Washington, D.C., May 16, 2018 – Incoming National Rifle Association President Oliver North’s conduct during the infamous Iran-Contra affair featured a pattern of deliberate deception, a willingness to cooperate with known drug dealers, and – according to some senior colleagues – flawed judgment, according to declassified documents and sworn testimony posted today by the National Security Archive.
Iran-Contra was the worst political scandal of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, involving a pair of covert operations – one to sell missiles to the Islamic Republic of Iran in hopes of gaining freedom for American hostages, the other to support so-called Contra rebels in Nicaragua – both of which violated legal and legislative prohibitions. Among its results was to prompt major congressional and criminal investigations and cast a pall over the Reagan administration during its final two years.
North himself has admitted under oath to most of the actions, decisions, and falsehoods that prompted widespread condemnation of his behavior in the wake of the scandal. Declassified documents – a representative sampling of which the National Security Archive is reposting today – provide further, contemporaneous evidence, often written in his own words. His conduct ultimately led to criminal convictions against him, but they were overturned by an appeals court panel because his congressional testimony in the Summer of 1987, delivered under a grant of immunity, might have influenced witnesses at trial.
Though he has often accurately claimed that he was mostly following orders, including all the way from the top – President Reagan himself – North became famous during the nationally televised congressional hearings for defiantly owning his recurring dishonesty. Some of it was aimed at purported adversaries, such as his counterparts in Iran. “I lied every time I met the Iranians,” he declared, adding at another point, “I would have promised those terrorists a trip to Disneyland if it would have gotten the hostages released.”
(Ordinarily, few would fault him for disrespecting a reviled regime, except that the declared aims of the operation – and the president – were to strike a deal for the lives of captive Americans and ultimately lay the ground for a long-term political relationship with Iran – neither of which was likely to be helped by repeated evidence of duplicity.)
More disturbing for many was his apparent disdain for outside investigators and the Congress. “I will tell you right now, counsel,” he testified, “and all the members here gathered, that I misled the Congress.” He also acknowledged explicitly that he lied even to his fellow operatives, destroyed evidence while the Justice Department was investigating him, and falsified records both to hide the administration’s illicit Iran and Contra support activities and to cover up his receipt of an illegal personal “gift” in the form of a security system at his family home.
READ THE DOCUMENTS
After the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Oliver North became renowned for his "shredding parties" designed to purge his files of documentation that exposed illicit or otherwise sensitive administration activities. But when it came to records in the NSC's most sensitive System IV Channel, other methods were required. That filing system was governed by strict access rules requiring a unique numbered identification for each document and a sign-out procedure for anyone wishing to view materials. This meant North could not just shred those documents. Instead he rewrote a handful of them and returned the forgeries. This document is an example, with both the original and altered versions attached. North's ruse was discovered by an investigator who noticed that the letterhead in the altered version, which North wrote in late 1986, was not in use in early 1985 when the original document had been created.
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from his colleague, retired Air Force general Richard Secord, in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. (The contras did eventually buy the arms, using money the Reagan administration secretly raised from Saudi Arabia.) According to the notebook, Secord told North that "14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs." A Senate subcommittee investigation led by Sen. John Kerry subsequently concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems.” (See page 41)
An exasperated Deputy CIA Director John McMahon vents to Director William Casey, an ardent proponent of arms sales to Iran, about "a new dimension" to the deals that has come up following a meeting between North and the notoriously untrustworthy Iranian middleman, Manucher Ghorbanifar. Casey has systematically cut out the agency's regional specialists because of the near certainty they would object to the Iran operation. As a result, non-specialists like North increasingly gain the upper hand in driving the deals.
At this stage, McMahon protests that in addition to missiles the U.S. is being asked to provide order-of-battle intelligence to Tehran in its ongoing war with neighboring Iraq. "Everyone here at headquarters advises against this operation," McMahon writes, "not only because we feel the principal involved [Ghorbanifar] is a liar and has a record of deceit, but, secondly, we would be aiding and abetting the wrong people."
North was broadly condemned later for his poor judgment on matters of this sort, as were his superiors for allowing him so much leeway.
Oliver North's emissary to Central America, Robert Owen ("TC" - The Courier), writes to North ("BG" - Blood and Guts) regarding a plane being used to carry "humanitarian aid" to the contras. "No doubt you know the DC-4 Foley got was used at one time to run drugs, and part of the crew had criminal records. Nice group the Boys choose."
The plane in question belonged to a Miami-based company, Vortex, which was run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer's long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to a Michigan indictment on narcotics charges, Palmer received over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) - a U.S. government office overseen by North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers - to ferry supplies to the contras.
