makes against him. Shultz accuses him of having “fabricated a high-toned rationale for a sordid swap”; of “lying”; of “rearranging the facts”; of being “arrogant and aloof”; of being so “pedantic, pedagogical and patronizing” that he was capable of “lecturing” Shultz on the lines of “You see, George, the Arabs don’t like the Israelis”; and of being “barely civil.”

In effect, Shultz was a victim of the pattern set by Henry Kissinger as Nixon’s national security adviser. By systematically humiliating and displacing Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, Kissinger changed the character of cabinet government by making the national security adviser superior in practice to the secretary of state. Shultz claims to have been given the same treatment by Poindexter. After Kissinger, national security advisers were prone to delusions of grandeur.

In part, Shultz had only himself to blame. He admittedly allowed Poindexter to be his “channel to the White House and, on day-to-day matters, to the president.” Poindexter had far greater access to the President than Shultz had. Poindexter briefed the President every morning, while Shultz saw him intermittently, mainly through Poindexter. Shultz demanded and obtained personal access to Reagan only after the Iran-contra scandal had eliminated Poindexter. One wonders why he permitted his access to the President through Poindexter to go on for so long.

On one occasion, Shultz gave Poindexter a reason to believe that he, Shultz, did not want to know too much about the Iran affair. Poindexter testified that Shultz had said “he didn’t particularly want to know the details. He said just, in effect, tell me what I need to know.”7 Shultz described the conversation not very differently: “What I did say to Admiral Poindexter was 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.”8 Poindexter wanted to keep Shultz out anyway, but Shultz gave him a license to decide what Poindexter wanted to tell him. Too late, Shultz says, he “would learn to regret” this remark.

Shultz did not come out of virtual hibernation until a top-level meeting on November 10, 1986, seven days after the arms deal with Iran was first revealed to the public by a Lebanese weekly on November 3. It was a turning point for Shultz. At this meeting, Shultz asked such inconvenient questions that he made himself a marked man. Both Shultz and Weinberger were astonished to learn for the first time about a finding signed by Reagan in January 1986 to legitimate the arms-for-hostages deals. When the meeting was over, Shultz told a small group of his closest associates in the department: “I was the problem child.”9

But the end of this story is something of a letdown. Shultz’s problem came about when Reagan, CIA Director William Casey, and Attorney General Meese wanted to put out a press release saying that all those present had given “unanimous support for the president’s decisions.” Shultz relates that he exclaimed, apparently in the privacy of his office, “That’s a lie. It’s Watergate all over again.” Shultz protested to Poindexter and demanded the removal of a single word, “decisions.” As usual, Poindexter treated him disrespectfully, but in the end the press release went out without the offending word, so that the press release read “unanimous support for the President.”


The incident again shows Shultz straining to claim that he had won another “battle.” The omission of a single word amounted to little more than a distinction without a difference and could not have been appreciated by any ordinary reader of the press release.

Yet something had happened to Shultz which seemed to transform him. He had been humiliated by finding out that he had been deliberately left in the dark about the deals with Iran. He was keenly aware that the men around Reagan, especially Casey and Poindexter, considered him to be an enemy and treated him as one. Shultz’s previous restraint did not save him from the wrath of those around Reagan, and his days as secretary of state seemed numbered.

From November 10, 1986, on, the great drama in Shultz’s book is his tortured relationship with Reagan. It tells as much about Reagan as it tells about Shultz.

An incident at the meeting on November 10 illuminates Shultz’s problem. When Poindexter reported that he expected two American hostages to be released in return for five hundred missiles, this exchange took place with Shultz:

I asked Poindexter, incredulously, “How can you say this is not an arms-for-hostages deal?”

The president jumped in, asserting, “It’s not linked!”

Poindexter undercut him: “How else will we get the hostages out?” he asked me in an accusing tone. In that flash of candor, Poindexter had unwittingly ripped away whatever veil was left to the rationale of a “changed Iran” as the reason for our arms sales.

