Iran-Contra 25 years on

Lessons in executive abuses still resonate today

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.

The Man in the Uniform: Oliver North

“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.

Compañero Juan: Sen. John Kerry and Daniel Ortega

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.

  • Robert Broughton

    This event is a major stain on US history. Reagan should have been impeached for acting in defiance of a specific act of Congress. Then there’s a supposedly “War on Drugs” administration trafficking in cocaine, and a supposedly anti-Iran administration supplying Iran with weapons.

  • Pedro Arauz

    The big lie: The phrase was also used in a report prepared during the war by the United States Office of Strategic Services in describing Hitler’s psychological profile:

    “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

  • Pedro Arauz

    We now understand Reagan was to soft as the Sandinistas should have been fought till their complete extinction, not one should have been spared!

    • sayayuca

      Easy for you to say, asking Reagan and the marines to do it for you. Thousands of innocent people died for their criminal policies, and you? Where were you? Such a coward……why didn’t you fight and eliminate every sandinista? Get out of here with your false bravado, you wouldn’t even fight if your life will depend on it. You don’t have the cojones.

      • http://above howard cox

        And where was Ortega? He was living comfortably in Costa Rtca romancing his 11 yr. old stepdaughter.

        • Terri La Hood

          howard cox, I love how people like you instantly persecute the man based on allegations. Guess you don’t believe in “innocent until proven guilty, huh?” Unless of course it happens to you. Obviously you don’t like the man, so like others who don’t like the man, you’re going to instantly jump on any bandwagon that says he did this or did that. Any smear campaign, regardless of proof, facts or trials, or lack thereof, you will be down with. Which further proves to me that these allegations were baloney to begin with, just a tool used to attempt to assassinate someone’s character and discredit them. Whenever all else fails, use the “sex card.” Sadly that ploy works all too often here in the U.S. She was “sexually abused” until she was 22? Yeah, uhm, okay. And she demonizes Ortega but gives her mother a pass, even though she claims her mother knew all about it and was a willing accomplice? Zoilamerica’s husband remained devoted to Ortega for 7 years, despite claiming to know about the supposed abuse. There’s no better way to discredit the Sandinista Revolution and one of it’s leaders, since the Contra/Reagan thing didn’t work. C’mon people. Open your eyes. How convenient.

      • Terri La Hood

        Thanks sayayuca, right on point. This Pedro Arauz clown is a heartless, cold-blooded psychopath, that obviously has no respect or value for human life. He condones and wishes for the murder of people simply for their political beliefs, which is directly in opposition to everything democratic. He wants people persecuted and punished simply because they’re “Sandinista’s?” Yeah, okay “Mr. Big Man.” This is the same failed ruthless policy that led to 60,000 deaths in Nicaragua during Ronald Reagan’s evil, illegal, anti-democratic Contra War. And sadly this is the same failed policy that killed even more people in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Thankfully Congress, the American people and the world saw Reagan’s illegal actions for what they were and didn’t support it. And we have a better Nicaragua today for it.

  • Randy Crow

    This event, which more correctly should be named the Iraq-Contra Affair, is still being covered up. The coverup concerns the Reagan Administration, which was really the Big George Administration, manipulating the Iraq-Iran War in which 2 million kids were killed. Israel supplied Iraq with weapons, including nerve gas, with the blessing of Big George Bush, financed by the USA. The coverup hides the fact the US and Israel are completely in bed together. The coverup hides the fact the US has been completely in bed with and actually made Saddam Hussein and the wars we are in now had been planned by the Neocons and those responsible for 911, those who hate America and make war on her, for years. It hides the fact Big Oil has been manipulating the price of oil up since 1973 for the purpose of destroying the world currencies. When the world currencies are gone the Neocons have won, conquered the world. The Arab spring, Egypt, Libya, Syria are Big Oil manipulated to increase the price of oil up. There is no oil shortage, Neocon propaganda. Possibly the biggest mistake made was picking John Tower to investigate. The bad guys, Big George, thought he had Tower in his back pocket and was wrong. Shortly after Towers’ book consequences was published he was killed in a plane crash, logically an act ordered by comrade Big George.

    • http://above howard cox

      Are you also a Truther, Randy?

    • http://above howard cox

      Spoken like a true Left Wing Zealot. Thanks for sharing, Randy.

  • Pedro Arauz

    Ortega was raping 11 yrs. old stepdaughter Zoilamerica and as per Zoilamerica’s declarations it was her mother Ms. Chayo Murillo who brought her to Daniel every night and enjoy watch them.

    • http://above howard cox

      Daniel and Rosario are both sick puppies.