Reagan-myth worshipers would prefer to erase from the national conscious and conscience the embarrassing events of the final years of his second term, especially the entire Iran-Contra affair. It was, for a lot of people, yet another case of a Republican administration getting caught up in another humiliating scandal. In many ways, the Iran-Contra affair went far beyond anything seen in the Watergate hearings.
The threat of another Cuba had preoccupied the Reagan administration and, with the openly declared mission of the Nicaraguan Marxist regime to spread revolution throughout the region, the policy had been to arm and train right wing insurgent militias called the Contras.
However, direct funding of this insurgency was made illegal through the Boland Amendment -the name given to three U.S. legislative amendments between 1982 and 1984, all aimed at limiting US government assistance to the Contras militants.
In order to circumvent these laws, senior officials of the Reagan administration decided to continue arming and training the Contras secretly and in violation of the law as enacted in the Boland Amendment. Senior Reagan administration officials started what they came to call “the Enterprise.”
Additionally, in order to raise funds- obviously everything had to be “off the books”- another scheme was devised to finance their illegal funding of the Contras insurgency. At that time, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, one of our allies, had launched into a bloody war against Iran. Arm sales to Iran, a violation of the official US policy of an arms embargo, were established, initially through third parties and then directly, and the profits were funneled into funding for the Contras. (That is the shortest possible version.)
Eventually, as could have been expected, the whole thing, blew up in everybody’s faces. The Democratic-controlled Congress was enraged by the administration’s lies and conducted a bi-partisan investigation.
People forget and people forgive, but mostly they forget. However, I do recall North’s six-day appearance before the a special joint House and Senate investigating committee investigating Iran-Contra events. He was for a lot of viewers one of the stars in what seemed to be a tiresome redux of Watergate. All summer long the hearings appeared on daytime television, like a third rate sumer stock production of an obscure historical tragedy.
Political bias along party lines was painfully clear. One one side, a group of white haired pale faced men made long monotone speeches that somehow became questions at the last moment. On the other side, another pale face, accompanied by a whispering lawyer, would usually answer, “I can’t recall that, Senator.” All the events seemed practiced and self-serving. Nobody seemed very interested in either asking the right questions or giving the honest answers. A sad spectacle, in every sense of the word.
Then along came Oliver North, the dashing ex-Marine, in full military regalia, a stamp collection of medals over his heart. Handsome and well-spoken, he oozed charisma and patriotism. This was a hero, people remarked at the time. When he spoke, it was difficult not to be moved. Unlike so many of those that testified before him, North appeared committed to his mission and stood proudly to defend his noble ideals. Based only on appearance, North was a hero in the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet, as details emerged from a closer committee examination, things were not nearly as black and white as they initially appeared.
Lt. Colonel North freely admitted that he had shredded documents, lied to Congress and falsified official records. Such seeming forthrightness was courageous and admirable. In a weird mix of political spin and legalese, North told the committee, “I was provided with additional input that was radically different from the truth. I assisted in furthering that version.”
Which meant.. what?
On the final day of North’s appearance before Congress, Senator George Mitchell gave North an impressive dressing down. It is definitely recommended viewing. In the clip, North remains stoic, wisely keeping his mouth closed. If you are observant, you might catch a younger Richard Cheney of Wyoming, who praised Colonel North as “the most effective and impressive witness certainly this committee has heard.”
The final opinion of the committee was not at all favorable to President Reagan. With the sharp criticism of the president, the report concluded that a “cabal of zealots” in the administration had managed to take control of key aspects of foreign policy. Among the targets of the criticism were Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the former National Security Council aide; Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, the president’s former national security adviser; William J. Casey, the former director of central intelligence; and Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
Despite strong condemnation in the final report on the Iran-Contra Scandal. for a number of House Republicans, North was, and is still today, unquestionably a hero. Sean Wilentz points out in a New York Times’ op-ed piece:.
At the conclusion of the hearings, a dissenting minority report codified these views. The report’s chief author was a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael J. Malbin, who was chosen by Mr. Cheney as a member of the committee’s minority staff. Another member of the minority’s legal staff, David S. Addington, was later the vice president’s chief of staff.
The minority report stressed the charge that the inquiry was a sham, calling the majority report’s allegations of serious White House abuses of power “hysterical.” The minority admitted that mistakes were made in the Iran-contra affair but laid the blame for them chiefly on a Congress that failed to give consistent aid to the Nicaraguan contras and then overstepped its bounds by trying to restrain the White House.
The Reagan administration, according to the report, had erred by failing to offer a stronger, principled defense of what Mr. Cheney and others considered its full constitutional powers. Not only did the report defend lawbreaking by White House officials; it condemned Congress for having passed the laws in the first place.