Shultz tells us that he considered Poindexter’s arms-for-hostages deal “absolutely outrageous.” Shultz could not “support this program in public” or “acquiesce with its continuation.” But was Reagan so obsessed or dimwitted that he could not see what Shultz saw, Weinberger saw, and even Poindexter saw—that they were linked? And if Reagan could not be made to see the obvious connection, what was Shultz to do?

Shultz’s answers to these questions are puzzling. On page 811, before he describes the meeting on November 10, 1986, he quotes a remark he made, apparently to a member of his staff: “Ultimately, the guy behind it, who got it going, and the only guy who can stop it, was and is Ronald Reagan.” This is so clear and emphatic that one would imagine nothing more needed to be said about who was responsible for the arms-for-hostages effort.

But Shultz goes on as if he never wrote these words. Again and again, he portrays Reagan as the victim of machinations by Poindexter, Casey & Co. When he comes to the falling-out on November 10, he tells the reader that Reagan, “in his desire to free the hostages, had allowed himself to be sold a bill of goods,” which Poindexter had “fabricated” as “a high-toned rationale for a sordid swap.” It was “a staff con job on the president.” The “guy behind it” was now Poindexter, and Reagan was merely his dupe.

On November 13, 1986, when Reagan made a televised speech in which he denied that there had ever been arms for hostages deals, Shultz says that Reagan “still truly did not believe that what had happened had, in fact, happened.” Shultz again failed to convince him to face the truth and make it public.

On November 19, Shultz made a desperate effort to make Reagan see the error of his ways. At this point, we have somewhat different versions from Shultz. In his congressional testimony, Shultz said that the President “didn’t disagree with me.”10 In his book, Shultz says, “I could see I had not convinced him.” The difference is not explained.

Shultz went through this exercise with Reagan again on November 20 with no more success. By November 23, Shultz had made himself persona non grata to such an extent that Casey urged Reagan to fire him and substitute someone like Jeane Kirkpatrick or Senator Paul Laxalt.

Casey was not the only one. Nancy Reagan now went into action. Weinberger’s diary for November 23, 1986, contains notes of a meeting with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar told Weinberger that Nancy Reagan had told him “she thinks Shultz should go—that he has been disloyal to her President—and said he recommended to her that I [Weinberger] be named Secretary of State.” It seems remarkable that Nancy Reagan should have been so free in her dealings with the Saudi ambassador, as if he were a high American official, and that he should have been equally free to intervene in intimate American affairs at the highest level.11

Nancy Reagan also turns up in Shultz’s book. Shultz tells of a strangely convoluted effort by Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and now leader of the Likud Party, to get into the act. Netanyahu called Shultz on the night of November 18 to get Shultz “to suggest to [Prime Minister] Peres and [Foreign Minister] Shamir that Netanyahu be asked to talk to Nancy Reagan about this crisis,” referring to Israel’s role in the arms shipments. On November 20, Charles Wick, one of the Reagans’ intimates, telephoned Shultz “to say he had talked to the first lady. Nancy felt that I was not being helpful.” Don Regan told Shultz that Nancy also wanted to get Pat Buchanan, the director of communications, out of the White House, and Buchanan had asked Reagan to name him ambassador to NATO. Shultz thought the idea “preposterous.” Hillary Rodham Clinton will have to go far to equal Nancy Reagan’s influence in presidential politics.

Meanwhile, at a meeting on November 24, Reagan and Shultz moved even further apart. “We are right!” Reagan said, pounding the table. He blamed the press for questioning his policy. But Shultz was the immediate target of his wrath: “The president was in a steamy, angry mood clearly directed at me—which sent an unmistakable message: understand me, and get off my back.” Reagan “seemed completely swayed by Poindexter.”

On November 25, Meese held the press conference at which he publicly revealed for the first time that a “diversion” of funds to the Nicaraguan contras from the sale of weapons to Iran had taken place. Meese’s account was largely inaccurate, based on a cover story that Oliver North had given him, but his revelation about the “diversion” was enough to set off the ensuing furor.

