At the center of that historic moment was
former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who died on March 28 at the
age of 88. In 1992, he was one of six defendants in the Iran-Contra
scandal who received Christmas Eve pardons from President George H.W.
Bush less than a month before Bush left office.
If Bush had not granted those pardons,
Weinberger would have gone on trial in early 1993 facing perjury and
obstruction charges, a courtroom drama that could have changed how
Americans perceived key figures from the Reagan administration,
including Colin Powell and President Bush himself.
At stake was not only Weinberger’s guilt or
innocence but more importantly the legacy of the Reagan-Bush era. Quite
likely, too, President Bush would have been caught up in this final
unraveling of the Iran-Contra cover-up – and the prospects for his
family’s resumption of political power might have been dealt a fatal
The Weinberger trial might have foreclosed the
possibility that George W. Bush would ride his father’s reputation to
the White House eight years later.
The trial also represented the last best
chance to explain to the American people the constitutional conflict
that was festering beneath the surface of the Iran-Contra Affair,
essentially the President’s assertion of unfettered power to conduct
foreign policy even in defiance of laws passed by Congress.
In the early-to-mid 1980s, Ronald Reagan had
sought to avoid a head-on clash with Congress by taking his foreign
policy underground, using cutouts like Israel to ship missiles to Iran
and White House aide Oliver North to funnel supplies to the contra
rebels fighting in Nicaragua.
After those operations were exposed in 1986,
Congress also tried to avert a constitutional showdown by papering over
the illegal presidential actions and accepting the cover story that top
officials, such as Reagan and Bush, were mostly out of the loop.
But those unresolved constitutional questions
exploded back to the surface after Sept. 11, 2001, when George W. Bush
asserted virtually unlimited presidential authority to override or
ignore federal law as Commander in Chief. In effect, the younger George
Bush was staking out power openly that Reagan and the elder George Bush
had exercised only in secret.
The Weinberger pardon also exposed the
Washington press corps’ growing aversion to complex topics, like the
Iran-Contra scandal’s maze-like trails of government-sanctioned
money-laundering, arms smuggling and even drug trafficking.
Rather than hungering for the new evidence
that might have emerged from the Weinberger trial, many leading
commentators expressed relief that they would be spared from having to
puzzle out the Iran-Contra mysteries anymore.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke
for many insiders when he expressed how happy he was that the well-liked
Weinberger had avoided a trial. In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen
recalled how he had seen Weinberger pushing his own shopping cart at the
Safeway grocery store in Georgetown.
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to
think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense –
which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote.
“Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”
The U.S. news media’s disdain for the
complicated Iran-Contra case presaged the press corps’ inability or
unwillingness to challenge George W. Bush’s dubious claims about Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction a decade later.
Although it’s unclear exactly what would have
been revealed if the Weinberger case had gone to trial, the prosecutor,
James Brosnahan, once told me that he had no doubt it would have been a
major political and historic event.
Among the likely star witnesses would have
been Colin Powell, who would have faced the dilemma of risking perjury
or admitting that he participated in a violation of the Arms Export
Control Act in the missile shipments to Iran in 1985.
Either way, with a tarnished reputation,
Powell almost certainly would not have been the trusted figure in 2003
who convinced millions of Americans – including Post columnist Cohen –
that there was no doubt that Iraq possessed vast stockpiles of WMD.
The key question, ensnaring both Weinberger
and his military assistant, Gen. Powell, was their apparent knowledge of
the arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1985, before President Reagan
signed a covert-operation finding in January 1986 that officially
authorized the Iran operation.
Through the early 1980s, Israel had been
interested in trading U.S. weapons to Iran to gain a foothold in that
strategic Middle Eastern country. Israeli operatives also suggested that
Iran could help the United States arrange the release of American
hostages then held by radical Islamic groups in Lebanon.
Carrying the water for the
Iran opening inside the White House
was national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who circulated a draft
presidential order about possible overtures to Iran in late spring 1985.
The paper passed through Weinberger's
“filter,” Powell, who – in his memoirs – called the plan “a stunner” and
a grab by McFarlane for “Kissingerian immortality.” After reading the
draft, Weinberger scribbled in the margins, “this is almost too absurd
to comment on.”
Weinberger even warned Reagan that the
military shipments through Israel were illegal and could constitute an
impeachable offense. But Reagan was not deterred.
