The enduring image of the Iran-Contra affair, for U.S. citizens of a certain age, is that of a freshly scrubbed Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifying in full military dress uniform before U.S. Congress. Wearing a uniform in a civilian court is almost always forbidden by law, but that didn’t deter “Ollie” North.
For many U.S. citizens, North’s controversial attire was symbolic of what is called “unitary executive privilege,” a political philosophy based on the premise that President Ronald Reagan could break the law in order to protect U.S. interests, despite congressional obstruction from the Boland Amendment. Those who subscribe to that thinking argue that Article II of the U.S. Constitution can be interpreted to mean that the president does not, in certain cases, have to answer to Congress.
“What’s been at the heart of [Iran-Contra] is this struggle, between the Congress on the one hand and the presidency on the other, for control of US foreign policy,” said then-Congressman Dick Cheney, shortly after signing off on the congressional minority report on Iran-Contra. Though the 400-plus pages of the majority report painstakingly catalogued each offense in terms of its legality, Cheney’s short rebuttal simply argued that the president’s actions could, and should, be above the law.
Cheney wrote, “It is absolutely essential [that] we resist the temptation to put restrictions and limitations on the president—not on Ronald Reagan, but his successors—in ways that will do untold damage to their capacity to respond to crises in the years ahead.”
Cheney’s words turned out to be foreshadowing of events that would redefine U.S. involvement in the Middle East 15 years later.
But for many viewers who remained glued to their TV sets during the weeks of the dramatically televised Iran-Contra hearings in the mid 1980s, North’s uniform represented just another law shamelessly bent or broken by the Reagan Administration. The Iran-Contra committee was only authorized to partially expose the nexus of scandals, and would adjourn to closed sessions any time a tantalizingly juicy bit of covert information would come out.
The full story of the Iran-Contra scandal could—and does—fill several books. The thrust of the scandal was that the Reagan Administration illegally appropriated weapons from U.S. taxpayers to sell to the Islamic extremists in the Revolutionary Government of Iran, and then used those profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras, despite congress’s ban of further U.S. aid to the counterrevolutionary rebels.
In hindsight, the Iran-Contra scandal was just the camel nose under the tent; many of the same U.S. actors would repeat the same policies to a larger degree after the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
“None of the lessons of the abuses of power were learned,” says Peter Kornbluh, Director of the National Security Archive’s Chile and Cuba Documentation Projects.
As a young IPS Fellow, Kornbluh had helped arrange Senators John Kerry and Tom Harkin’s controversial 1985 fact-finding trip to Nicaragua, commemorated by the (in)famous photo of Kerry shaking hands with Daniel Ortega—an image that would later help sink Kerry’s run for U.S. President.
After Iran-Contra broke, Kornbluh and the National Security Archives (NSA) began using the Freedom of Information Act to declassify documents, which can be perused online or explored in their book, The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History. The NSA’s mission has since expanded. Today they cover a number of subjects including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, anti-Soviet uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, fall of the Berlin Wall, and much more.
While uncovering the past keeps the NSA’s committed crew of intellectuals and academics busy around the world, they say the Iran-Contra scandal has fallen out of vogue.
“Iran-Contra, the contra war, which dominated the political scandal machine in Washington for three years, has been almost forgotten,” sighs Kornbluh. “We need to bring the contras and Sandinistas together and use documents from the FSLN archives to truly understand what happened. But when?”
Many Nicaragua Dispatch readers probably remember the contra war and Iran-Contra affair vividly. And even those who don’ have probably had brushes with that history without even realizing it: either by surfing Ollie’s Point, dining in an recycled CIA transport plane, or sipping beers overlooking the beach in Puerto Cabezas, where the contras were regularly supplied.
During the Iran-Contra scandal in the United States, the war in Nicaragua served only as a political backdrop to the court proceedings. Politicians and pundits on both sides of the issue tended to oversimplify the war in Nicaragua as a battle between good and evil.
North was either depicted as an American hero fighting communism in Central America, or a lawless traitor supporting terrorists’ attempts to topple the legitimate Sandinista government.
Though the congressional hearings revealed corruption at the very highest levels of the Reagan Administration, most viewers will remember only the images of Col. North dressed in his uniform.
Yet in the dark corners of cyberspace, the Iran-Contra affair remains the gold standard by which all other conspiracy theories are measured.
Even today, Iran-Contra still has all the right ingredients for a spy thriller: rogue government suits, outlaw CIA agents, Marxist revolutionaries, jungle death squads, Saudi arms dealers, Hezbollah hostages, Israeli go-betweens, shredded documents, secret hearings, and even documentation suggesting Reagan convinced Iran to hold US hostages until his inauguration on January 20, 1981. And those were considered the facts of the case.
Some Iran-Contra spinoff conspiracies have been called into question over the years. Most famously was that proposed by San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb, who believed the CIA funded the contras by supplying California gangs with crack cocaine.
Kornbluh thinks there was a much less formal arrangement. “Yes, there were former Somocistas running cocaine,” he told me. “But the CIA wasn’t using shipments to fund the contras directly. They were cutting deals, looking the other way, anything to get help overthrow the Sandinistas.”
Other conspiracy theorists have tried to link Iran-Contra to Princess Diana’s death, Satanic Nebraska pedophilia rings, FEMA death camps, lizard people, and just about any other conspiracy theory you can plug into a search engine.
But the Iran-Contra affair lives on in the real world as well.
When Cheney became George W. Bush’s vice president, he brought on former Iran-Contra minority report co-author David Addington as his chief-of-staff. Addington was the man who would then go on to write the so-called “torture memo.”
Addington argued Bush had the right to ignore the Geneva Convention and use torture if it would help protect U.S. citizens. The argument harkened back to Iran-Contra arguments, and consolidated the theory of unitary presidential powers.
“The shift began soon after Bush took office and reached its apogee after 9/11” wrote Chitra Ragavan in US News & World Report. “With Bush’s authorization of military tribunals for terrorism suspects, secret detentions and aggressive interrogations of ‘unlawful enemy combatants,’ and warrantless electronic surveillance of terrorism suspects on U.S. soil, including American citizens.”
Other Iran-Contra alumni recycled in the Bush Administration were equally committed to strengthening executive powers. Iran-Contra-era Ambassador John Negroponte became the first Director of National Intelligence. And Reagan’s former National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, (one of the only people convicted in Iran-Contra) was appointed head of the new DARPA Information Awareness Office. Though these men, along with many other Iran-Contra veterans, left power with Bush, Robert Gates remained on for three years as President Barrack Obama’s Secretary of Defense.
Friday Nov. 25 will be the 25th anniversary of the press conference where President Reagan announced what would become the Iran-Contra Affair. The date will pass quietly—even in Nicaragua—as the world remains absorbed in more current scandals.
The legacy of Iran-Contra, however, is one worth remembering as executive abuses continue in the name of national interest.