What the President should have known

MARCI McDONALD November 30 1987

What the President should have known

MARCI McDONALD November 30 1987

What the President should have known


It had all the hallmarks of an unusual literary event. A bitter prepublication fight among the book’s 26 coauthors had resulted in 35 rewrites—and much advance publicity. The public’s appetite had already been whetted by a television series, which was the basis of the book, running through most of the summer months. The publisher had already auctioned off paperback rights. Even the pithy chapter headings read as though they had been borrowed from an airport thriller-rack: “The Money begins to run out,” “Deadlock in Teheran” and “Taken to the cleaners.” But like most books based on television serials, the 690-page Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair contained little suspense.

Still, after summarizing events already known to millions of viewers who watched the 11-week hearings into the Iranian arms scandal last summer, the report offered a stinging indictment of President Ronald Reagan. It accused him of fostering a climate of reckless disregard for the law and democratic processes within his administration. The 15 Democrats and three Republicans who signed the joint Senate-House committee’s majority report faulted Reagan for failing in his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In language that was even tougher than expected, they charged that Reagan bore “the ultimate responsibility” for the foreign-policy disaster that has irrevocably scarred his presidency. And they rejected as irrelevant Reagan’s claims that his aides had kept him in the dark. Concluded the report: “If the President did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”

Like the televised hearings themselves, last week’s report produced no smoking gun—no definitive proof of illegality by the President nor a clear contradiction of his claim that he did not know about the diversion of the Iranian arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. An earlier threemonth investigation by a presidential commission led by former senator John Tower of Texas blamed the affair on Reagan’s detached management style. But the congressional committee chaired by Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye accused him of something far more grave: a failure of moral leadership. Its report castigated Reagan for creating an environment where a “cabal of zealots” felt free to flout legal constraints because they “believed with certainty that they were carrying out the President’s policies.” Said the committee: “The common ingredients of the Iran and contra policies were secrecy, deception and disdain for the law.”

That indictment was especially damaging for a president whose once-unassailable authority had already been undercut when the scandal broke just over a year ago. The revelation that Reagan had secretly betrayed his own policies forbidding arms shipments to Iran plunged him into one of the worst credibility crises of any president since Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the face of impeachment over the Watergate scandal. Reagan’s standing in the polls plunged almost a third from a prescandal high of 67. And it has failed

to recover significantly, still hovering

around the 50 mark. In fact, some analysts argued that Reagan’s reputation had suffered the most in the early days of the scandal. Said Norman Ornstein of the conservative-leaning Washington-based American Enterprise Institute last week: “The political earthquake for Ronald Reagan came with the initial revelations. The report is an aftershock.”

Still, a series of events in recent

weeks underlined Reagan’s diminished stature. His immense popularity once allowed him to defy Congress, but now that his magic has disappeared at the polls, congressmen have dared to defy him. His first two Supreme Court nominations ended in defeat. He has been forced to negotiate an eleventhhour compromise on reducing the budget deficit (page 41). And the Central America peace accord has emerged as a direct challenge to his Central American policy. Said William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute: “Nobody’s afraid of Ronald Reagan anymore.”

In fact, Washington observers agree that Reagan will remain essentially paralysed in his final year in office, unable to accomplish anything beyond the arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, scheduled to be signed during his summit in Washington with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in early December. Said Stephen Hess of the capital’s liberal-oriented Brookings Institution: “Now we tread water, waiting for a new president.”

Reagan had promised to speak out after the report was published, claiming, “You won’t be able to shut me up.” But last week he studiously avoided comment. And the White House orchestrated an elaborate exercise in downplaying the report. Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the report partisan and bereft of new revelations. And eight Republican members of the committee supported that position by refusing to sign the 427-page majority report, attacking its conclusions as subjective. Instead, in a 155-page dissenting view—published under the same brown and gilt cover, along with appendices and supplements—they criticized Reagan for “mistakes in judgment, and nothing more.” Said the minority report: “There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or coverup.”

But their claims were called into question by the fact that the three most prominent Republican senators on the committee signed the majority version. Senate panel vice-chairman Warren Rudman of New Hampshire denounced his fellow Republicans’ minority report as “pathetic.” And although the dissenting Republicans had charged during the hearings that Reagan’s circumvention of Congress resulted from his concern about congressional leaks, last week they themselves defied the committee’s embargo by giving a copy of their own report a day ahead of time to The New York Times.