Though Reagan was
declaring publicly “that America will never make concessions to
terrorists,” privately he ordered precisely that. At the Pentagon,
Weinberger and Powell became key figures in implementing the secret
A Slippery Slope
In July 1985, Weinberger and Powell met with
McFarlane about details of the weapons shipments. Iran wanted 100 TOW
missiles to be delivered through Israel, according to Weinberger’s
notes. Reagan gave his approval, though the White House wanted the
shipments handled with “maximum compartmentalization” to prevent public
On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered the first 96 missiles to Iran.
That shipment put the Reagan administration over the legal line, in
violation of laws both requiring congressional notification for
transshipment of U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to Iran or any other
nation designated a terrorist state.
The evidence also suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in
the know. On Aug. 22, Israel notified McFarlane of the completed
shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane promptly called
When Air Force One landed
at Andrews Air Force Base, McFarlane rushed to the Pentagon to meet
Weinberger and Powell. The 40-minute meeting started at 7:30 p.m, but
the substance of the meeting remains in dispute.
McFarlane said he cited
Reagan’s approval of the missile transfer and the need to replenish
Israeli stockpiles. But Weinberger denied that account, and Powell
insisted that he had only a vague memory of the meeting.
”My recollection is that Mr. McFarlane described to the Secretary
[Weinberger] the so-called Iran Initiative and he gave to the Secretary
a sort of a history of how we got where we were that particular day and
some of the thinking that gave rise to the possibility of going forward
... and what the purposes of such an initiative would be,” Powell said
in a deposition two years later.
In a subsequent interview with the FBI, Powell said he learned at the
McFarlane meeting that there “was to be a transfer of some limited
amount of materiel” to Iran. But he did not budge on his claim that he
did not remember that the first shipment had already gone and that
replenishment of Israeli stockpiles had been promised.
Yet, it made little sense for McFarlane to hurry to the Pentagon, after
learning of the delivery and the need for replenishment, simply to
debate a future policy that, in fact, was already being implemented. The
behavior of Powell and Weinberger in the following days also suggests
that they knew an arms-for-hostage swap was under way.
According to Weinberger’s diary, he and Powell eagerly awaited hostage
releases in the following weeks. In early September 1985, Weinberger
dispatched a Pentagon emissary to meet with Iranians in Europe. At the
same time, McFarlane sent a message to Israel that the United States was
prepared to replace 500 Israeli missiles, an assurance that would have
required Weinberger’s clearance.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Israel delivered the second shipment, 408 more
missiles to Iran. The next day, one hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was
released in Beirut, Lebanon. Back at the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in
his diary a cryptic reference to “a delivery I have for our prisoners.”
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke more than a year later, Weinberger
and Powell pleaded faulty memories again. An attorney for the
congressional investigation asked Powell if he had heard of any linkage
between an arms delivery and Weir’s release. “No, I have no recollection
of that,” Powell said.
After Weir’s freedom,
Oliver North became the point man for making sure the Israeli stockpiles
“My original point of
contact was General Colin Powell, who was going directly to his
immediate superior, Secretary Weinberger,” North testified in 1987. But
in their later sworn testimony, Powell and Weinberger continued to
insist that they had no idea that 508 missiles had already been shipped
By fall 1985, however, the covert supply line was
on the verge of exposure. On Nov. 22, 1985, a panicky Oliver North
called Duane Clarridge, the CIA’s European Division chief, at home.
“Look, I got a problem,” North explained. “And it involves Portugal.”
North needed Clarridge's help to assure that Portugal would let an
Israeli plane carrying HAWK anti-aircraft missiles land in Lisbon. The
missiles were then to be transferred to another plane for shipment to
In his memoirs, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge said North lied
to him about the plane’s contents, claiming the shipment was
oil-drilling equipment. Without further checking, Clarridge said he
swung into action.
As European Division chief, he first tried
unsuccessfully to persuade the Portuguese to let the El Al plane land.
When the Portuguese refused and the plane returned to Israel, Clarridge
next arranged for a CIA proprietary, St. Lucia Airlines, to pick up
North’s cargo in Israel and fly it to Iran, with a stop in Cyprus, on
Nov. 24, 1985.
But Clarridge’s actions touched off a panic inside the CIA, where deputy
director John McMahon was furious at the degree of CIA participation.