After all this, Shultz still labored to save Reagan from himself, Shultz told him that he was “ready to sign on for the duration,” and Reagan said, “I’m looking to you as my point man on foreign policy,” which Shultz should have been all along. Nothing continued to go right anyway. Shultz now had trouble with the new national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, who also annoyed Shultz by allegedly usurping too much authority. The national security adviser-secretary of state psychopathology had apparently become endemic. Reagan “still seemed intransigent, unrepentant.” Soon Shultz noted: “The CIA and the NSC staff, with apparent support of President Reagan and Vice-President Bush, were proceeding just as though nothing had happened.”

The last episode in Shultz’s account is one of the strangest. In mid-December 1986, Charles Dunbar of the State Department and George Cave of the CIA were commissioned to hold a final meeting with an Iranian representative in Frankfurt, West Germany. The preliminaries of this meeting gave Shultz an opportunity to take revenge on his archenemy, William Casey. The issue was whether the two Americans should discuss “intelligence” only or also “policy.” In a tempest in a teapot, Casey allegedly persuaded Reagan to add “policy” to their instructions, though it made no difference in the actual outcome. In his book Shultz hits back by attacking Cave as Casey’s surrogate. Shultz’s version is hopelessly distorted because he has ignored—or is ignorant of—the perfectly straight-forward explanation given by Cave of his last meeting with the Iranian.12

We now learn for the first time that Shultz’s trouble with Reagan antedated the Iran affair. Their paths began to diverge, according to Shultz, with the events that led to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in February 1986. Reagan could not reconcile himself to the loss of any leader, however corrupt or disgraceful, as long as he claimed to be pro-American and anti-Communist. Reagan and Shultz also differed in their attitudes to then Chilean president Augusto Pinochet. Despite the glaring repression under Pinochet, Reagan wanted to invite him for a state visit, much to Shultz’s dismay. Reagan’s anticommunism was so shortsighted and one-dimensional that almost anyone opposed to communism was good enough for him.

In these circumstances, what was a secretary of state to do? Under the British political system, the answer would be quite clear—he would have resigned.13 Under the American system, the answer is much less clear, but there has been one notable recent instance: in 1980, Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state in protest against the ill-fated effort to rescue the hostages taken in the American embassy in Tehran.

Shultz’s case is puzzling, because he had resigned or offered to resign so many times earlier. He had resigned as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury in 1973 in opposition to a wage-price freeze. As Reagan’s secretary of state, he had offered to resign the first time because he had been denied an Air Force plane for one of his trips. In 1983, he had resigned again, because the national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, had gone on a trip to the Middle East without his knowledge. He had resigned a third time in protest against lie-detector tests in his department. In August 1986, he had submitted his resignation a fourth time, in part over the Marcos disagreement.

Reagan always succeeded in talking Shultz out of his resignations. One wonders why Shultz would not have gone through with his resignation over a matter far more important than a ride on an Air Force plane, McFarlane’s trip, or even a lie-detector test. Shultz repeatedly evokes “Watergate” in his memoirs; it suggests how serious he considered the Iran deals to be. Shultz once told himself: “I would have to get the president to see that grave mistakes were being made, get control over the mess, or go.” But he never did get Reagan to see that grave mistakes were made or get control of the mess, and he did not go. The title of his book is also misleading; he had plenty of “turmoil” but little “triumph,” at least in the Iran affair. He was humiliated and affronted almost beyond endurance, let alone beyond what a secretary of state has a right to expect. (The question of resignation also arises in the case of Secretary of Defense Weinberger, the other objector, and will be considered in a second article.)

Still, in the end as in the beginning, Shultz did more than anyone else at the top to challenge the Iran policy. But his book is flawed as a historical document by his anxiety to come through his ordeal pure and without reproach. Unfortunately, he opposed Reagan’s policy too ineffectually to do much good. That he opposed it at all was so rare in Reagan’s administration that he stands out in a prize collection of yes-men.


