September 18, 2000
Iran-Contra & Wen Ho Lee
By Robert Parry
Over the last few years, Republicans have trumpeted suspicions that Democratic fund-raising abuses in 1996 somehow helped communist China steal nuclear secrets jeopardizing U.S. national security. Leading conservatives accused President Clinton and Vice President Gore of “appeasement” and possibly treason.
The extreme Republican rhetoric, which rose in the months after President Clinton survived impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky case in 1999, set the stage for the harsh nine-month imprisonment of Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee, who was released on Sept. 13 after a plea bargain and an extraordinary apology from a federal judge.
Yet, ignored amid the dark suspicions about the Clinton-Gore administration and the embarrassing collapse of the Lee case was another startling set of facts pointing in a very different direction: to illegal U.S.-Chinese intelligence collaboration implicating the Reagan-Bush administration.
Little-noticed evidence from the Iran-contra files reveals that it was the Reagan-Bush administration that opened the door to sharing sensitive national security secrets with communist China in the 1980s.
This clandestine relationship evolved from China’s agreement to supply sophisticated weapons to the Nicaraguan contras beginning in 1984, a deal with the White House that entrusted China with one of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence secrets, the existence of Oliver North’s contra supply network.
In the years after that secretly brokered deal, the Republican administration permitted trips in which U.S. nuclear scientists, including physicist Wen Ho Lee, visited China in scientific exchange programs. Those visits corresponded with China’s rapid development of sophisticated nuclear weapons, culminating in the apparent compromise of sensitive U.S. nuclear secrets by 1988.
Seven years later, in 1995, a purported Chinese defector walked into U.S. government offices in Taiwan and turned over a document. Dated 1988, the document contained detailed information about U.S.-designed nuclear warheads.
The document showed that Chinese intelligence possessed the secrets of the W-88 miniaturized nuclear bomb by the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. China’s first test of a light warhead similar to the W-88 was conducted in 1992, the last year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
In other words, the secrets of the W-88 – the central concern about Chinese nuclear espionage – had been compromised before the Clinton-Gore administration began. Logic would dictate then that any serious investigation into how Chinese intelligence maneuvered into a position to glean U.S. nuclear secrets should focus on the Reagan-Bush years when the secrets were lost, not the Clinton-Gore years.
China’s Missile Shipment
An examination of the Reagan-Bush time frame – and particularly the Iran-contra files – reveal how Chinese military intelligence ingratiated itself with the U.S. government. In 1984, the Reagan-Bush administration was desperately seeking a source of anti-aircraft missiles that could be smuggled to the Nicaraguan contras, a CIA-backed operation that was seeking to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
By late 1984, the U.S. Congress had prohibited additional U.S. military support for the contras, who had developed an unsavory reputation for rampaging through Nicaraguan villages, raping, torturing and murdering as they went. One contra director acknowledged the practice of staging public executions of Nicaraguan government functionaries. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Despite this congressional contra-aid ban, the White House was determined to secure surface-to-air missiles that the contras could use to shoot down Soviet-made attack helicopters that had become an effective weapon in the Nicaraguan government’s arsenal. Operatives working secretly with Oliver North, a Marine officer assigned to the National Security Council staff, settled on China as a source for SA-7 missiles.
In testimony at his 1989 Iran-contra trial, North called the securing of these weapons a “very sensitive delivery.” For the Chinese missile deal, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala. North testified that he “had made arrangements with the Guatemalan government, using the people [CIA] director [William] Casey had given me.”
But China was opposed to the Guatemalan government, which was then engaged in a scorched-earth war against leftist guerrillas. Because the Guatemalan army had massacred tens of thousands of Indians – including the annihilation of entire villages considered sympathetic to the guerrillas – China was not willing to sell missiles to Guatemala.
To resolve this problem, the White House brought the Chinese communists in on what was then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government: the missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the contras in defiance of U.S. law. This was a secret so sensitive that not even the U.S. Congress could be informed, but it was to be shared with communist China.