CIA lawyers ruled that Clarridge’s intervention amounted to a covert
action needing a formal presidential finding and notification of
Reagan finally signed an intelligence finding
authorizing arms shipments to Iran on Jan. 17, 1986, but still hid it
from Congress. That same day, Weinberger handed Powell the job of
pulling the missiles from U.S. stockpiles and shipping them to Iran via
backing, Powell skirted the Pentagon’s stringent internal controls on
missile shipments to get the weapons out of the warehouses and into the
On Jan. 18, 1986, Powell instructed Gen. Max
Thurman, then acting Army chief of staff, to prepare for a transfer of
4,000 TOW anti-tank missiles. “I gave him absolutely no indication of
the destination of the missiles,” Powell later testified.
Though kept in the dark, Thurman began the process
to move the TOWs to the CIA. Powell's arrangements “bypassed the formal
[covert procedures] on the ingress line,” Thurman acknowledged in a
As Powell's strange orders rippled through the top
echelon of the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Vincent M. Russo, the assistant deputy
chief of staff for logistics, called Powell to ask about the operation.
Powell immediately went over Russo's head and
arranged for “executive instructions” to be delivered to Russo for the
first 1,000 TOW missiles.
”It was a little unusual,” commented then Army chief of staff, Gen. John
A. Wickham Jr. “All personal visit or secure phone call, nothing in
writing – because normally through the [covert logistics office] a
procedure is established so that records are kept in a much more formal
process. ...I felt very uneasy about this process. And I also felt
uneasy about the notification dimension to the Congress."
On Jan. 29, 1986, despite the lack of proper orders, 1,000 U.S. TOWs
were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and transferred to the air
field at Anniston, Alabama.
But senior Pentagon officers were getting edgy.
Maj. Christopher Simpson, who was responsible for
making the flight arrangements, later told congressional investigators
that Russo “was very uncomfortable with no paperwork to support the
mission request. He wasn't going to ‘do nothing,’ as he said, without
seeing some money. ...’no tickey, no laundry.’”
The money for the first shipment was finally deposited into a CIA
account in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 11, 1986, freeing Russo to
release the 1,000 TOWs three days later. The first direct U.S. arms
shipment to Iran was under way, with the Israelis still acting as
But inside the Pentagon, concerns grew about
Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of the mysterious
Simpson told Congress he would have rung alarm bells if he had known the
TOWs were headed to Iran. “In the three years that I had worked there, I
had been instructed ... by the leadership ... never to do anything
illegal, and I would have felt that we were doing something illegal,”
Even without knowing that the missiles were going to a terrorist state,
Simpson expressed concern about whether the requirement to notify
Congress had been met. He got advice from a Pentagon lawyer that the
1986 intelligence authorization act, which mandated “timely” notice to
Congress, had an “impact on this particular mission.”
Simpson took the issue to Russo, who obtained another opinion from the
Army general counsel that congressional notification was required. The
issue then rose to higher levels, to Secretary of the Army John Marsh.
Though still blind about the shipment's destination, the Army high
command wanted to stop the strange operation in its tracks.
At this key moment, Powell intervened with Russo.
“General Powell was asking General Russo to
reassure the secretary of the Army that notification was being handled
at the level higher than an outside-of-Department-of-Army, and that it
had been addressed and it was taken care of,” said Simpson. In fact,
Congress had not been notified.
On Feb. 25, Marsh called a meeting of senior Army officers and ordered
Russo to “tell General Powell of my concern with regard to adequate
notification being given to Congress,” Russo later testified.
Army chief of staff Wickham went even further. He demanded that a memo
on congressional notification be prepared and sent to Powell.
“The chief wanted it in writing,” recalled Army Lt.
Gen. Arthur E. Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell on March 7, 1986.
Five days later, Powell handed that memo to Reagan’s national security
adviser John Poindexter and suggested that he “handle it ... however you
plan to do it,” Powell testified.
But Poindexter's plan was to notify Congress only
on the last day of the Reagan presidency, on Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter
stuck the memo into a White House safe, along with the secret “finding.”
While the notification debate bubbled, others in
the Pentagon fretted over a possibly illegal destination for the
Col. John William McDonald, who oversaw covert
supply, objected when he learned that key Army officials had no idea
where the weapons were headed.
“One [concern] was inadvertent provision of
supplies to the [Nicaraguan] contras in violation of the Boland
Amendment,” McDonald testified. “The second issue was inadvertent supply
to countries that were on the terrorist list. ...There is a
responsibility to judge the legality of the request.”