Shultz plays a supporting role in the book written by his secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Elliott Abrams. Much of Abrams’s book is occupied with his personal turmoil and pain at the hands of the independent counsel and his staff. After protracted negotiations with them, he pleaded guilty to the charge of withholding information from Congress. What concerns me here are the broader questions which his book raises, especially since some of them have been repeated by Robert H. Bork, now at the American Enterprise Institute.14

Both Abrams and Bork direct their fire at the office of the independent counsel as somehow subversive of the Constitution or of the presidency. One of the odd aspects of their indignation is that they mislead the reader about how this particular independent counsel was appointed.

Abrams gives the impression that Congress was responsible for the appointment of Lawrence Walsh. “When Congress demands an Independent Counsel, it gets one,” he writes, as if Congress had demanded this one. Bork also complains about “prosecutions of the executive branch that are effectively initiated by Congress,” without ever explaining what Congress had to do with initiating the one in question.

In fact, the Iran-contra independent counsel was initiated by President Reagan, Attorney General Meese, and Chief of Staff Regan as soon as they realized how explosive the revelation of the “diversion” was likely to be. They first reacted with panic. On November 24, 1986, Regan suggested that it would be necessary to appoint an independent commission to investigate the entire affair, because “nobody would believe it if just Ed Meese looked into this.” Regan preferred an independent commission instead of an independent counsel on the ground that the latter would take too much time—“that from a public relations point of view simply couldn’t be condoned.” 15 According to Regan, Meese declared that an independent counsel might have to be appointed instead of an independent commission. Reagan “accepted all these recommendations and told Meese and me to get to work on them.”16 Vice-President Bush also supported the appointment of a special prosecutor, as the independent counsel was also called.17

On December 2, ten days later, President Reagan called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan contras. On December 19, a three-judge panel named Lawrence E. Walsh, a former district court judge, diplomat, and deputy attorney general, as independent counsel. Meese later admitted that the decision to appoint an independent counsel had been made for political reasons. “The actions were taken,” he testified, “because they were the appropriate actions under any circumstances but one of the concerns was to prevent this situation from being used by policy opponents of the president, yes.”18

Thus an independent counsel was appointed, not at the initiative or behest of Congress, but because the panic-stricken men around Reagan decided that it was the best way to show good faith, to undercut political criticism, and to allay public unrest about the Iran-contra revelations.

In fact, Congress made itself an obstacle to the proper functioning of the independent counsel. When Congress decided to hold hearings on the affairs, and members of both houses began to jockey for positions on the committees, Walsh realized that they could jeopardize his work by giving witnesses immunity from prosecution in order to get them to testify at the congressional hearings. Walsh appealed to the Senate committee not to grant immunity to North or Poindexter.19 He was turned down. As a result, Oliver North’s conviction was reversed on precisely the ground that Walsh had feared—immunity from prosecution. So much for the myth that Walsh owed his appointment to the machinations of Congress.

In connection with the independent-counsel statute, Abrams cites a snippet—“the prospect is frightening”—from the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the case of Morrison v. Olson. In 1988, three former government officials, headed by Theodore B. Olson, challenged a subpoena by an independent counsel, Alexia Morrison. The Supreme Court by a vote of seven to one, with one justice not voting, upheld the constitutionality of the independent-counsel statute. This was done by the Rehnquist Court, in a decision rendered by Chief Justice Rehnquist himself, no chief of a band of wild-eyed, antiestablishment types. Scalia was the sole dissenter. Citing four words from his dissent might have appeared to be less momentous if Abrams had informed the reader that Scalia was no supreme constitutional authority on this issue. Scalia was frightened by the prospect that the president could not control the investigation of an independent counsel, which was the very reason Meese, Regan & Co. decided on one, to show that they were handing over the investigation to someone who was aboveboard and not responsible to the President. 20

Another of Abrams’s peccadilloes has to do with Walsh’s prosecution of Oliver North for having given Congress false testimony and his application of the same charge to Abrams himself. Walsh, says Abrams, “had developed his own theory,” as if there had never been a precedent for the charge against North and Abrams.21 Bork also maintained in Commentary that the charges against Abrams “had never before been made criminal.”22 This legend was repeated in a kindred publication.23 It probably has so many lives by now that we may never get rid of it.

