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Originally Published: 12/13/2006


By The Issue Wonk



The 1980s Iran-Contra Affair has come to the forefront recently, primarily as a result of the confirmation of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.  I thought it might be beneficial to review the scandal for those who don’t recall the details, primarily to reminisce about the players and put current events into an historical perspective.  As is usual for The Issue Wonk, this is a summary, but footnotes are provided for those of you who want more information.


The Iranian Revolution


In 1979 the Ayatollah (or Imam) Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution against Shah (King) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to establish Iran as an Islamic Republic.  (Note:  The Shah came to power in 1953 thanks to a CIA-led coup.  See Don Hopkins.)  In the aftermath of the uprising, the U.S. embassy was stormed and 66 American citizens were taken hostage, 52 of them held for more than a year.  In April 1980 President Jimmy Carter ordered a “rescue” operation dubbed “Operation Eagle Claw.”  The mission was a total failure and ultimately resulted in the deaths of 8 members of the rescue mission.  (For more details, see The History Guy.)  Three (3) of the planners of the rescue mission were Major General Richard Secord, Oliver North, and Albert Hakim.  (Wikipedia)  (Assertions have been made that the 3 deliberately planned for the rescue attempt to fail.  This could not be confirmed.)




In 1979 the Sandanistas, led by Daniel Ortega, overthrew the Somoza political dynasty that had been in control for more than 30 years.  During their 12 years in power (1979-1990) the Sandanistas “established democratic elections and a national constitution, among other sweeping populist reforms.”  It remains one of two (2) major parties to this day.  (Wikipedia)  (Daniel Ortega was just elected president.)


October Surprise


It is alleged that during the 1980 presidential campaign, candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, through William Casey, their emissary, made a secret pact with Iran.  President Carter in October had negotiated a release of the hostages but the pact cut by Reagan and his people was that Iran would not release them until after the election, thus assuring the defeat of President Carter.  (Don Hopkins)  In return, they promised Iran covert arms sales through Israel to aid them in the war against Iraq.  On January 20, 1981, inauguration day for President Reagan, Iran released the hostages.  (For more details, see Wikipedia.)


Iran-Iraq War


Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980.  The U.S. was skeptical about Iran since its Revolution (see above) and therefore, in 1982, made its backing of Iraq public.  Reagan supplied Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, with intelligence, economic aid, and armaments.  At the time Donald H. Rumsfeld served as a member of President Reagan’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control.  (Wikipedia)  He met with Hussein in December 1983 and again in March of 1984 at the same time that the United Nations released a report verifying that Iraq had used mustard gas and tabun nerve agent against Iranian troops.  Nevertheless, the U.S. continued to aid Iraq.  (Wikipedia)


The Boland Amendment


President Reagan focused on eradicating Communism.  The Sandanistas of Nicaragua were considered to be Marxist, primarily because they were backed by Cuba, a Communist country.  Therefore, Reagan saw them as a threat.  During the early years of his administration, the CIA, under William Casey, provided funding and support to the insurgent Contras.  In 1984, CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates advocated that the U.S. initiate a bombing campaign against Nicaragua and that the U.S. do everything in its power short of direct military invasion to remove the Sandanistas.  (Wikipedia)  According to Wikipedia:  “When the CIA carried out a series of acts of sabotage without Congressional intelligence committees giving consent, or even being made aware beforehand, the Republican-controlled Senate became enraged, leading to the pass of the Boland Amendment and subsequent cutting off of appropriated funding for the Contras.”  The Boland Amendment made funding the Contra insurgents “for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua” illegal.  (Wikipedia)  Many in Reagan’s administration believed that the Boland Amendment was an unconstitutional interference with the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.  (See Unitary Executive Theory)  His administrative aides interpreted the Amendment as applying only to intelligence agencies (such as the CIA), therefore allowing the NSA, not labeled an “intelligence agency,” to channel funds.  In this way Reagan continued his support of the Contras.  The Boland Amendment was later changed to prohibit any funds for military or paramilitary operations.  The Reagan administration then began looking for other avenues for funding the group.  As part of this strategy, Elliot Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State, went to London using a fake name to solicit a $10 million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei.  (Wikipedia)