Like so much of the Neo-conservative rhetoric, tin the dissenting report was much picking and choosing of statements made by founding fathers to give weight to their argument. For example, a bit of the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton’s remarks endorsing “energy in the executive” gave an aura of approval. If anything, according to the dissenting minority report, the powers of president should be less restrained and limited by the legal restrictions imposed by Congress. As Wilentz notes:.
Hamilton certainly desired a strong executive, but warned that it would be “utterly unsafe and improper” to give a president complete control over foreign policy…
In truth, as Mr. Cheney has also remarked, the struggle for him began much earlier, during the Nixon administration. A business partner says that Mr. Cheney told him that Watergate was merely “a political ploy by the president’s enemies.” For Mr. Cheney, the scandal was not Richard Nixon’s design for an imperial presidency but the Democrats’ drive for an imperial Congress.
Still, Mr. Cheney’s quest to accumulate unaccountable executive power — a quest that has received much attention of late — took a major turn 20 years ago. And part of Iran-contra’s legacy has now become a legacy of the Bush-Cheney administration.
The Federalist Papers, incidentally, have a great deal of interesting things to say about the potential for governmental abuse of power, such as, “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Those are, of course, excerpts that Dick Cheney would have skimmed.
Madison also warned against another kind of threat to the republic which would relate to North’s later career. In Federalist No. 10, for example, in answer to Hamilton, Madison warned against the the destructive role of faction in breaking apart the republic. He defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He identifies the most serious source of faction to be the diversity of opinion in political life which leads to dispute over fundamental issues such as what regime or religion should be preferred.
Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
James Madison, November 22, 1787
In any case, in the minority report, we can see, perhaps, an unheeded warning for the future. For in different Republican administration, it was precisely this disdain of oversight and contempt for Congress- and the Constitution- that was to led to the abuse of the Bush II administration, with Cheney presiding.
Mr. North was eventually convicted of three federal felonies — receiving an illegal payment, obstruction of a Congressional inquiry and destroying official documents, although an appellate court held that his testimony delivered under Congressional immunity may have affected jurors and reversed one conviction.
According to a New York times article Mr. North, the former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and National Security Council aide, was convicted of destroying documents, accepting the gift of a $13,800 home security system and abetting the obstruction of Congress. [Federal District] Judge Gesell could have imposed a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and fines of $750,000. Instead, he imposed a $150,000 fine, two years of probation, a three-year suspended sentence and an order to perform 1,200 hours of community service.
The decision was, no doubt, a sound political move. A campaign had been underway for a presidential pardon which would have put then president George Bush, Sr. in a particularly difficult situation. George Bush I, vice president for Reagan, along with others in the Reagan cabinet, had been the prime backers in the arms for hostages plan. No doubt Bush was delighted and relieved. Yet this decision was proof enough for most people that justice, according to the Far Right, was only an admirable but flexible ideal.
In fact, president George Bush, Sr., formerly vice- president during the operation, would later go on to pardon Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger. along with five other Iran/contra defendants.
The Weinberger pardon marked the first time a President ever pardoned someone in whose trial he might have been called as a witness, because the President was knowledgeable of factual events underlying the case. Apparently the prevailing notion was: some things are just too important to leave for justice to decide .
With each Republican cycle, the scope of the abuse of power seems to grow larger and affect more innocent lives. If Watergate was a sordid tale of a bungled burglary, Iran-Contra was a pathetic account of a bungled covert operation, and so many of the same players returned for the next act, in a deadly serious performance of a bungled war. Isn’t it only fair to ask what the next bit of theater will be? A bungled overthrow of the government? A bungled Armageddon?
On April 7, 2009, “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” a report, issued by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security warned against a resurgence of right-wing extremism. According to its definition,
The report also warned:
“The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.”
Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of right-wing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government. The high volume of purchases and stockpiling of weapons and ammunition by right-wing extremists in anticipation of restrictions and bans in some parts of the country continue to be a primary concern to law enforcement.
Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to right-wing extremists. DHS/ I & A is concerned that righ-twing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.
Race was also mentioned in the report.
“In addition, the historical election of an African American president and the prospect of policy changes are proving to be a driving force for right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization.”
