Bush II, Iran Contra II?
by David Cogswell
The Bush Restoration
George W. Bush ran for president on a promise to restore to the White House the dignity and integrity of the Reagan/Bush and Bush/Quayle administrations of 1980-1992. The claim is valid in the sense that the new Bush administration is an extension of the old one. Most of the principal players and behind-the-scenes movers of the Bush II administration were previously those of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The list starts at the top with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Secretary of Defense in Bush I and chief of staff for President Gerald Ford; and it includes Andrew Card, James Baker, Colin Powell and a seemingly endless list of names from among the top echelons of power in the United States since the Nixon years. The fact that the ultimate insider campaigned as "an outsider" is only one of the more benign of the many deceptions of the campaign that led him to power.
It is reasonable to expect the Bush II administration to conduct itself -- as it has promised -- on the same principles as its predecessors. Now that the Bush restoration is a fact, it is important to look beyond the hype and image building and examine more closely the integrity of the Reagan/Bush years.
Americans who get their political information from TV news are led to think the election is only about such matters as which candidate is "offering" the biggest tax cut; whose education programs will work best, who has the best plan for improving Social Security and Medicare. Politics appears as a gentleman's game, played by honorable people who give their lives to public service and engage in high-level, formalized debates to resolve disagreements about various aspects of the public's business. Information that does not fit into this squeaky-clean image of American politics is often disregarded as "conspiracy theory."
As important as the issues are in the center of the political stage, the political issues that are most life threatening are outside the margins of the political dialogue as delineated by the major establishment media. There is a dark, violent underside of world politics and business that lies behind the clean white-picket-fence image that is portrayed to the public through the endless assault of images that pour forth from the major media.
It is not unreasonable for citizens to believe that those in the highest offices obey the laws. Unfortunately, you don't have to go beyond the public record to see that it is not true. The men of the Reagan-Bush administration ignored the law when it got in their way. A look into the Iran Contra affair shows how deeply their betrayal of their constitutional responsibilities went.
Reagan, Bush Sr., Cheney, Baker, Powell and George Schultz all had significant roles in the Iran Contra affair. None of them received any legal penalty for their actions. When Bush pardoned several of his colleagues that were among the perpetrators of the Iran Contra crimes, he called the indictments "the criminalization of policy." The conspirators not only remained unaccountable, they were without remorse. They never admitted that what they did was wrong. There is no reason to expect that they will not do the same thing again. Forewarned is forearmed.
Arms for Hostages
"The Iran Contra Affair" refers to a tangled web of illegal operations carried out by high level officials in the Reagan White House. In simplest terms, the primary elements were: 1.) arms secretly sold to the government of Iran, and 2.) profits from the arms sale used to conduct a secret war to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
While the Reagan administration was negotiating an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, it was publicly proclaiming that it would never do such a thing. Reagan denounced Iran under Ayatolla Khomeini as a "terrorist country." One of the Reagan administration's defining slogans was "We will never negotiate with terrorists." But Reagan was determined to get the hostages out, even if it meant selling arms to the enemy. A hostage situation had broken the previous administration and it could happen again.
In 1980 Reagan had swept into office on a wave of widespread public dissatisfaction with President Carter's inability to secure the release of hostages held at that time by the Iranian government. Reagan's credibility could swiftly deteriorate if people perceived that he was as helpless as Carter to retrieve hostages without breaking his own ban on negotiating with the hostage takers.
Years after the fact, a Iranian president Bani-Sadr and a number of other sources said that the Iran Contra affair had not been the first time the Reagan-Bush administration had negotiated arms for hostages. During the election campaign of 1980, Bani-Sadr alleged, the campaign organization of Reagan-Bush negotiated a hostage deal with the Iranian government. But that time they were negotiating for Iran to hold the hostages longer, so President Carter would not receive the political benefit of an "October Surprise" like the release of the hostages. The Iranians finally agreed to release the hostages five minutes after Reagan's inauguration. It turned Reagan's inauguration media coverage into an event of mythical resonance.
Though the "October Surprise" conspiracy has not been established in a court of law, there is a great deal of evidence to support the allegations. One of the more intriguing pieces of evidence is an FBI polygraph test of Donald Gregg, an old CIA associate of George Bush, who served as his national security adviser when Bush was vice president. The FBI examiner concluded that Gregg was lying when he answered "no" to the question: "Were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?"
The second primary component of the Iran Contra scandal was the funneling of profits from the arms dealings with Iran toward the arming and training of a secret army to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. It was a revolutionary government that came to power in 1979 when a broad-based coalition of social groups pushed out the dictator General "Tacho" Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third in a family dynasty that ruled Nicaragua by virtue of his U.S. backing.
