December 22, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Three
By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
Saving Ronald Reagan
"We need you, Colin," pleaded the familiar voice over the phone.
“This is serious,” said Colin Powell’s old mentor, Frank Carlucci, who in in December 1986 was President Reagan’s new national security adviser. "Believe me, the presidency is at stake."
With those words, Colin Powell re-entered the Iran-contra affair, a set of events he had dangerously advanced almost a year earlier by secretly arranging missile shipments to Iran.
But just as Powell played an important behind-the-scenes role in those early missile shipments, he would be equally instrumental in the next phase, the scandal's containment.
His skillful handling of the media and Congress would earn him the gratitude of Reagan-Bush insiders and lift Powell into the top levels of the Republican Party.
In late 1986, Carlucci called Powell in West Germany, where he had gone to serve as commander of the V Corps. Powell thus had missed the November exposure of the secret shipments of U.S. military hardware to the radical Islamic government in Iran. Though Powell had helped arrange those shipments, he had not yet been tainted by the spreading scandal.
President Reagan, however, was reeling from disclosures about the reckless arms-for-hostage scheme with Iran and diversion of money to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. As the scandal deepened into a potential threat to the Reagan presidency, the White House searched for some cool heads and some steady hands. Carlucci reached out to Powell.
Powell was reluctant to heed Carlucci’s request. “You know I had a role in this business,” Powell told the national security adviser.
But Carlucci soon was moving adroitly to wall Powell off from the expanding scandal. On Dec. 9, 1986, the White House obtained from the FBI a statement that Powell was not a criminal suspect in the secret arms deals.
Carlucci also sought assurances from key players that Powell would stay outside the scope of the investigation. The next day, Carlucci asked Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Powell’s old boss, "to call Peter Wallison, WH Counsel -- to tell them Colin had no connection with Iran arms sales -- except to carry out President's order."
Weinberger wrote down Carlucci’s message. According to Weinberger’s notes, he then "called Peter Wallison -- Told him Colin Powell had only minimum involvement on Iran."
The statement wasn’t exactly true. Powell had played a crucial role in skirting the Pentagon’s stringent internal controls over missile shipments to get the weapons out of Defense warehouses and into the CIA pipeline. But with the endorsement of Weinberger, Carlucci was satisfied that his old friend, Powell, could sidestep the oozing Iran-contra contamination.
On Dec. 12, 1986, Reagan formally asked Powell to quit his post as commander of V Corps in West Germany and to become deputy national security adviser. Powell described Reagan as sounding as jovial and folksy as ever.
“Yes, sir,” Powell answered. “I’ll do it.” But Powell was not enthusiastic. According to his memoirs, My American Journey, Powell felt he “had no choice.”
Powell flew back to Washington and assumed his new duties on Jan. 2, 1987. As usual, Powell took to his task with skill and energy. His personal credibility would be instrumental in convincing official Washington that matters were now back under control.
By that time, too, the White House already was pressing ahead with a plan for containing the Iran-contra scandal. The strategy evolved from a "plan of action" cobbled together by chief of staff Don Regan immediately before the Iran-contra diversion was announced on Nov. 25, 1986. Oliver North and his colleagues at the National Security Council were to bear the brunt of the scandal.
"Tough as it seems, blame must be put at NSC's door -- rogue operation, going on without President's knowledge or sanction" Regan had written. "When suspicions arose he [Reagan] took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting with top advisers to get at facts, and find out who knew what. … Anticipate charges of 'out of control,' 'President doesn't know what's going on,' 'Who's in charge?'"
Suggesting that President Reagan was deficient as a leader was not a pretty option, but it was the best the White House could do. The other option was to admit that Reagan had authorized much of the illegal operation, including the 1985 arms shipments to Iran through Israel, transfers that Weinberger had warned Reagan were illegal and could be an impeachable offense.
By February 1987, however, the containment strategy was making progress. A presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, was finishing a report that found no serious wrongdoing but criticized Reagan's management style.
In its Feb. 26 report, the Tower Board said the scandal had been a "failure of responsibility" and chastised Reagan for putting "the principal responsibility for policy review and implementation on the shoulders of his advisers."
On matters of fact, however, the board accepted Reagan's assurances that he knew nothing about Oliver North's secret efforts to funnel military supplies to the Nicaraguan contras and that the president had no hand in the White House cover-up of the Iran-contra secrets.
"The Board found evidence that immediately following the public disclosure, the President wanted to avoid providing too much specificity or detail out of concern for the hostages still held in Lebanon and those Iranians who had supported the initiative," the Tower report stated. "In doing so, he did not, we believe, intend to mislead the American people or cover-up unlawful conduct."
To dampen the scandal further, Powell helped draft a limited mea culpa speech for Reagan to give on March 4, 1987. Powell felt that the Tower Board had been too tough on Secretary of State George Shultz and Powell’s old boss, Caspar Weinberger. So Powell tried to insert some exculpatory language.
“I tried to get the President to say something exonerating these two reluctant players,” Powell wrote in his memoirs. Powell's suggested language noted that Shultz and Weinberger had “vigorously opposed” the Iranian arms sales and that they were excluded from some key meetings “by the same people and process used to deny me [Reagan] vital information about this whole matter.”
In the speech, Reagan finally acknowledged that the operation had involved "trading arms for hostages" and "was a mistake." But the president did not read the phrasing meant to exonerate Shultz, Weinberger and, by inference, Weinberger’s assistant in 1985-86, Colin Powell.
After Reagan's limited admission, the White House resumed its strategy of shifting the bulk of the blame onto Oliver North and other "cowboy" NSC staffers.
Reagan, however, was not always cooperative with the plan. In one press exchange about North's secret contra-supply operation, Reagan blurted out that it was "my idea to begin with."
North, too, would tell the congressional investigation that the official version was a "fall-guy plan" with him as the fall guy. Logic about what a junior officer could accomplish without higher authority weighed in favor of North's truthfulness, at least on that point.
Clearly, a large number of people, including senior officers in the CIA and elsewhere the White House, knew a great deal about the contra operations and had sanctioned them.
Nevertheless, Powell's personal credibility helped persuade key journalists to accept the White House explanations. Soon, Washington's conventional wisdom had bought into the notion of Reagan's inattention to detail and North's rogue operation.