As well, some analysts said that the reaction of Reagan and the committee’s dissenting members indicates that they have not learned from the mistakes of the scandal. They said that the attitude that the committee blamed for causing the scandal appears not to have changed. And in recent weeks Reagan has continued to pursue Central America policies that Congress and American public opinion oppose. After blaming Congress for not forging a bipartisan foreign policy,

the White House attacked House Speaker James Wright last week for attempting to take a role in promoting the Central America peace process.

Now Congress seems certain to cut off aid to the contras, probably early next year, although Reagan continues to support the rebels. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Schneider pointed out, the President has never expressed regret over his secret funding of the contras. Said Schneider: “There, they seem unrepentant.” And he said that he foresaw “a conflict between Congress and the executive branch that will continue.”

Although last week’s report was based on the examination of 300,000 documents and the testimony of 500 witnesses, it disclosed few details that had not already emerged during 40 days of public hearings. But the new information turned out to be startling. Among the most remarkable: that U.S. arms went not to moderates in Iran, as officials claimed, but to the radical Revolutionary Guards. As well, a reference to a third party in the report led to the disclosure that Panama’s military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega tried to appease U.S. criticism of his regime by offering to arrange the assassination of Nicaraguan leaders.

The report provides what the hearings did not: a context for the oftenbewildering avalanche of detail that has emerged during the past year. In elegant and compelling prose, sprinkled with literary allusions, the report presents a gripping narrative. Committee sources credit the guiding hand of Senate counsel Arthur Liman, whose previous report on a New York state prison

riot in 1971 won a nomination for a National Book Award. The congressional report shows how a tiny band of top government officials, who “believed they alone knew what was right,” created a secret government outside of the legal government, complete with its own planes, pilots, airfield, ship, secure communications equipment, Swiss bank accounts and fund-raising mechanisms.

Some of those who worked for that group of administration insiders in what they termed “The Enterprise” appear to have profited handsomely from their activities. Indeed, one of the report’s chief accomplishments was to trace the scandal’s tortuous money trail. Of nearly $21 million raised by the arms sales to Iran only $5 million ever reached the contras, who are fighting to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Retired air force general Richard Secord and his associates received more than $8 million in commissions, the investigation disclosed. And the committee’s accountants found that Secord’s markup on the arms sales was 38 per cent, not 20 as he had claimed.

Former National Security Council aide Lt.-Col. Oliver North emerges from the report’s pages in much the same way that he appeared on television: as a star. But his fame in the report is as the pivotal figure connecting the intertwining covert plots, who “coordinated all the activities and was involved in all aspects of the secret operations.” In the words of his former boss, then-national security adviser Rear Admiral John Poindexter, North became “the switching point that made the whole system work, the kingpin

to the Central American opposition.” But the committee makes clear that “North’s conduct had the express approval” of Poindexter and “at least the tacit support” of Poindexter’s predecessor Robert McFarlane.

The report is also highly critical of Attorney General Edwin Meese. The committee charged that Meese, without the legally required notification of Congress, approved a scheme where $500,000 in ransom money, much of it from Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, was paid to try to get U.S. hostages out of Lebanon. And the report blamed Meese for the “cloud” that hung over his own controversial investigation of the scandal. As soon as suspicions arose about a diversion of Iranian arms sales profits to the contras last November, Meese suddenly cut his aides out of his interviews with key officials. Meese dismissed the rebuke as “a great job of Monday morning quarterbacking.” But in the wake of continuing investigations into an entirely separate scandal concerning his relations with a defence contractor, the charges strengthened a growing chorus for Meese’s resignation.

Some critics, in turn, found the congressional committee’s investigation lacking in rigor. Scott Armstrong, executive secretary of the national security archives, charged in an article in The New York Times that the report had failed to answer a pivotal question: “Was the Iran-contra affair an intersection of two isolated instances or was it two strands pulled from a larger cloth of systematic lawbreaking?” And in a recently published book called Out of Control, CBS television producer Leslie Cockburn raised the issue of why Congress chose not to look into recurring allegations that some of the shadowy figures in the illicit contra supply network were also involved in assassination plots and drug trafficking.