At the center of the public's attention in the Iran-Contra scandal was the revelation that the two previously unconnected covert activities - trading arms for hostages with Iran and backing the Nicaraguan Contras against congressional prohibitions - had become joined. Oliver North gets the dubious credit for putting the idea into practice (if not at least co-authoring it). He was certainly the source of the main piece of evidence to survive - this memo (the so-called "Diversion Memo") spelling out the plan to use "residuals" from the arms deals to fund the rebels. Far from being a "neat idea," as North described it later, the notion was universally condemned by all sides as amateurish and illegal. (Some of the overage in fact went to cover personal purchases by North.)
Notwithstanding the subject line ("Iran"), this e-mail discusses a meeting North held with a representative of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in order to hear a proposition for collaborating against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. (Noriega would be deposed by U.S. forces just three years later, in large part because of his long-standing ties to narcotics trafficking.)
North described the idea to National Security Advisor John Poindexter: "You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega in Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship." If U.S. officials will "help clean up his image," he continues, and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force, Noriega will "'take care of' the Sandinista leadership for us."
North tells Poindexter that Noriega can assist with sabotage against the Sandinistas and suggests paying Noriega a million dollars - from funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran - for the Panamanian leader's help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.
José Bueso Rosa was a Honduran general who was heavily involved with the CIA's contra operations and who eventually faced trial for his role in a massive drug shipment to the United States. In 1984, Bueso and a group of co-conspirators plotted to assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Córdoba, an operation to be financed with a $40 million cocaine delivery to the U.S., which the FBI intercepted in Florida. Declassified e-mail messages such as this one point to North’s role in a behind-the-scenes effort to seek leniency for Bueso because of his pro-Contra activities. The e-mails record attempts by certain U.S. officials to “cabal quietly” to get Bueso off the hook, either by “pardon, clemency, deportation, [or] reduced sentence,” despite the Justice Department’s objection that the conspiracy was the “most significant case of narco-terrorism yet discovered.” Bueso’s advocates succeeded in getting the general a short sentence in “Club Fed,” a white-collar prison in Florida.
North met with Panama's Manuel Noriega in a London hotel on September 22, 1986. His notebook records some of the details: for example, the two discussed developing a commando training program in Panama, with Israeli support, for both the contras and Afghan rebels. They also spoke of sabotaging major economic targets in the Managua area, including an airport, an oil refinery, and electric and telephone systems. These plans were apparently aborted when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.
In this passage from North's week-long testimony before the joint congressional Iran-Contra committees in July 1987 - broadcast live on network television - House Majority Counsel John Nields questions North about evidence that he may have benefited financially from the affair. Examples include the setting up of a fund for North's family and his use of contra travelers checks for personal expenses. (The relevant section begins mid-way through p. 127, which is the second page of testimony in this PDF.) North vehemently denies any wrongdoing except for one eyebrow-raising episode - his deliberate falsification of evidence designed to make it look as though he paid for a security gate installed on his property in northern Virginia when he had not.
Calling it "probably the grossest misjudgment that I have made in my life," he describes writing two letters to the ex-CIA operative who oversaw the installation. He backdated both letters to a time when he was still working at the White House, so that it would appear he had intended to pay for the job at the time it was undertaken. As part of the artifice, he went to a retail store to use equipment on display there. But this was not the whole story. Even though he insisted to his audience, "I am here to tell you the truth, even when it hurts," it turned out that he had also deliberately damaged the typewriter ball on the store machine so that it would look as if the two "phony documents," as he called them, had been written on the same machine but months apart instead of within days of each other. A document expert contracted by the congressional committees determined that the typewriter ball had been defaced with a file.
North admitted in his congressional testimony that he falsified these two letters addressed to the person who installed the security system at his home to have it appear as though he had always planned to pay for the work (see previous document description). It came out during the hearings that the blemished letter "e" in the October 1 communication was the result of deliberate filing of the typewriter ball presumably to give the impression that some time had elapsed between the writing of the two notes when in fact it had been no more than a day or two. The extent of North's deception comes through in the handwritten note at the bottom of the later communication: "P.S. Please forgive the type - I literally 'dropped the ball.'" Having by the evidence deliberately damaged the ball himself, he hoped to draw his readers' (whoever they might turn out to be) attention to the difference in type between the two letters. To the same end, he addressed Robinette formally in the May note but informally in the October one to convey the idea that a personal relationship had developed over time.
 More recently, North offered this criticism of the Tehran regime’s handling of the 2015 nuclear deal: “The Iranians have been lying. Every time their lips move, they're lying.” (Quoted from Fox News Insider, May 8, 2018)
 “Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy,” A Report Prepared by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations of the Committee on Foreign Relations, 100th Congress, 2d Session, p. 141.
 Ibid., p. 76.