American Hostages in Lebanon


On June 14, 1985 a TWA airliner was hijacked by Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terrorist group, who demanded the release of Shi’ite prisoners held in Kuwait, Israel, and Spain.  Over the next few days the plane flew back and forth to Algiers and released about 100 passengers.  1 passenger was murdered and about 40 were held hostage.  The hostages were released on June 30th and shortly thereafter Israel released its Shi’ite prisoners, saying it had nothing to do with hostage negotiations.  (For more information, see Photius.)  During negotiations, an Israeli official suggested to President Reagan’s National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane that a deal to sell arms to Iran might influence the negotiations.  (See The American Experience.)  Wikipedia says simply:  “Members of the Reagan Administration believed that by selling arms to Iran, Iran would influence the Hezbollah kidnappers in Lebanon to release their hostages.”  Arms sales, via Israel, did in fact occur and were coordinated by the CIA under William Casey.  (Don Hopkins)


The Iran-Contra Affair


During the Lebanese hostage crisis, Michael Ledeen, a consultant to Robert McFarlane, asked Israel for help in selling the arms to Iran.  In July 1985 Israel sent American-made BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles.  However, only 1 hostage was released.  With only 3 shipments through Israel to Iran, the Ledeen plan was seen as a failure.  Robert McFarlane resigned shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by Admiral John Poindexter.  Oliver North, a military aide to the National Security Council (NSC), proposed a new plan.  Instead of selling arms through Israel, they would sell directly, at a marked-up price, and use the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.  (Note:  There are allegations that North, who was on intimate terms with Panama’s Manuel Noriega, attempted to secure arms sales to Noriega in exchange for Noriega’s involvement in Nicaragua.  See Wikipedia.)  Poindexter authorized the plan.  U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese later admitted that profits from weapons sales to Iran were indeed made available to assist the Contras.  In addition, Senate hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry, known as the Kerry Committee, also found that Oliver North conducted illegal activities by setting up a private network involving the NSA and the CIA to deliver military equipment to the Contras.  “In effect, North and certain members of the President’s administration were accused by Kerry’s report of illegally funding and supplying armed militants without the authorization of Congress.”  (Wikipedia)  It was also later found that:


the Contra drug links included . . .  payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.


(See Wikipedia for more details on the Affair.)


A special review board was created to look into the allegations, chaired by former Senator John Tower with former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft as a member.  Known as The Tower Report, it criticized the actions of Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, as well as others.  According to Wikipedia:


Some doubted the intentions of the Tower Commission and believe that it was a political stunt.  The commission limited its criticism of Vice President George Bush.  Subsequently, the head of the commission, John Tower, was nominated to the position of Secretary of Defense by Bush when he became President.  He was not confirmed by the Senate.  Brent Scowcroft was named National Security Advisor.


President Reagan, at a nationally televised press conference in March 1987, expressed regret about the affair and, responding to questions, admitted that Vice President George H. W. Bush knew of the plan.  (Wikipedia)


The Players


Elliot Abrams:  Abrams, an avowed Straussian, served as President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the early 1980s and later as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs.  According to Wikipedia:


During this time, Abrams clashed regularly with church groups and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, over the Reagan administration’s foreign policies.  They accused him of covering up atrocities committed by the military forces of U.S.-backed governments, such as those in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the rebel Contras in Nicaragua.


Abrams pled guilty to two (2) counts of unlawfully withholding information in the Iran-Contra Affair.  He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.  He was appointed President George W. Bush’s Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs in December 2002 and in February 2005 he was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor.  It has been alleged that he and Otto Reich sanctioned and assisted in the planning of the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  (Wikipedia)


Charles E. Allen:  Allen worked for the CIA for 47 years.  He became the CIA’s national intelligence officer for counterterrorism in 1985 and chaired the National Security Council’s Hostage Location Task Force.  In 1986 he served as the National Intelligence officer.  From the nomination hearing of Robert Gates to be the CIA Director in 1991:


On September 9, 1986, a senior CIA analyst, Charles Allen, wrote a memo on the arms sales to Iran, a copy of which went to Mr. Gates.  He also claims to have talked to Mr. Gates regarding shipments of arms to Iran.  Mr. Gates cannot recall the conversation or receiving the memo.