In a 2009 article on his Freedom Alliance website, North was personally offended and strongly objected to labeled the “right-wing extremist” category. According to its definition, he remarked he would be classified as an extremist:
“According to the U.S. Government, I am an extremist. I am a Christian – and meet regularly with other Christians to study God’s word. My faith convinces me the prophesies in the Holy Bible are true. I believe in the sanctity of human life, oppose abortion and want to preserve marriage as the union of a man and a woman. I am a veteran with skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. I own several firearms, frequently shoot them, buy ammunition and consider efforts to infringe on my 2nd Amendment rights to be wrong and unconstitutional. I fervently support the sovereignty of the United States, am deeply concerned about our economy, increasingly higher taxes, illegal immigration, soaring unemployment, and actions by our government that will bury my children beneath a mountain of debt.”
He concludes with this rather cheap shot:
“Mr. Obama should publicly disavow this report and fire the officials responsible for issuing it. Those who prepare his remarks for the occasion should insert in the teleprompter, Senator Barry Goldwater’s words on the subject: ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’”
On a radio talk show with Randi Rhodes, North himself appeared to have swallowed his own revisionist history of the Iran-Contra events when he claimed “No-one even charged me of lying to Congress” Rhodes immediately pointed out that according to the Report of the Independent Counsel:
“Count One: The indictment charged that North and McFarlane obstructed Congress by falsely denying in three letters North’s contra- assistance efforts.
“Counts Two, Three, and Four: False statements to Congress, charging specific misrepresentations in the three letters described in Count One.”
Later he would tell listeners that “Lawrence Walsh had every record from my office, he had absolutely everything.” Again the report by Independent Counsel prove the contrary.
Perhaps most outrageously, North refutes all the allegations against him despite the record.
Oliver North: “No-one ever convicted of me of lying to Congress”
Randi Rhodes: “You were convicted in a court of law”
Oliver North: “I am denying it”
Report of the Independent Counsel:
“On May 4, 1989, he was found guilty of three counts, including aiding and abetting obstruction of Congress, shredding and altering official documents, and accepting an illegal gratuity from Secord.”
Such confabulations shouldn’t surprise anybody when the interview begins with a statement from North as, “Randi, Randi, one of the reasons why liberals don’t make it in radio is they can’t tell the truth. First of all….”
According to the San Jose Mercury News Gary Webb’s expose and subsequent book Dark Alliance: the CIA, the contras, and the crack cocaine explosion cites the Kerry report on the connections between terrorism and drugs the CIA was aware of the cocaine transactions and the large shipments of drugs into the U.S. by Contra personnel. Webb charged that the Reagan administration shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to raise money for the Contras, especially after Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited direct Contra funding.
In 1987, the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations began an investigation focusing on allegations received by the subcommittee chairman, Senator John Kerry, concerning illegal gun-running and narcotics trafficking associated with the Contras. A two-year investigation produced a 1,166-page report in 1989 analyzing the involvement of Contra groups and supporters in drug trafficking, and the role of United States government officials in these activities. Allegations of cocaine trafficking by Contras also arose during the investigation conducted by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh into the Iran-Contra affair. Drug trafficking allegations, however, were not the focus of that inquiry and the Walsh report included no findings on these allegations.
The Kerry Report was, in fact, a well-researched and scathing document which established a clear relationship between high level officials in government and drug cartels. Among the allegations, here are a few as stated in the introduction of the report which seem particularly relevant.
We also found out that the State Department chose four companies controlled by drug traffickers to provide assistance to the Contras. As a result, drug traffickers got funds out of the United States public treasury as part of our Contra humanitarian assistance program.
We were told by the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency that someone at the National Security Counsel leaked information on a DEA drug sting operation against the Sandinistas in order to influence a congressional vote on Contra aid, causing the operation to abort.
After the Gary Webb report in the Mercury News, the CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz was assigned to investigate these allegations in 1996. Although the investigators promised to release their report in three months, it was only pressure by both the Washington Post and New York Times, that news stated that Hitz had found no “direct of indirect” connection between the CIA and cocaine traffickers.
When the report was finally the release, much of the controversy had dissolved. The implications of the report were virtually ignored by the media. According to the book, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, by authors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, the Hitz report described a cable from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations dated October 22, 1982, describing a prospective meeting between Contra leaders in Costa Rica for “an exchange in [the United States] of narcotics for arms, which then are shipped to Nicaragua.” The two main Contra groups, US arms dealers, and a lieutenant of a drug ring which imported drugs from Latin America to the US west coast were set to attend the Costa Rica meeting. The lieutenant trafficker was also a Contra, and the CIA knew that there was an arms-for-drugs shuttle and did nothing to stop it.
The United States was not the only nation investigating North’s involvement with shady organizations. For example, in the second report by the Costa Rican Assembly’s Commission on Narcotics Trafficking, an examination of the explosion of cocaine and drug trafficking in during the 1980s, the commission recommended that that former ambassador Lewis Tambs, CIA station chief Joseph F. Fernandez, and Lt. Col. Oliver North be forever denied entry in Costa Rica, a recommendation adopted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
North ran unsuccessfully as a Republican Senate candidate in Virginia. On the eve of the election, former first lady Nancy Reagan told a reporter that North had lied to her husband when discussing Iran-Contra with the former president, effectively stopping his campaign.
