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Iran-Contra Revisited

New Book Places Reagan at Center of 1980s Scandal

Lack of Legal or Legislative Closure to Affair Opened Path to Future Presidential Abuses

Narrative Spotlights Iranian, Israeli, Nicaraguan Perspectives

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 483

Posted September 5, 2014

For more information contact:
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Book 

Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
By Malcolm Byrne
(University Press of Kansas, September 15, 2014)

Videos and Reviews

YouTube on Byrne and "Iran-Contra"
Posted September 22, 2014 

Book-TV: full author interview
Aired September 21, 2014

"New Book on Iran-Contra Shows How US-Iran Ties Were Scuttled"
Al-Monitor, August 26, 2014

Related Links

Iran-Contra: Lawrence Walsh's Contribution to History
March 26, 2014

Iran-Contra At 25: Reagan and Bush 'Criminal Liability' Evaluations
November 25, 2011

 


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"At last, the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra affair finally has a comprehensive history worthy of the scandal ... Malcolm Byrne has told the complex story in brilliant fashion."
Seymour Hersh

Advance praise for Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power by Malcolm Byrne:

"A remarkable book about a remarkable scandal that shook American politics more than a quarter century ago."

  • Bruce Riedel , author of What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan

"A thrilling account of secrecy, connivance and manipulation ... A truly fascinating book."

  • Maziar Bahari , author of Then They Came for Me

"Outstanding and meticulously researched."

  • Cynthia J. Arnson , Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

"The definitive volume on the Iran-Contra scandal and its impact."

  • Farideh Farhi , University of Hawaii, Manoa

"This book reopens the vitally important argument over Ronald Reagan's presidency." A "valuable" analysis.

  • Walter Lafeber , Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

"All other accounts of this tragic episode ... must be measured against this authoritative narrative, much of it in the words of the participants themselves."

  • Gary Sick , Columbia University

"A compelling and revelatory account."

  • David Farber , author of Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam

"Finally we have a definitive account of a Washington scandal that was as bizarre as it was important."

  • Stephen Kinzer , author of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

"Byrne's book should be read by experts and concerned citizens alike."

  • John Prados , author of The Family Jewels, the CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power

Washington, DC, September 5, 2014 – A new book on the Iran-Contra affair shows that President Ronald Reagan stood at the epicenter of the scandal both in terms of his willingness to break the law in order to free American hostages in Lebanon and his failure to take account of the costs and consequences of his decisions, including the illicit conduct of numerous aides.


Malcolm Byrne appearing on C-SPAN2's BookTV, September 21, 2014. See entire interview here.

In 448 pages, Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power details the historical, political, and institutional background against which the affair played out. Utilizing tens of thousands of pages of previously classified materials, the narrative describes in detail all the administration's decisions and actions, and discusses the rationales invoked at the time as well as after the fact (explanations that sometimes differed widely).


President Reagan meets at the White House on October 28, 1985, with families of American hostages being held in Lebanon. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, one of the architects of the Iran initiative, is at the far left of the photo, seated to Reagan's right. Chief of Staff Donald Regan is to Reagan's left. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Looking beyond the U.S. side, the volume explores — through documents and interviews — the views and actions of Iranians, Israelis, Nicaraguans, and others who played parts in the affair. Many of these insights are published here for the first time.

Iran-Contra is the first full-length account of the affair to study and assess the various official investigations that were convened — the Tower Commission, the joint congressional hearings, and the independent counsel's inquiry. The limitations of each helped lead to an inconclusive end to the affair, which has had implications for the unchecked conduct of future presidents and their administrations.

While the scandal had many contributors — including Congress, which failed to avert either element of the affair or to pass meaningful legislation in its wake — the role of the president and his top aides stands out. At the end of this text, a series of recently declassified high-level records explores the president's thinking and actions.


The NSPG meets in the White House Situation Room on May 16, 1986, to discuss Contra aid (see Document 7). President Reagan, at left, listens as National Security Advisor John Poindexter speaks. Vice President Bush is to Reaganís right. At the far wall are (from left) State Department official Elliott Abrams, CIA official Alan Fiers, and NSC staffer Oliver North — all members of the mid-level Restricted Interagency Group that oversaw much of Central American policy. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

The following is taken from the publisher's book description:

Everything began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a Nicaraguan soldier downed an American plane carrying arms to "Contra" guerrillas, exposing a tightly held U.S. clandestine program. A month later, reports surfaced that Washington had been covertly selling arms to Iran (America's sworn enemy and a state sponsor of terrorism), in exchange for help freeing hostages in Beirut. The profits, it turned out, were going to support the Contras, despite an explicit ban by Congress.