In fall 1984, North enlisted Gaston J. Sigur, the NSC’s expert on East Asia, to make the arrangements for a meeting with a communist Chinese representative, according to Sigur’s testimony at North’s 1989 trial. “I arranged a luncheon and brought together Colonel North and this individual from the Chinese embassy” responsible for military affairs, Sigur testified.
“At lunch, they sat and they discussed the situation in Central America,” Sigur said. “Colonel North raised the issue of the need for weaponry by the contras, and the possibility of a Chinese sale of weapons, either to the contras or, as I recall, I think it was more to countries in the region but clear for the use of the contras.”
North described the same meeting in his autobiography, Under Fire. To avoid coming under suspicion of being a Chinese spy, North said he first told the FBI that the meeting had been sanctioned by national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane. Then, North went ahead with the meeting to gain the help of communist China.
“Back in Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”
North said the Chinese officials saw the deal, in which China supplied SA-7 missiles, as a way to “stick it to the Soviets,” China’s chief rival in the communist world. North said the Chinese communists also saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better relations with the United States.”
Possession of this knowledge – one of the Reagan administration’s most politically dangerous secrets – put Beijing in position to leverage U.S. policy in the future.
With China’s assistance on the missile deal secured, the shipment went forward, although with additional delays. Contra leader Adolfo Calero began calling the ship carrying the missiles “the slow boat from China.”
North noted that CIA officers in the field soon got wind of the weapons transfer. “So many cables were coming in that [CIA director] Casey ordered his stations to stop reporting on this shipment,” North wrote.
When the missiles finally reached Guatemala, the Guatemalan army was so nervous about them falling into the hands of leftist guerrillas that the army gave the missiles a military escort across the country.
The shipment hit another snag when it reached Honduras. The Honduran government balked at distributing the missiles to the contras in their Honduran base camps near the Nicaraguan border.
“When they [the missiles] were delivered to Honduras, it was, as I remember, right on the heels of a vote in which the Congress had voted down again the president’s request for [contra] aid, and the Honduran government seized” the shipment, North testified at his trial.
“I wrote a memo to the national security adviser [McFarlane] and asked him to have the president call the president of Honduras … and ask him to release that supply of weapons because the resistance [the contras] desperately needed it,” North said.
Reagan agreed, but his personal intervention prompted a subtle demand from Honduran president Roberto Suazo for a quid pro quo arrangement in which Honduras would receive increased U.S. aid in exchange. The diplomatic minuet dancing around this sensitive quid pro quo issue apparently drew in Vice President Bush during a visit to Honduras as Reagan’s personal intermediary.
Eventually, Honduran authorities agreed to deliver the Chinese missiles to the contras. In the following months, the Reagan-Bush administration increased aid levels to Honduras.
As Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh later wrote in his book Firewall, “quid pro quo exchanges had been commonly discussed at policy-making levels and had been almost routinely carried out.”
Also in connection with third-country contra assistance, Reagan promised to back trade legislation sought by El Salvador, where North’s resupply operation was based, and the president granted concessions to Guatemala and Panama, two other countries helping out the contra cause, Walsh wrote.
Bush’s role in the quid pro quos remained one of the last unanswered questions of the Iran-contra scandal.
After his election defeat in 1992, Bush pardoned six Iran-contra defendants effectively shutting down Walsh’s investigation. In early 1993, Bush also ducked Walsh’s request for an interview that would have questioned Bush about his personal involvement in various parts of the scandal.
One of the interview topics was to have been “Bush’s knowledge of or involvement with Central American or other countries in exchange for their support of the contras,” according to Walsh’s final report on the Iran-contra affair. [See Vol. 1, p. 480.] One of those “other countries” could have been communist China, where Bush had served as the chief U.S. diplomatic representative in 1974 and 1975.
With the quid pro quo questions blocked by Bush’s mass Iran-contra pardons and his refusal to be interviewed, no additional light was shed on what communist China got out of the missile sale to the contras, what China’s “better relations with the United States,” as Oliver North put it, had won for the People’s Republic.