In this current Wonderland of Republican politics, who knows whether Palin might not choose him as her running mate? Given the respective characters at play, there is a kind of warped logic about it.
North has penned several books, fiction and non-fiction (though many reviewers wouldn’t care to distinguish one from the other). It has been a gradual but steady rehabilitation of his image with the kind assistance of his Fox Friends.
In past years, with his pal Sean Hannity, he has helped organize and is the honorary chairman for the Freedom Alliance, whose mission, according to its website, “is to advance the American heritage of freedom by honoring and encouraging military service, defending the sovereignty of the United States and promoting a strong national defense.”
Freedom Alliance , a 501(c)3 educational and charitable foundation, was founded in 1990 by Lt.Col Oliver L. North, who now serves as the organization’s honorary chairman. We will work to “keep America strong, keep America prosperous, and keep America free,” said North upon the founding of Freedom Alliance.
For the last several years, Sean Hannity and the Freedom Alliance “charity” have conducted “Freedom Concerts” across America. The organization is raises funds for scholarships for the children of fallen soldiers and to pay severely wounded war vets. However, ultra-conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel charged that entire arrangement was nothing more than a scam.
In fact, less than 20%–and in two recent years, less than 7% and 4%, respectively–of the money raised by Freedom Alliance went to these causes, while millions of dollars went to expenses, including consultants and apparently to ferry the Hannity posse of family and friends in high style. And, despite Hannity’s statements to the contrary on his nationally syndicated radio show, few of the children of fallen soldiers got more than $1,000-$2,000, with apparently none getting more than $6,000, while Freedom Alliance appears to have spent tens of thousands of dollars for private planes. Moreover, despite written assurances to donors that all money raised would go directly to scholarships for kids of the fallen heroes and not to expenses, has begun charging expenses of nearly $500,000 to give out just over $800,000 in scholarships.
Freedom Alliance has strongly denied such allegations, calling them “false and malicious.”
His last book, American Heroes he wrote “first hand accounts of faithful American heroes in the fight against global terrorism and jihad.” Interestingly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, the book shares a copyright with Fox.
He has a comfortable life, I am sure, a warm home and a large family. North has four children, eleven grandchildren, and lives with his wife in Virginia.
He has plenty of people to share his thoughts with and a warm blanket. He is able to come and go as he pleases, and he has the luxury of choosing his meals. Whenever he wishes, he can step outside and look at the sky.
Not so far away from this decorated hero’s Virginia home, however, in a Quantico prison, there is another soldier who is considered a hero by many. And, not unlike Oliver North, many consider him a traitor who betrayed his country. Without standing trial or without being convicted, Bradley Manning has already served more time in prison than Oliver North. Many patriotic Americans have condemned Manning. It is, for them, a clear case; Manning swore an oath and he broke that oath, a crime that Oliver North shares with Manning.
North, at the commencement of his testimony before the Congressional hearings back in 1986, boldly stated something Bradley Manning might well have said, “I am here to accept responsibility for that which I did. I will not accept responsibility for that which I did not do. I came here to tell you the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly. I never considered myself a fall guy. I know what I did. I know why I did it. I’m not ashamed of it.”
However, the obvious difference between Manning and North is that North made this noble declaration, not facing life in prison or a firing squad and not in solitary confinement, but under a grant of immunity. Given Lt. Col. North’s Fifth amendment objections when subpoenaed, the only way to obtain his testimony was to compel it through a grant of use immunity. Despite the fact that North was the target of an a criminal investigation, It was felt that without his testimony the record would have been incomplete. Nothing he told Congress would, or could, be used against him in a criminal proceeding. Being honest, therefore, would cost him nothing.
Under those circumstances,. it’s fairly easy to be a hero.
This week, the military brought 22 new charges – including one that carries the death penalty – against Pfc. Bradley E. Manning. That capital offense, according to the statement that outlined the 22 charges, was aiding and abetting the enemy- although it was not clear who the proposed enemy was. Presumably, the rest of the world.
While military prosecutors have recommended life in prison instead, “the presiding military judge would have the authority to dismiss the prosecution’s recommendation and impose the death penalty,” according to NBC.
Manning stated in his private chats to an informer, “God knows what happens now.. hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. If not… than we’re doomed.. as a species. I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens. I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
“But I am a big believer in technology and I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves.”