Formed, funded and trained by the CIA, the army was named the Contras, Spanish for "against". (When Reagan pitched for them on TV, he called them "The Freedom Fighters" and likened them to "our Founding Fathers.") The Contras had been formed from what had been the National Guard (La Guardia Nacionale) of the deposed dictator Somoza. The real fight for freedom was the struggle of Nicaraguans who were trying to throw off the oppressive single-family dictatorship that had originally been installed by American power in the 1930s and propped up by American aid ever since. The freedom the Contras were fighting for was freedom of American oil companies, fruit companies and so forth, who needed a brutal dictatorship in power to keep the population quiet while they pulled all of the marketable resources out of the country.
Anastasio was the nephew of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the dictator who had been installed by the American government in the 1930s to protect "American interests," such as oil, sugar and fruit. After 40 years of the Somoza family ruling the country as if it had been their own private possession, they had finally been pushed from power by a broad coalition of different segments of Nicaraguan society who had come together against the brutal dictatorship.
In the late 1970s, after a series of particularly bloody purges in which thousands of Nicaraguans were tortured, raped, killed, "disappeared," Somoza had finally gone too far. Even the professional classes no longer felt safe from his violence. This time even Washington could not hold him up.
A revolutionary group that called itself the Sandinistas in honor of a revolutionary hero who defied U.S. interests in the '20s and '30s led a broadly based popular movement that overthrew Somoza. They set up their own government, which wasn't exactly what Washington wanted. The Carter State Department, knew Somoza could not stay in power in Nicaruagua. Washington had urged Somoza to step down, but had wanted to install a new leader to maintain the status quo. But events went beyond their control and the Somoza regime fell apart.
The new government had had some remarkable success with its reforms, in redirecting agricultural production to feed Nicaraguans, for example, and dramatically cutting the illiteracy rate. Washington policy makers saw a threat in Nicaragua becoming an example to other Third World countries of how they could improve conditions for their own people if they defied the control of U.S. business interests.
Funding the war against Nicaragua had been explicitly forbidden by law. Congress had acted to stop the flow of money when the army's reputation for rampaging through Nicaruaguan villages raping, torturing and murdering peasants had become too well known and had turned U.S. public opinion against them. Particular incidents, such as a videotaped murder of an American journalist by the Contras, received widespread exposure on American TV and ignited resistance.
But although Congress had forbidden U.S. support of the war, and the Constitution gives the authority to make war to Congress, the Reagan administration had allegiances it considered more important than its Constitutional contract with the American people. The government of Nicaragua had to be overthrown, whether Congress or the people were behind it or not.
Oops! Pardon Me!
An investigation of the crimes by Lawrence Walsh, a former federal judge appointed as special counsel, reached higher and higher into the government and the White House itself. The administration's damage control effort adopted the strategy of blaming everything on one relatively low level White House official, Oliver North, who was said to have done it all on his own without authority from higher ranking officials. North was a Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to the National Security Council staff from 1981 until he was fired on November 25, 1986.
During the congressional investigation North was given limited immunity by Congress, which ultimately protected him from having to be accountable for his crimes. On May 4, 1989, North was found guilty of three counts: aiding and abetting obstruction of Congress, shredding and altering official documents, and accepting an illegal gratuity. But North's convictions were vacated on July 20, 1990, after the appeals court found that witnesses in his trial might have been impermissibly affected by his immunized congressional testimony. A free man, he later ran for U.S. Senator of Virginia, but lost narrowly. Today he has been elevated by MSNBC to the role of political pundit. Poindexter's conviction was also vacated.
Several high-level administration officials were indicted for the Iran Contra crimes, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, former CIA Central American Task Force Chief Alan D. Fiers, Jr., former CIA Deputy Director for Operations Clair E. George, and former CIA Counter-Terrorism Chief Duane R. Clarridge. All of them were pardoned on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1992, 12 days before Weinberger was scheduled to stand trial and less than a month before George Bush would turn over the presidency to Bill Clinton. The independent counsel called the pardon "the last card of the coverup."
The "policy" Bush said had been "criminalized" was willful defiance of the law and the fundamental principals of democratic government, such as the principle that all are equal before the law, or that the authority of government comes from the people. Bush's policy was to go around the law when the law was in the way. As it was once stated in Roman law: "Whatever pleases the prince has the force of law."
Somehow in all the loud public braying about integrity and morality in politics in the '90s, with the impeachment of President Clinton over lies he told to cover up an extramarital affair, the major crimes of the Iran Contra scandal have rarely been mentioned. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, Americans had the luxury of being able to forget the Bush years. With the re-installation of the Bush group into the White House, that luxury is gone. With the Bush faction back in the White House, covert operations are sure to fly fast and furiously. Those who wish to preserve democracy must be vigilant.