When McDonald was asked by congressional investigators how he would have
reacted if told the weapons were going to Iran, he responded, “I would
have told General Thurman ... that I would believe that the action was
illegal and that Iran was clearly identified as one of the nations on
the terrorist list for whom we could not transfer weapons.”
But when McDonald joined other Pentagon officers in appealing to Powell,
they again were told not to worry.
Powell “reiterated [that it was] the responsibility
of the recipient” agency, the CIA, to notify Congress, “and that the
Army did not have the responsibility to do that.”
Then, in March 1986, Powell conveyed a second order for missiles, this
time for 284 HAWK missile parts and 500 HAWK missiles. But the HAWK
order would force a drawdown of U.S. supplies to a dangerous level.
Henry Gaffney, a senior supply official, warned
Powell that “you’re going to have to start tearing it out of the Army's
hide” and jeopardize U.S. readiness.
But Pentagon officials again followed the orders from Weinberger’s
military assistant. They stripped the shelves of 15 spare parts for HAWK
missiles that were protecting U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere in the
“I can only trust that
somebody who is a patriot ... and interested in the survival of this
nation ... made the decision that the national policy objectives were
worth the risk of a temporary drawdown of readiness,” commented Lt. Gen.
Peter G. Barbules.
The Iraq Tilt
As the Reagan
administration stepped up its military shipments to Iran, Weinberger
began pressing for other military equipment to go to Iraq, which was
then engaged in a bloody war with Iran. Throughout the conflict,
Weinberger had favored a U.S. “tilt” toward Iraq.
Two notations written
by Weinberger on Jan. 6, 1986, describe discussions between Weinberger
and Powell about shipments of Italian Agusta-Bell helicopters to Iraq.
”Saw Colin Powell - re Italian Agosta [sic] helicopters,” Weinberger
scrawled, “try to let them sell to Iraq.” According to the notes, Powell
returned later that day with a response. “Colin Powell,” Weinberger
wrote in a barely legible hand, “all to add [unreadable] 110 million to
get Italian helicopters.”
Though the precise context of the Weinberger-Powell discussion was
unclear – and neither man would clarify the meaning – the notes fit with
other evidence showing that Weinberger and other top Reagan
administration officials were working to ship military equipment
secretly through third countries to Iraq.
Reagan administration officials have admitted sharing military
intelligence with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq
war, but have denied arranging weapons shipments, which would have
required notifying Congress.
notification, any significant military shipment of U.S-designed
equipment would have been illegal, even if arranged through a third
Agusta, a helicopter manufacturer partly owned by the Italian
government, built aircraft from the designs of the U.S. company,
Bell-Textron, a major Pentagon contractor, so American approval would
have been required for any military transfer.
For his part, Powell made a timely exit from the
Washington scene before the Iran-Contra scandal blew up.
Having implemented the Iran arms transfers and
fended off Army complaints, he departed the Pentagon on March 16, 1986.
Powell took command of V Corps in West Germany, ironically troops whose
air defenses had just been compromised by the drawdown in HAWK missiles
and spare parts.
The Iran arms sales
were finally exposed in November 1986, touching off the Iran-Contra
Affair. Yet the initial investigations by a special presidential
commission and a joint House-Senate committee failed to get to the
bottom of the scandal, in part, because Weinberger hid his diaries from
Then, in 1991,
investigators working for Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh
stumbled upon Weinberger's long-lost notes
filed away in a corner of the Library of Congress.
Among those papers was a
note dated Oct. 3, 1985, indicating that Weinberger had received
information from a National Security Agency intercept that Iran was
receiving “arms transfers.”
The belated discovery of
Weinberger's diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment
for perjury and obstruction. His trial was scheduled to start in January
1993, with Powell listed as a prospective witness.
If he testified, Powell would have been
maneuvering through a legal mine field created by his unlikely claims of
ignorance about the illegal Iran weapons in 1985. If evidence emerged
demonstrating what seemed most likely – that Powell and Weinberger both
knew about the 1985 shipments – Powell could have faced questions about
his own credibility and possibly charges of false testimony.
So, in late 1992, Powell
joined an intense lobbying campaign to convince President George H.W.
Bush to pardon Weinberger.
The President had his own
reasons to go along. Bush’s insistence that he was “not in the loop” on
Iran-Contra had been undermined by the Weinberger documents, damaging
Bush’s reelection campaign when they were released only days before
So, on Christmas Eve
1992, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants.
The pardons effectively
brought the Iran-Contra probe to a close and, in so doing,
altered the course of American history.