In fact, the same issue arose in a trial as recently as 1977. The case was that of Richard Helms, the former CIA director, who was charged with lying to Congress about covert activities to overthrow the Allende regime in Chile. Helms was convicted and sentenced to a fine of $2,000 and two years in jail, suspended. Judge Barrington D. Parker refused to accept the argument that public officials in possession of state secrets could mislead Congress.24 Abrams, Bork & Co. have apparently never heard of the Helms case.

To save expense and tribulation, Abrams says, he pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress, for which he was sentenced to one hundred hours of community service and fifty dollars in court costs. It was not a harsh punishment and comes as a strange anticlimax after so many pages about his suffering.

One count—which may serve as typical—concerned Abrams’s comicopera participation in the effort to get $10 million for the contras from the sultan of Brunei. In his book, Abrams says that Secretary Shultz had instructed him to come up with “some ideas” on how to get humanitarian assistance for the contras from third countries, and that Abrams had hit on Brunei. At the congressional hearings, however, Abrams testified that he had had the idea of getting such aid for the contras from third countries and had raised the question with Shultz. 25 Shultz had agreed to ask for the money himself during a visit to Brunei but had been talked out of it by Gaston J. Sigur, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who accompanied him, and who thought that it was unseemly for the secretary to ask for money from a foreign government.26 In the end, Abrams took on the task and made arrangements to meet with the Brunei foreign minister, Pengiran Muda Mohammed Bolkiah, in London.

Unfortunately, Abrams didn’t know how to set up a secret account in which to deposit the expected $10 million from Brunei. He went to Alan Fiers of the CIA and Oliver North of the NSC staff for tutoring, and chose to follow North’s advice. North gave him an index card with the number of a secret Swiss account, which North controlled; North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, accidentally transposed two digits in typing out the number on another card; Abrams gave the erroneous information to the Brunei foreign minister; and $10 million went into the account of a stranger from whom it took months to get it back.27

At hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on November 25, 1986, the very day of the explosive Meese press conference, Abrams answered one question by saying: “We don’t engage—I mean the State Department’s function in this has not been to raise money, other than to raise it from Congress.” After Meese’s press conference, Abrams realized that his answers might get him into trouble and asked for another meeting with the committee to correct his testimony.

After sparring with the committee and getting a stinging rebuke from Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, Abrams showed some contrition. He admitted that he had withheld information from the committee and that he had failed to volunteer information “in a situation which ordinarily would have called for volunteering it.” Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma gently chided him: “Rereading this transcript, wouldn’t you say you went beyond failing?” Finally, Abrams replied: “Yes, I would, I agree.”28

But Abrams is not so contrite in his book. He still maintains that he did not have to tell the committee about the Brunei solicitation, because the money had never been received, and therefore it was as if Brunei had never been asked for it. He emphasizes in italics: “We had no foreign government money of which I was aware.” He was aware, admittedly, that it had been asked for and promised, but he still claimed that he was not aware of any foreign government money, because it had not been received by virtue of Fawn Hall’s typing mistake. The old Abrams is back in his book, as if he had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

But Abrams is unregenerate for a deeper reason. In answer to the question “How did all this happen?” he gives the following answer:

This happened because we were at war, we and the Democrats in Congress, or so we thought and they thought…. So when I was asked for information [on Central America] that might help them, might give them yet more ammunition, I tried to deny it to them. I tried to figure out how I could give them the least information possible.29

Abrams was not only at war with the Democrats in Congress. He also “fought, for preeminence” with the CIA:

Who would really influence the government of Guatemala or Honduras? Who would really influence the President of the United States? Who would really, in the most intense and longestfought contest of all, control the Contras? We had stood shoulder to shoulder against common enemies, all the while struggling between ourselves for power.

