November 5, 2000
History on the Ballot
Covering Up Iran-Contra
While allegations of Republican shenanigans in 1980 were left in this haze of evidence and denials, the lingering hostage crisis clearly damaged Carter’s political standing in November 1980.
Reagan won a solid electoral victory. Then, immediately after Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the Iranians released the American hostages.
It’s also clear that the Reagan-Bush administration followed up release of the hostages with a secret policy of permitting Israel to ship U.S. military hardware to Iran.
Senior State Department officials learned of the secret policy in summer 1981 when an Argentine plane carrying U.S. military supplies from Israel to Iran strayed off course and was shot down over the Soviet Union.
Nicholas Veliotes, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, investigated the strange case and said he learned from “people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment. … I believe it was the initiative of a few people [who] gave the Israelis the go-ahead. The net result was a violation of American law.” [For details, see Parry’s Trick or Treason,]
The clandestine U.S. relationship with Iran took other turns in the months ahead. Israel invaded Lebanon, followed by a Reagan-Bush decision to introduce American troops and then to begin shelling Moslem villages. Islamic extremists retaliated by seizing more American hostages.
With this new crisis, some of the operatives from 1980 popped up again. Businessman Shaheen and Iranian banker Hashemi urged Casey, who had become Reagan’s CIA director, to trade arms to Iran for hostages. Soon, the earlier pipeline of weapons to Iran had merged with the flow of weapons that would be at the center of the Iran-contra scandal.
Vice President Bush had his fingerprints all over both sides of the Iran-contra affair, both the Iran side and the side funneling military supplies to the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Key personnel from his office, including former CIA officer Donald Gregg who had become Bush’s national security adviser, placed Cuban-American operative Felix Rodriguez in Central America. Rodriguez soon was running the day-to-day operations re-supplying the contras and coordinating with national security aide Oliver L. North.
A flow chart that emerged during later investigations indicated that Bush’s office managed the contra network after Congress passed laws in 1983-84 first limiting and then barring U.S. military assistance to the contras. Authority for the secret re-supply operation later passed to North, according to the flow chart.
Around the Rodriguez operation in Central America clustered a number of Cuban-Americans from Miami. Some of them, including a few working directly for the CIA and Reagan’s National Security Council, used their contra connections in Central America as cover for cocaine smuggling and money laundering, a 1998 study by the CIA’s inspector general found.
To protect the growing number of secrets, the Reagan-Bush administration organized a domestic public diplomacy operation, headed by another CIA officer named Walter Raymond Jr.
The goal of this operation was to conduct what was called “perception management,” that is the control of how the American people perceived the events unfolding in Central America and elsewhere. A high priority was given to bullying U.S. journalists who didn’t toe the government’s line. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
This protection of the Iran-contra secrets almost worked. The few reporters (including myself) who uncovered parts of the story were subjected to assaults on our reputations and careers.
Despite the growing evidence, most of the major news media dismissed the stories of secret operations and related drug trafficking as conspiracy nonsense.
The scandal only unraveled because of outside events. On Oct. 5, 1986, one of North’s supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua.
The sole surviving crewman, Eugene Hasenfus, pointed the finger at George Bush’s vice presidential office and the CIA. Bush and other administration officials denied Hasenfus’s statement.
The second Iran-contra shoe dropped in early November 1986 with a story in a Beirut newspaper about the Iran arms sales. When the secret about North’s diverting Iranian arms profits to the contras was disclosed a few weeks later, the Iran-contra scandal was born.
But the Reagan-Bush administration was not ready to tell all. Immediately, the administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill moved to counter and to contain the scandal. For his part, Bush insisted that he was “not in the loop” on the Iran-contra business.
Cheney to the Rescue
One of the key congressional Republicans fighting this rear-guard action was Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming, who became the ranking House Republican on the Iran-contra investigation. Cheney already enjoyed a favorable reputation in Washington as a steady conservative hand.
Cheney smartly exploited his relationship with Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who was chairman of the Iran-contra panel. Hamilton cared deeply about his reputation for bipartisanship and the Republicans quickly exploited this fact.
A senior committee source said one of Cheney’s top priorities was to block Democrats from deposing Vice President Bush about his Iran-contra knowledge. Cheney “kept trying to intimidate Hamilton,” the source said. “He kept saying if we go down that road, we won’t have bipartisanship.”
So, Hamilton gave Bush a pass. The limited investigation also gave little attention to other sensitive areas, such as contra-drug trafficking and the public diplomacy operation. They were pared down or tossed out altogether.
Despite surrendering to Cheney’s demands time and again, Hamilton failed, in the end, to get a single House Republican to sign the final report.
Only three moderate Republicans on the Senate side – Warren Rudman, William Cohen and Paul Trible – agreed to sign the report, after extracting more concessions. Cheney and the other Republicans submitted a minority report that denied that any significant wrongdoing had occurred.
The watered-down Iran-contra majority report essentially let Vice President Bush off the hook. Bush’s political career was saved.
With the Iran-contra scandal contained, Bush mounted a 1988 presidential campaign that set the modern standard for negativity, race-baiting and a win-at-all-cost ethic. In 1989, Cheney became Bush’s defense secretary.