The Consortium

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

In 1984-85, as the Iran-contra storm clouds began to build, one-star Gen. Colin Powell was the "filter" for information flowing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. It would be what knowledge flowed through that "filter" that investigators would try to determine years later -- a mystery still relevant as Powell's political star rises and his importance to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign grows.

When Iran-contra broke in 1986-87, Powell would claim to know next to nothing about unlawful 1985 shipments of U.S. weapons from Israel to Iran -- or about illegal third-country financing of the Nicaraguan contra rebels. But was the general lying? The documentary record made clear certainly that his boss, Weinberger, knew a great deal.

Weinberger, a close adviser to President Reagan, was one of the first officials outside the White House to learn that Reagan had put the arm on Saudi Arabia to give the contras $1 million a month in 1984, as Congress cut off aid. Like Weinberger, Powell was a very close friend to Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador who handled that transaction. Powell and Bandar, who had met in the 1970s, were frequent tennis partners.

But exactly when Weinberger learned of the Saudi contributions and what he told Powell are still not clear. On June 20, 1984, Weinberger attended a State Department meeting on the contras, and his scribbled notes cited the need to "plan for other sources for $." But secrecy would be vital, the defense secretary understood. "Keep US fingerprints off," he wrote.

Over the summer, Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned from a foreign visitor about the Saudi money and passed on word to the defense secretary. "I reported it to Secretary Weinberger," Vessey said in a deposition. "His reaction was about the same as mine, sort of surprise first that <[>Saudi Arabia] would do it."

In 1985, when the Saudis doubled their annual contra gift from $12 million to $25 million, Vessey quickly passed on word to his boss. "Jack Vessey in office alone," Weinberger wrote on March 13, 1985. "Bandar is giving $25 million to Contras -- so all we need is non-lethal aid."

Dangerous Lands

Meanwhile, the White House was maneuvering into dangerous territory, too, in its policy toward Iran. The Israelis were interested in trading U.S. weapons to Iran to gain a strategic foothold in that Middle Eastern country -- and to enlist Iran's help in freeing American hostages in Lebanon.

Carrying the water for the Iran opening was national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who circulated a draft presidential order in late spring 1985. As always, the paper passed through Weinberger's "filter," Colin Powell. In his memoirs, Powell called the proposal "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." Ironically, on the same day the Iran paper went out, Reagan declared that the United States would give no quarter to terrorism. "Let me further make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists," Reagan declared.

But in July 1985, Weinberger, Powell and McFarlane were actively meeting on details to do just that. Iran wanted 100 anti-tank TOW missiles that would 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 disclosure.

On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered the first 96 missiles to Iran, a pivotal moment for the Reagan administration. That missile 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. Violation of either statute could be a felony and an impeachable offense.

The available evidence from that period also suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop on the operation, even though they may have opposed the policy. On Aug. 22, two days later, Israel notified McFarlane of the completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane promptly called Weinberger.

A Mystery Meeting

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 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.

Congressional attorney Joseph Saba asked Powell if McFarlane had mentioned that Israel already had supplied weapons to Iran. "I don't recall specifically," Powell answered vaguely. "I just don't recall." When Saba asked about any notes, Powell responded, "there were none on our side."

In a later interview with the FBI, Powell said he learned at that 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 had been promised.

This claim of only prospective knowledge would be key to Powell's Iran-contra defense. But 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 suggested that they knew an arms-for-hostage swap was under way.

According to Weinberger's diary, he and Powell eagerly awaited hostage release in 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. Back at the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in his diary a cryptic reference to "a delivery I have for our prisoners."

But when the Iran-contra scandal broke more than a year later, Weinberger and Powell would plead faulty memories again. Saba 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 answered.

After Weir's freedom, the job of replenishing the Israel stockpile fell to White House aide Oliver North. "My original point of contact was General Colin Powell, who was going directly to his immediate superior, Secretary Weinberger," North would testify in 1987. But in their later sworn testimony, Powell and Weinberger would continue to insist that they had no idea that 508 missiles had already been shipped.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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