He was formally reprimanded by William Webster, Director of the CIA, for not fully cooperating in the CIA’s internal Iran-Contra investigation.  (Wikipedia)


William J. Casey:  Casey was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign chair and then served as CIA Director from 1981 to 1987.  According to the Federation of American Scientists:


There is evidence that he played a role as a Cabinet-level advocate both in setting up the covert network to resupply the Contras during the Boland funding cut-off, and in promoting the secret arms sale to Iran in 1985 and 1986.  In both instances, Casey was acting in furtherance of broad policies established by President Reagan.


There is evidence that Casey, working with two national security advisers to President Reagan during the period 1984 through 1986 – Robert C. McFarlane and Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter – approved having these operations conducted out of the National Security Council staff with Lt. Col. Oliver L. North as the action officer, assisted by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord.  And although Casey tried to insulate himself and the CIA from any illegal activities relating to the two secret operations, using [sic] there is evidence that he was involved in at least some of those activities and may have attempted to keep them concealed from Congress.


He died before he could testify.


Robert Gates:  Robert Gates worked for the CIA as an intelligence analyst from 1969-1974 and at the National Security Council from 1974 to 1979.  He returned to the CIA in 1979 and in 1981 President Reagan named him as Director of the DCI/DDCI Executive Staff.  He was promoted to Deputy Director for Intelligence in 1982 and in 1986 became the CIA’s Deputy Director of Central Intelligence.  In 1987 Reagan nominated him to head the CIA, but his nomination was rejected due to his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair.  He served as Deputy Assistant to President George H.W. Bush for National Security Affairs in 1989 and was then promoted to Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor, where he served until November 1991.  President Bush nominated him again for Director of the CIA in 1991, and he was, this time, confirmed by the Senate.  However, his confirmation hearings again brought out Gates’ involvement in Iran-Contra, as well as allegations that he passed intelligence information to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.


Albert Hakim:  Hakim was an Iranian-born arms merchant who sold “millions of dollars worth of arms” to the Shah of Iran in the 1970s.  He boasted of arranging Iran arms deals, setting up Swiss bank accounts, and paying off Iranian officials.  It is said he financed and organized the Iran-Contra affair.  He served two (2) years probation and paid a $5,000 fine for his involvement.  He died in Inchon, South Korea in April 2003.  (Infoplease)


Michael Ledeen:  In 1974 Ledeen moved to Rome where he studied Italian fascism and terrorism.  In 1977 he went to Washington to join the Center for Strategic and International Studies affiliated with Georgetown University.  In 1980 he worked for the Italian military intelligence service as a “risk assessment” consultant.  (He continues to have strong ties to Italy and visits frequently.) In 1981 became Special Advisor to the Secretary of State.  According to Wikipedia, he has often been associated with “shady organizations.”  As a consultant to Robert McFarlane, he vouched for Iranian intermediary Manucher Ghorbanifar and met with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other officials to arrange the Iran weapons deals in the Iran-Contra affair.  He is currently a contributing editor to the U.S. National Review and the Jewish World Review.  More recently he has been accused of being involved in the document forgery from “shady” sources in Italy that claimed that Saddam Hussein had bought yellowcake in Niger.  (See Iraq:  Making a Case for Invasion.)


Robert C. McFarlane:  McFarlane served as National Security Advisor to President Reagan from 1983 to 1985.  (He was succeeded by Admiral John Poindexter.)  He is said to have urged Reagan to negotiate arms deal with Iran.  According to Wikipedia:


In May 1986, after his retirement, he acted as an envoy for two planeloads of weapons parts delivered to the Iranians.  When the first planeload failed to win Iranian cooperation or the release of any hostages, McFarlane refused to deliver the second plane and returned to the U.S. where he advised the president to quit.  When news of the secret mission was published in the Lebanese weekly Al Shiraa complete with unflattering details and confirmation from top Iranian official, Chief of Staff Donald Regan attempted to spin the story.  McFarlane refused to speak to the press but was rattled by Regan’s accusation that he had been the sole official behind the weapons transfers.  McFarlane quickly shot off an e-mail to Poindexter threatening a libel suit and warning that he “wouldn’t tolerate lies from Don Regan.”