In the firestorm that erupted, shocking details emerged, raising the prospect of impeachment, and the American public confronted a scandal as momentous as it was confusing. At its center was President Ronald Reagan amid a swirl of questions about illegal wars, consorting with terrorists, and the abuse of presidential power.

Yet, despite the enormity of the issues, the affair dropped from the public radar due to media overkill, years of legal wrangling, and a vigorous campaign to forestall another Watergate. As a result, many Americans failed to grasp the scandal's full import.

Through exhaustive use of declassified documents, previously unavailable investigative materials, and wide-ranging interviews, a new book by Malcolm Byrne places the events in their historical and political context (notably the Cold War and a sharp partisan domestic divide). In this account, Byrne explores what made the affair possible and meticulously relates how it unfolded-including clarifying minor myths about cakes, keys, bibles, diversion memos, and shredding parties.


President Reagan checks with senior advisers (from left) Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Chief of Staff Donald Regan moments before facing the nation to announce the Iran-Contra scandal on November 25, 1986. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Iran-Contra concludes that the affair could not have occurred without awareness and approval at the very top of the U.S. government. Byrne reveals an unmistakable pattern of dubious behavior — including potentially illegal conduct by the president, vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director and others — that formed the true core of the scandal.

Given the lack of meaningful consequences for those involved, the volume raises critical questions about the ability of our current system of checks and balances to address presidential abuses of power, and about the possibility of similar outbreaks in the future.

 


DOCUMENTS

The following documents[1] are among the many declassified records cited in the book showing the Reagan administration's top-level decision-making bodies at work on two of the president's most cherished issues: the hostages in Lebanon and the Nicaraguan Contras. Far from the cartoon image many Americans retain of a disengaged figurehead, Reagan comes across in these records as extremely hands-on, in command of relevant facts, and certain of what he wants.

Document 1: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Escalation in the Gulf War, May 17, 1984, Top Secret

In this set of notes of a meeting on rising tensions as a result of the Iran-Iraq War, the president and his senior aides discuss an appeal by Saudi King Fahd, passed on by Prince Bandar, the kingdom's ambassador to Washington. The king wants U.S. help in dealing with mounting attacks by both belligerents on shipping in the Persian Gulf, which threatens oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz to the rest of the world. President Reagan's remarks demonstrate a detailed understanding of events in the conflict and an attempt to get at key details that will help him make a decision on the U.S. response. He urges firmness (after Secretary of State George Shultz's pointed reference to the U.S. pullout from Lebanon the previous Fall): "We can't have another blow to the confidence we've tried to build," the president says.

It bears recalling that the Saudi request came exactly at the time Robert McFarlane had approached Prince Bandar with a discreet request for covert Saudi assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras. Bandar replied soon after that King Fahd had decided to contribute $1 million per month — a figure he doubled a few months later. The timing of the Saudi approach raises the question whether Fahd was attempting to call in a debt with the administration. U.S. law at the time prohibited any kind of quid pro quo with foreign governments involving the Contras.

 

Document 2: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Central America, June 25, 1984, Secret

This revealing record highlights a discussion of the idea of soliciting foreign governments for aid to the Contras in anticipation of Congress's cut-off of official funding later in 1984. Secretary of State Shultz points out to his colleagues that White House Chief of Staff James Baker has warned "if we go out and try to get money from third countries, it is an impeachable offense." Vice President George Bush disagrees, arguing: "How can anyone object to the US encouraging third parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas…? The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange." Later, Bush would facilitate just such a quid pro quo deal with Honduras. Reagan soon afterwards closes the meeting by admonishing everyone to keep mum on the subject. "If such a story gets out, we'll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House until we find out who did it."

 

Document 3: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Review of the [Excised] and Central America Special Activities, September 11, 1984, Top Secret

The mood at this NSPG session reflects a sense of imminent crisis as the group discusses an expected delivery of Bulgarian L-39 aircraft to the Sandinistas. The shipment plays directly into administration fears of a rampant Soviet-bloc military aid program for Nicaragua. The question of how to persuade the American public of the severity of the threat is a constant during this period, but the administration never fully succeeds, in part because it is discovered more than once to have exaggerated the facts. In that regard, it is of interest that while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger proposes the U.S. "portray this delivery as a significant change in the balance of regional power," George Shultz notes that the Hondurans already have more effective French aircraft making it "unlikely that we will be able to sustain any great public outcry."

President Reagan's contributions to the discussion show a sophisticated view of the requirements and prospects of a public information strategy aimed at helping the Contras score points in the eyes of the public.

