The Consortium

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

Battling for the White House, Bob Dole has recruited Colin Powell as a kind of third member of the Dole-Kemp ticket, a pre-announced secretary of state in a prospective Republican administration. No doubt, the retired general gives the GOP star power. But Powell's celebrity also obscures his actual public record.

It is almost unknown, for instance, that the disastrous Iran-contra scandal might never have happened -- or would likely have been stopped much sooner -- except for the work of Colin Powell. In early 1986, it was Powell who short-circuited the Pentagon covert procurement system that otherwise would have alerted the military brass that thousands of missiles were headed to Iran, a terrorist state.

Powell, then-assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, used his bureaucratic skills to circumvent normal procedures and slip the missiles out of U.S. Army inventories. At the Pentagon, some senior officers protested that one shipment endangered U.S. security, by giving Iran all the spare parts for the HAWK anti-aircraft missiles.

After the Iran-contra scandal broke in fall 1986, Powell portrayed himself as a bit player who was just following orders. But a different picture emerges from the public record, including thousands of pages from depositions of Pentagon officials, who pointed to Powell as the key Iran-contra action officer within the Defense Department.

In their testimony and memoirs, Powell and Weinberger said they minimized the Pentagon's role, by delivering the missiles to the CIA under the Economy Act, which regulates transfers between government agencies. "We treated the TOW transfer like garbage to be gotten out of the house quickly," Powell wrote in My American Journey.

But the Economy Act argument was disingenuous at best, because the Pentagon always uses the Economy Act when it moves weapons to the CIA. Powell's account also obscured his unusual actions in arranging the shipments without giving senior officers the information that Pentagon procedures required, even on sensitive covert activities.

The Assignment

Weinberger handed Powell the job of shipping the missiles on Jan. 17, 1986, the day Reagan signed a formal authorization to pull arms from U.S. stockpiles and ship them to Iran, via Israel. 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 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. "The first shipment is made without a complete wring-out through all of the procedural steps."

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, the first 1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and transferred to the air field at Anniston, Ala. But senior Pentagon officers were getting edgy. Maj. Christopher Simpson, who was responsible for making the flight arrangements, told Congress that Russo "was very uncomfortable with no paperwork to support the mission request. He wasn't going to 'do nothin', 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 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 middlemen. But inside the Pentagon, concerns grew about Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of the mysterious recipient.

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 notification was required. The issue then rose to the highest 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. According to Russo's notes, "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. Marsh also instructed Russo to keep a careful chronology of events.

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 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 that internal debate bubbled, others in the Pentagon fretted over a possibly illegal destination for the missiles. 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, another concern arose. 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 the Pentagon again followed Powell's orders and stripped its shelves of 15 spare parts for HAWK missiles that were protecting U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere in the world. "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," complained Lt. Gen. Peter G. Barbules.

As the storm clouds built, Colin Powell made a timely exit from the Iran-contra scene. Having implemented the 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.

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

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