At the congressional hearings, Abrams was asked why he had chosen North’s account instead of Fiers’s. Abrams explained:

I think in my mind it was more the question of why should we work with the Agency? We’re always trying to build power at the State Department as opposed to the power of the Agency in this respect, not build the power of the Agency.30

This holy war within the government, against Congress, and against any rivals in the executive branch, helps to explain why Abrams thought Congress was fair game for deception and concealment. Congressional committees are dependent on government officials for information to enable them to ask intelligent questions. If precisely the right question is not asked, because information has been withheld, it is easy for officials to weave and twist in their answers. This is what Abrams did on November 25, 1986, before he realized that he had gone too far. But the attitude reflected in his book goes far beyond the ordinary reluctance of officials to come clean. It is driven by the battle-cry “We were at war,” which justifies virtually any method or tactic to get the best of the enemy.

This rationalization is linked with another. Again and again Abrams insists that he was subjected to “the criminalization of political and policy disputes” instead of what he was actually charged with. Robert H. Bork echoes that “Abrams’s real offense was battling for Reagan’s policies.”31 President Bush gave as one reason for pardoning Weinberger and five others “a profoundly troubling development in the political legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences.”

The same argument was presented to Judge Gerhard A. Gesell by Attorney General Thornburgh, who asked Judge Gesell to dismiss the case against Oliver North in November 1988 on the ground that it “potentially criminalize[d] any political dispute” between the executive branch and Congress. Judge Gesell considered the argument worthless and went on with the trial of North. He ruled:

It is essential that Congress legislate based on fact, not falsifications, in the realm of foreign affairs as well as in domestic legislation….The thought that any one of the hundreds of thousands of persons working for the President can affirmatively and intentionally mislead Congress when it seeks information to perform one of its assigned functions for any reason…is unacceptable on its face. Such a disdainful view of our democratic form of government has no constitutional substance.

The same point was made by Judge Harold H. Greene in sentencing Poindexter, who also pleaded that he had been caught up in a policy dispute between Congress and the executive branch:

Whatever may have been the nature of the original dispute, what the defendant and his associates did was emphatically not part of the normal political process. Our system of government, with three separate branches, depends for its proper functioning, if not on cooperation, at least on an absence of active and willful obstruction. The President is entitled to accurate and complete information from his subordinates; the perjury laws are designed to ensure that witnesses will not lie in court; and the Congress cannot fulfill its constitutional duties if its operations are obstructed by high officials.32

Thus the argument justifying misleading statements to Congress has not held up in one court after another. By itself, the idea that it is legally permissible to mislead Congress is too grotesque to be taken seriously. Why, then, has it been put forward? The answer is that Abrams, Bork, Thornburgh, and Bush consider that misleading Congress was permissible because it was done in the interest of the Reagan policies. In effect, those who fought for those policies could not be guilty of any wrongdoing. They were permitted to obstruct Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duties, because Congress was the enemy of those policies. Since it is legitimate and even necessary to mislead, deceive, or otherwise confuse the enemy, Abrams was merely doing what any embattled soldier is supposed to do.

This is the end result of conceiving testimony to Congress as an act of warfare. Abrams’s “we were at war” and Bork’s “battling for Reagan’s policies” vividly express this perversion of a legal order. Such an order provides for political competition, even conflict, but within prescribed limits and according to constitutional processes. Otherwise, politics becomes a war in which any weapon is fair, because the object is to destroy the enemy. The criminalization of policy differences is abhorrent—but so is justifying any kind of political malfeasance and deceit in the name of policy differences.

Yet we can be grateful to Abrams for something. He was the one who gave the right name to the solicitation of foreign governments for financial contributions. At the congressional hearings, he called it “tin cup diplomacy.”33

Abrams was a minor character who raises major issues. Weinberger, Meese, and Bush were cast for much larger roles and lead more directly to the most responsible figure in this morality play, part tragedy, part farce.

This is the first part of a two-part article.

This Issue

May 27, 1993