 

Document 4: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Response to Threat to Lebanon Hostages, January 18, 1985, Top Secret

Several months before approving the controversial arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, President Reagan discusses another tense moment in the Middle East — the prospect that American hostages in Lebanon might soon be put on "trial" by their captors and even executed. The session reveals how sensitive and emotional an issue the hostages are for Reagan. He shows an acute determination to retaliate sharply to any such development, including by all indications targeting Iranian assets, not just those of their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. When Deputy National Security Advisor John Poindexter confirms the plan will be to conduct strikes against designated targets, the meeting notes show Reagan responding with a snap of his fingers and the statement, "Like that." The president is reluctant even to wait for a follow-up discussion to give final approval, though he agrees: "Only if it doesn't delay the strikes."

 

Document 5: Caspar Weinberger, handwritten notes of meeting in White House Family Quarters, December 7, 1985

After three separate U.S.-approved shipments of missiles via Israel to Iran in 1985, the president convened a high-level meeting in the Family Quarters of the White House to discuss continuation of the covert program. Of his top advisers, only Vice President George Bush and CIA Director William Casey were not in the room. During the discussion, Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger objected openly to the operation, as they had in the past, arguing that it was not only a bad idea policy-wise but illegal since it involved sending arms to Iran, which the U.S. had declared a sponsor of international terrorism. In his notes, Weinberger captures the president's determination to move ahead regardless of the obstacles: "President sd. he could answer charges of illegality but he couldn't answer charge that 'big strong President Reagan passed up chance to free hostages.'"

 

Document 6: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Review of US Policy in Central America, January 10, 1986, Secret

Well into the period of the congressional Contra aid cut-off under the Boland Amendment, this discussion of Central America, the first on the subject in 15 months by the full National Security Council, delves into some sensitive topics usually reserved for more closely-held gatherings. The main issue is how to get additional aid to the rebels despite congressional resistance. Reagan shows himself to be both decisive and insistent on the need to work fast and with whatever means are available. At one point in the discussion, he demonstrates his continuing desire for secrecy, noting "It is important that at least part of the funds be covert, and there is no reason to ever talk about the military assistance." Later, he expresses sympathy with the frustration of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the legal obstacles to direct military-to-military communications. " I understand the difficulty your people have talking with the Contras," he tells Admiral William Crowe. But the solution he proposes reflects either a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal requirements, or an attitude of utter dismissal: "Maybe they could have barbecues with them."

 

Document 7: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Central America, May 16, 1986, Secret

In another major discussion of how to get assistance to the Contras, feathers get ruffled as George Shultz, accompanied by special envoy Philip Habib, takes on more hard-line colleagues in a debate over whether and how to pursue negotiations with the Sandinistas. At one point, Shultz complains of "an assault on Phil and on me and on the State Department for being involved in these negotiations." Caspar Weinberger dismisses the charge, but Shultz persists.

The president, meanwhile, interjects regularly, insisting on, among other things, no agreement that "does not provide for democracy in Nicaragua." He declares more than once the need for the Contras to apply pressure on Managua. On the question of how to get funding moving, the group's sense of frustration is palpable. "Try everything," implores Weinberger.

After a short discussion of third-country options, Reagan raises an awkward question. As reflected in these notes, his remarks read: "What about the private groups who pay for ads for the Contras. Have they been contacted? Could they do more than ads?" This rather anodyne formulation may not have been what was actually said. A senior CIA officer present, Central America Task Force Chief Alan Fiers, later "vividly" recalled the president's words differently. "Well, what about Ollie's people? Can't they help?" Fiers's recollection calls much more sharply into question later White House denials that Reagan was aware of NSC staff aide Oliver North's illicit activities on behalf of the Nicaraguan rebels.

 

Document 8: National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, Subject: Central America, February 20, 1987, Secret

In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal's exposure in late 1986, the president is unbowed. Despite ongoing and imminent investigations of illicit administration support for the Contras, these minutes indicate he "opened the meeting by expressing his determination to prevail in Central America and indicated that time was running short." He excoriates the Sandinistas for breaking promises and tells his advisers: "We have to tell our story and counter a sophisticated disinformation campaign" from the Nicaraguan regime. Verbal persuasion is not his only proposed approach. Later in the session, he advocates the use of force: "I have a daydream. I keep reading and hearing about Sandinista helicopters. Our side can blow up bridges and power grids, but can they destroy those helicopters on the ground?" After a response by someone that has been excised for security reasons, Reagan reacts excitedly: "Great!"

 


NOTE

[1] All but one of these documents ultimately came from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (Documents 1 and 8 were retrieved from www.thereaganfiles.com). Document 5, Weinberger's handwritten notes, came from Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation.

 

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