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Iran-Contra: An Impeachable Offense?

Before I begin, I need to make a confession: I feel really strongly about the scandal known as Iran-Contra. I studied it in college, debated it endlessly with friends and teachers, and brought it up time and time again during the impeachment hearings of President Bill Clinton. So although I am excited to be able to write about it for the U.S. Trek, I am also feeling a bit overwhelmed - how can I condense hours of research, innumerable facts and a whole array of opinions into one tiny trek dispatch? How can I pick and choose between all of the available information? And how can I cut to the chase? Well, perhaps I should start not from the beginning, but at the end…


Duck! It's tornado season!

Howard Zinn, noted historian and author of "A People's History of the United States," had this to say about Iran-Contra and the congressional hearings and investigations that followed:

Once the scandal was out in the open, neither the congressional investigating committees nor the press nor the trial of Colonel Oliver North, who oversaw the Contra aid operation, got to the critical questions: What is U.S. foreign policy all about? How are the president and his staff permitted to support a terrorist group in Central America to overthrow a government that, whatever its faults, is welcomed by its own people as a great improvement over the terrible governments the U.S. has supported there for years? What does the scandal tell us about democracy, about freedom of expression, about an open society?

Ronald Reagan, the president Zinn is referring to, was fiercely anti-Communist. He came into office in 1981 just after a popular revolution had taken place in Nicaragua. He viewed the new Sandinista government, made up of left-wing priests, Marxists and nationalists, as a Communist threat and immediately began to work to overthrow it. Since he couldn't exactly order U.S. Marines to do the job, he approved a CIA covert operation to train, equip and support a counterrevolutionary force, the Contras, made up of Nicaraguans.

The problem was that most Americans were opposed to military involvement in Nicaragua. They certainly didn't want to be funding the Contras, a group widely known for its terrorist activities, such as the indiscriminate murder, rape, torture and mutilation of innocent civilians. And they most definitely did not want to get bogged down in another Vietnam. So in 1982 and 1984, Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which made it illegal for the United States to support "directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua."

Guess what the Reagan administration did? It decided to ignore this law and find ways to fund the Contras secretly, looking for "third-party support." Reagan himself solicited money from Saudi Arabia, at least $32 million. Other governments from Guatemala, Honduras and Brunei also chipped in.

Is this sounding a little sketchy? Or completely illegal? Wait - it gets better. Half a world away, American hostages were being held in Lebanon by terrorists linked to the Iranian government. Reagan was supposedly taking a firm stance against those involved, at one point even declaring that "America will never make concessions to terrorists." But in November 1986, a Lebanese weekly magazine published a story exposing an arms-for-hostages trade between the American and Iranian governments. Between August 20, 1985 and October 28, 1986, the U.S. shipped more than 2,000 antitank and antiaircraft missiles to Iran in exchange for money and Iran's promise to obtain the release of the hostages.

Are you with me so far? In October 1986, a month before the arms-for-hostages story broke, a U.S. cargo plane was shot down over southern Nicaragua. Within hours, the sole surviving crewmember, an American named Eugene Hasenfus, was placed in front of TV cameras to tell the world he was part of a U.S. government-sponsored covert arms supply operation … the same operation that had been outlawed by the Boland Amendment two years before!

So far, we have the Iran scandal and the Contra scandal. They became one when it was announced that some of the money raised from the sale of arms to Iran was used to support the Contras. Hence, Iran-Contra. According to the Reagan administration, only one or two people working for the National Security Council (NSC) knew of this "diversion" of funds. Their official story was that NSC staff member Lt. Col. Oliver North had orchestrated the whole thing alone and that no one else, apart from North's boss, John Poindexter, knew about it. Reagan himself denied knowing anything about any funds going to the Contras and, as far as the arms sales were concerned, declared, "We did not - repeat - did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we."

No one bought it. The testimonies, documents, memos, notes and private diaries made public from the scandal proved that many other people were involved, including Reagan and his Vice-President, George Bush (who incidentally, pardoned everyone convicted in Iran-Contra on December 24, 1992).

The congressional committees investigating the scandal brought to light memoranda from North showing that he reported his activities and received authorization from his superiors. Other documents made clear that Reagan himself ordered that the Contra program be transferred from the CIA to the NSC (so that it could continue in secret despite the Boland Amendment). And personal notes from Secretary of State George Shultz revealed that the White House knew exactly what kinds of arms were being sent to Iran.

The final congressional report, issued in November 1987, stated that, "the ultimate responsibility for the events in the Iran-Contra Affair must lie with the President." The Iran and Contra operations shared the "common ingredients" of "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law" by a U.S. president and his men.

Why, I wonder, did Reagan go through all the trouble of breaking the law, lying and implicating other people, just so he could get rid of a government he didn't like in the tiny country of Nicaragua? Did he really think that an arguably Communist government in Central America would threaten the United States? And how could he continue to defend the Contras, going so far as to call them "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers," even as their atrocities toward the Nicaraguan people were being diligently documented? Responding to this particularly disturbing analogy, historical novelist Howard Fast said that this was "an explosion of such incredible ignorance that…[Reagan] is not fit for public office of any kind."

Had the Iran-Contra scandal been a movie, it would have packed cinemas. After all, it contained all the necessary ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster - espionage, covert operations, secret Swiss bank accounts and mercenaries. It might have even inspired a TV series and some action heroes. Instead, as the Zinn quote at the beginning of this dispatch makes clear, the fall-out for Reagan and his team was minimal.

Americans have to ask themselves a few questions: Can our elected president conduct his own secret foreign policy? If he goes against congressional amendments, isn't he breaking the law? Most importantly, shouldn't he be held accountable?

The Constitution of the United States sets forth a clear system of checks and balances. It forces the executive, legislative and judicial branches to work together in a transparent fashion. As Zinn argues, however, the Iran-Contra affairs "were a series of actions taken in secret by a small group of men safe from the scrutiny of public opinion."

Hmm… Wasn't Clinton impeached because he lied to the American people? How come Reagan wasn't? Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas introduced a resolution for Reagan's impeachment, but it quickly died in Congress. How could the Monica scandal have been bigger than Iran-Contra? I don't get it.

A lot of people don't either. It's simply ridiculous that no one was seriously punished for Iran-Contra (North and Poindexter were found guilty, but their convictions were thrown out because of immunity deals they struck with Congress). Only by sending a clear message to our elected leaders - by asking the hard questions and taking appropriate actions against those involved - will we ensure that another Iran-Contra won't occur again. The movie version, I'm sure, would put the guilty parties behind bars. Why don't we?


References: My information comes from the following sources

1) The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, Eds. Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne. A National Security Archive Documents Reader. The New Press, 1993.

2) A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs by Theodore Draper. Hill and Wang, 1991.

3) A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. HarperPerennial, 1995.

Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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