Cockburn marshals evidence to show that the investigator who influenced the committee’s decision not to delve into the alleged drug ring—reported to have close ties to the Central Intelligence Agency—was a 30-year veteran of the agency. And she argues that the committee’s reluctance came from its fear of taking on the CIA. But, she says, the congressmen on the committee did not want to bear the brunt of accusations similar to those that emerged after congressional examinations of the CIA in the mid-1970s: that they had crippled America’s intelligence-gathering capabilities by exposing the workings of the agency to public view.

Still, the report painted an incriminating portrait of both the agency and its former director William Casey who died last May of a brain tumor. The committee charged that Casey “misrepresented or selectively used available intelligence” to win support for the contras, even misleading his friend, the President himself. In his most glaring flirtation with the facts, Casey told Reagan last November, after a trip through the region, that Central American leaders were “scared to death” that the United States would abandon the contras. In reality, one chief of state had refused to see Casey and another had criticized the administration’s support of the Nicaraguan rebels. Congressmen say that they will invoke that evidence to bolster a series of proposed laws to rein in the CIA.

Still, author Cockburn, for one, faults the report for avoiding the real issue at the heart of the Iran-contra scandal: the wisdom of Reagan’s foreign policies. “It’s simply a look at procedures—at the bureaucracy,” she said last week. “It does not say much to people who are asking: ‘Should we be at war in Central America?’ ” Still, from the report’s narrative, one theme emerges: Reagan’s obsession with keeping the contras alive. Indeed, the committee suggests that the elaborate covert machinery put into place to resupply the contras set the stage for the other secret operation under investigation: the sale of arms to Iran.

And the report’s findings contradict North’s claim that the idea of diverting the arms profits to the contras was a whim that came from Iranian gobetween Manucher Ghorbanifar in a London hotel washroom. In fact, North had discussed the scheme with Israeli defence officials much earlier. Later, when arms sales had failed to secure the release of hostages held by proIranian groups in Lebanon, North ar-

gued to continue them anyway because they provided funds for the contras. Concluded the report: “The diversion was an integral part of selling arms to Iran.”

One of the most poignant aspects of the report is its reminder of just how little the administration gained from an adventure that tarnished America’s image both at home and abroad. Instead of improved relations with Iran, the U.S. government now finds itself— through its large naval presence in the Persian Gulf—drawn deeply into the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

That war escalated in the wake of Iran’s acquisition of U.S-supplied weapons. And Iran’s allies in Lebanon still hold as many hostages as they did when the adventure began. But the administration’s most telling defeat may be the fact that despite the millions in aid it has funnelled to the contras, the rebels have failed to make significant military gains. And Congress—and the Central Americans themselves—have now regained the initiative in Central American policy as they attempt to implement the terms of the agreement that the presidents of Nicaragua and four neighboring states signed last August.

Even the stardom of Oliver Northwho came to be known nationally by his nickname, Ollie, during the hearings—seems to have been short-lived. Merchants report that sales of “Olliemania” souvenirs have fallen off drastically, and administrators of the fund launched to pay his legal expenses report a sharp drop in contributions. As well, the naval investigative unit has withdrawn his security guards. And, reports say, he has been transferred from a Pentagon planning study that involved classified in-

formation to a post handling less sensitive information.

Only North’s glamorous secretary, Fawn Hall, seems to have prospered. In addition to finding a new job at the Pentagon, she has acquired a Hollywood agent and appears in a fullpage picture in this month’s issue of the chic New York magazine Vanity Fair—showing her leaping through a woodland scene in a leopard-skin minidress and pantyhose. She has also become a star of the lecture circuit and says that she hopes to be auditioned soon for a job as a television anchor. But in its report, the Iran-contra committee singled out Hall’s testimony before them last summer for a resounding rebuke.

To explain her reasons for helping North conceal and shred documents related to the arms sale and diversion of the profits, she had told congressmen that “sometimes you have to go above the written law.” With that assertion, the committee concluded, a “secretary who shredded, smuggled, and altered documents” represented the atmosphere that Ronald Reagan fostered in his government—one that ultimately provoked his misfortune.


in Washington