McFarlane attempted suicide in 1987 and in 1988 pleaded guilty to four (4) counts of withholding information from Congress for his role in the Iran-Contra cover-up.  He was sentenced to two (2) years’ probation and a $20,000 fine.  He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.


Edwin Meese III:  As Governor Reagan’s chief of staff, “Ed” Meese was “instrumental” in the crack-down on student protestors in Berkeley, California in 1969, during which law enforcement officers killed one student and seriously injured hundreds of others.  “Meese advised Reagan to declare a state of emergency in Berkeley, contrary to the recommendation of the Berkeley City Council, which led to a two-week occupation of the city by National Guard troops.”  (Wikipedia) Meese served as counselor to President Reagan, as a member of his Cabinet, and on the National Security Council from 1981 to 1985.  He became the U.S. Attorney General in 1985.  According to Wikipedia, “Chapter 31 of the official Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters reveals his direct involvement:


Meese knew that the 1985 HAWK transaction, in which the National Security Council staff and the Central Intelligence Agency were directly involved without a presidential covert-action Finding authorizing their involvement, raised serious legal questions.  The President was potentially exposed to charges of illegal conduct if he was knowledgeable of the shipment and had not reported it to Congress, under the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and in the absence of a Finding. . . When Meese got answers in his inquiry that did not support his defense of the President, he apparently ignored them, as he did with Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s revelation on November 22 that the President had told him that he had known of the HAWK shipment in advance.


John Negroponte:  From 1981 to 1985 Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras.  During this time military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $77.4 million a year to build a significant U.S. military presence there with the goal of “providing a bulwark against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.”  There were numerous complaints about human rights abuses in Honduras by the U.S. military.  According to Wikipedia:


. . . hundreds of documents were released by the State Department in response to a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request by The Washington Post.  The documents, cables that Negroponte sent to Washington while serving as ambassador to Honduras, indicated that he played a more active role than previously known in managing U.S. efforts against the communist Sandinistas.  According to the Post, the image of Negroponte that emerges from the cables is that of an


exceptionally energetic, action-oriented ambassador whose anti-communist convictions led him to play down human rights abuses in Honduras, the most reliable U.S. ally in the region.  There is little in the documents the State Department has released so far to support his assertion that he used “quiet diplomacy” to persuade the Honduran authorities to investigate the most egregious violations, including the mysterious disappearance of dozens of government opponents.


It was through his work in Honduras that he became involved in the Nicaraguan conflict as the covert funding for the Contras was run through Honduras.


Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004 and as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and 2005.  He 2005 he became the National Intelligence Director and heads up the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security.


Oliver L. North:  North was indicted on 12 counts and was found guilty on 3 counts.  “The convictions were vacated on appeal on the grounds that his Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by the indirect use of his testimony to Congress which had been given under a grant of immunity.”  (Wikipedia)  “Some believe that North was used as a scapegoat for the Iran-Contra affair, and that other top government officials in the Reagan administration disproportionately laid the blame on him.”  (Wikipedia)  Today he is a conservative political commentator with Fox News Service.


John M. Poindexter:  John Poindexter served in the Reagan administration first as Military Assistant (1981 to 1983), as Deputy National Security Advisor (1983-1985), and as National Security Advisor (1985-1986.)  He was convicted on the felonies of “lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the investigation.  His convictions were also overturned on appeal on similar grounds” as North’s.  (Wikipedia)  Poindexter was also a member of the George W. Bush administration.  According to Wikipedia:


From December 2002, to August, 2003 Poindexter served as the Director of the DARPA Information Awareness Office (IAO).  The controversial mission of the IAO was to imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components, and prototype closed-loop information systems that will counter asymmetric threats (most notable, terrorist threats) by achieving total information awareness:  enabling preemption; national security warning; and, national security decision making.


Poindexter also faced immense criticism from the media and politicians about the Policy Analysis Market project, a futures exchange that would have allowed trading in, and profiting from, such events as the assassination of heads of state and acts of terrorism.  The controversy over the futures market led to a Congressional audit of the IAO, which revealed a fundamental lack of privacy protection for American citizens.  Funding for the IAO was subsequently cut and Poindexter retired from DARPA on August 12, 2003.