A Window on Corruption
Though Iran Contra was called a "scandal" and portrayed by the major media as an aberration that departed from the normal, lawful affairs of government, there is much evidence that it was not an aberration, but business as usual, a covert activity that happened to surface into public view. It provides a rare glimpse through the cover to an ongoing web of illegal covert activities that make up what Bill Moyers called "a secret government." The incidents are part of a pattern that becomes familiar when studying the history of the Bushes and their cohorts. As such, it is a window through which we can take a closer look at the workings of the government that is now being re-established in Washington.
Because of President Bush's mass pre-trial pardon, the true depth of the activities is not established. Bush ducked special counsel Walsh's request for an interview about his own involvement in the operation. But though he maintained that he was "out of the loop", his involvement is well documented.
A memo by Bush's staff documents a meeting in 1986 between the Vice President and Felix Rodriguez, the ex-CIA operative who coordinated the illegal airlift of arms to the Contras from El Salvador in which the two discussed "resupply of the contras." Rodriguez was in frequent contact with Bush's office and Oliver North wrote in his diary that Rodriguez was "talking too much about VP connection."
North testified repeatedly that he believed President Reagan was aware and approving of his activities. He reported many of his activities to National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane and [his successor] John M. Poindexter, who were North's channel to the President, but they claimed ignorance of certain of North's activities or said they deliberately shielded the President from knowledge of them. Poindexter testified "...I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected, and at the same time we would be able to carry out his policy and provide the opposition to the Sandinista government." North also claimed to have taken much of his direction from William Casey, CIA director and former Reagan campaign manager. Casey died of a brain tumor before [he could reveal much. *]
Reagan also denied knowing the specifics of North's activities, though toward the end his memory was so shattered it was hard to ascertain what he knew. On May 15, 1987, he said, "I've known what was going on there... I was very definitely involved in the decisions about support to the freedom fighters [Reagan's marketing brand for the Contras]. It was my idea to begin with."
The independent counsel's final report said, "Although the Office of Independent Counsel could not prove that President Reagan directly approved North's criminal actions, there is no doubt that he and his national security advisers allowed North to operate with unprecedented latitude in furtherance of Administration policies."
What Walsh was able to establish, he reported, was "that President Reagan, with the support of Vice President Bush, promulgated the two policies that drove Iran/contra:
-- that the contras would be kept viable as an insurgent force during the Boland cut-off period from October 1984 to October 1986, and
-- that arms would be sold to Iran, first from Israeli stocks and later directly from the United States, in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage in the Middle East.
The investigation also established that the President, Vice President and Regan were briefed regularly and in considerable detail as to the operations being conducted to carry out those policies."
Walsh's report also said that "President Reagan authorized the 1985 sale of TOW and HAWK missiles from Israeli stocks in an effort to free Americans held hostage even though he was warned such sales were in violation of the Arms Export Control Act."
Arch-conservative columnist William Buckley wrote that the leaders of the joint select committee Daniel Inouye and Warren Rudman "were determined going in not to impeach Ronald Reagan." The independent counsel Walsh also exhibited restraint in not accusing Reagan of perjury, though his report stated that "President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Regan, Meese and other senior Administration officials in November 1986 undertook to ``rearrange the record,'' as Secretary of State George P. Shultz put it in a conversation with his senior advisers, in an effort to protect the President and themselves from accusations of possible violations of law."
Buckley also wrote that "Walsh makes mincemeat of Bush's claim of being 'out of the loop' -- assisted by large helpings from Weinberger's copious, handwritten notes, the existence of which the secretary of defense vigorously denied."
In the conclusions to the special counsel's report, Walsh makes it clear that his reluctance to indict Reagan and Bush was not because they did not break laws. "The underlying facts of Iran/contra are that, regardless of criminality, President Reagan, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the director of central intelligence and their necessary assistants committed themselves, however reluctantly, to two programs contrary to congressional policy and contrary to national policy. They skirted the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the President's willful activities."
Walsh also went further than Congress's Select Committees in saying, "the Iran/contra affair was not an aberrational scheme carried out by a 'cabal of zealots' on the National Security Council staff, as the congressional Select Committees concluded in their majority report. Instead, it was the product of two foreign policy directives by President Reagan which skirted the law and which were executed by the NSC staff with the knowledge and support of high officials in the CIA, State and Defense departments, and to a lesser extent, officials in other agencies."
"...many who committed crimes were not charged," said the report.
The fact that the perpetrators of these crimes are now held up as examples of the "integrity" is what Noam Chomsky called a "triumph of the propaganda system." Even during all the discussion of "character" over the impeachment President Bill Clinton for lying about an affair with a White House intern, the crimes of the Reagan-Bush years have somehow faded from public memory.
It is time to do a research project into that very complicated and murky affair, to keep its memory alive in the spirit of the old aphorism: "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it."