Don Regan:  In 1981 Regan served as Treasury Secretary for President Reagan.  In 1985 he replaced James Baker as Reagan’s chief of staff, “a position he kept until 1987 when he was pressured to resign for his involvement with the Iran-Contra affair.”  He died in 2003.  (Wikipedia)


Otto Reich:  From 1983 to 1986 Reich managed the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean and reported directly to Oliver North.  He collaborated with the CIA propaganda experts to “disseminate ‘white propaganda’ designed to influence public opinion and spur Congress to continue to fund the Reagan administration’s military campaign against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. . . The OPD was declared illegal after a 1987 investigation.”  (Wikipedia)  Reich was never charged with breaking Congess’s ban on aid to the Contras.  From 1986 to 1989 he served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.  It has been alleged that he and Elliot Abrams assisted in the planning of the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.


Donald H. Rumsfeld:  Donald Rumsfeld has been involved in the U.S. government since 1957 when he served as administrative assistant to Congressman David S. Dennison Jr. who served for only one (1) term.  In 1962 he was elected to the House of Representatives from Illinois and served until 1969, when he resigned to serve President Richard Nixon as Administrative Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Assistant to the President, and as a member of Nixon’s Cabinet.  In 1970 he was name Counselor to the President and in 1971 he was named Director of the Economic Stabilization Program.  (Nixon is recorded to have said of Rumsfeld, “He’s a ruthless little bastard.”)  In 1973 he became U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) and later served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, the Defense Planning Committee, and the Nuclear Planning Group, where he represented the U.S. on a wide range of military and diplomatic matters.  He served as President Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff in 1974 and 1975 and as his Secretary of Defense 1975-1977.  (Richard Cheney was appointed Chief of Staff when he left and this is war their great friendship was forged.)  From 1977 to 1985 he served as CEO, President, and later as Chair of G.D. Searle & Company.  However, he was still critically involved in the Reagan administration:


Member of the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control (1982-1986)

Special Envoy at the Law of the Sea Treaty (1982-1983)

Senior Advisor to Reagan’s Panel on Strategic Systems (1983-1984)

Special Envoy to the Middle East (1983-1984)


During his period as Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, he was the “main conduit for crucial American military intelligence, hardware, and strategic advice to Saddam Hussein.”  (Interestingly, Rumsfeld supposedly held conversations with Hussein regarding preventing arms sales to Iran by foreign countries.)  Rumsfeld served as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush until November 2006 when he was replaced by Robert Gates.  (See Wikipedia for more information.)


Brent Scowcroft:  A member of The Tower Commission, he later was named National Security Advisor by President George H.W. Bush.  He served as Chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.  Scowcroft was a leading critic of U.S. policy towards Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion.  (Wikipedia)


Richard V. Secord:  During the 1970s, General Secord worked for the Air Force Military Advisory Group.  His job was to represent U.S. arms merchants in trading with the Shah of Iran.  Secord, along with Albert Hakim, ran a company called Stanford Technologies Trade Group International.  Both were involved in the doomed operation to free the Iranian hostages.  In 1981 he became Chief Middle East arms-sales advisor to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.  (Don Hopkins)  He was indicted on 12 felony charges.  He pled guilty to one (1) felony count of false statements to Congress and was sentenced to two (2) years probation.  (Wikipedia)  He is currently the CEO and Chair of Computerized Thermal Imaging, Inc.


John Tower:  A former Senator from Texas, Tower was appointed by President Reagan to head the President’s Special Review Board looking at the sale of arms to Iran and the subsequent funneling of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras in contravention to U.S. law.  Tower died in an airplane crash in 1991.  “Some conspiracy theorists argue that Tower’s demise was because he supposedly knew the suppressed truth of the Iran-Contra scandal.”  (Wikipedia)


Caspar Weinberger:  Having been involved in California politics since the 1950s, he was appointed to several positions by then-California governor Ronald Reagan.  He served as Deputy Director of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) under President Nixon (1970-1972), then as Director of OMB (1972-1973), and then as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (1973-1975).  For the next five (5) years he was vice president and general counsel of the Bechtel Corporation.  He served as President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense from 1981-1987.  He was  “indicted of lying to the Independent Counsel but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.”  (Wikipedia)  He died in 2006.



© The Issue Wonk, 2006


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