Republican Anniversary of the Week: Iran-Contra

Now that reports of Iranians storming embassies indicate that our national newspapers of record have been permitted to shake up the normal somnolence of their readers, an optimist might wonder if any aspiring journo would dare to mention the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Iran-Contra scandal. Few Balloon-Juice readers are optimists, but it did surprise me slightly how much the whole disgraceful interlude seems to have passed from the national public memory. Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archives, published an excellent precis in Salon:

It has been 25 years since President Ronald Reagan stepped up to the microphone in the White House press room and made the announcement that launched one of the greatest scandals in modern American politics.
__
Reagan announced that his administration had sent “small amounts of defense weapons and spare parts to Iran” not to trade arms for hostages, but to improve relations and support moderate mullahs. There was “one aspect” of the operation that, the President said, he had been “unaware of.” His attorney general, Edwin Meese, then stepped forward to describe how “private benefactors” had transferred profits from those sales to counterrevolutionary forces, the contras, fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. No U.S. officials were involved, according to Meese, in this “diversion” of funds that linked two seemingly separate covert operations…
__
The list of the “other… more important ” aspects of the sordid story that became known as “Iran-contra” scandal is a long one but worth recalling 25 years later. The Reagan administration had been negotiating with terrorists (despite Reagan’s repeated public position that he would “never” do so). There were illegal arms transfers to Iran, flagrant lying to Congress, soliciting third country funding to circumvent the Congressional ban on financing the contra war in Nicaragua, White House bribes to various generals in Honduras, illegal propaganda and psychological operations directed by the CIA against the U.S. press and public, collaboration with drug kingpins such as Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and violating the checks and balances of the constitution.
__
“If ever the constitutional democracy of the United States is overthrow,” the leading political analyst of the scandal, Theodore Draper wrote at the time, “we now have a better idea of how this is likely to be done.”…

__

Charles P. Pierce, in Esquire‘s Political Blog, nicely summarizes the “lost opportunities of Iran-Contra“:

… Iran-Contra was a straightforward constitutional B&E. The Reagan people wanted to fight a war in Central America. Congress did its constitutional duty and shut off the money. The administration then broke the law by arranging private funding for its pet war. One of the ways it did that was to sell military hardware to the government of Iran, which sponsored not only terrorism, but also the kidnapping of various American citizens abroad. All of this was in service to a private foreign policy, devoid of checks and balances, and based on a fundamental contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law…
__
Iran-Contra was the moment when the country decided — or, alternatively, when it was decided for the country — that self-government was too damned hard, and that we’re all better off just not knowing. It was the moment when all the checks and balances failed, when our faith in the Constitution was most sorely tested, and when it was found most seriously wanting. Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible. It is when the Constitution became a puppet show.

I was in my mid-20s then, old enough to understand the depths of Republican treason and dishonesty exposed by the Walsh investigation, and young enough to be outraged by the unseemly haste by which both wings of the Permanent Government Party and its media courtiers swept all evidence of global criminality out of the public eye. Mistakes were made! Honorable men — opinions differ! And yet even the truncated clown-show proceedings permitted to enter the official records established, to me, what prosecutors call “a pattern of misconduct”: One October Surprise might be dismissed as the abberation of a paranoid drunk misleading a band of well-meaning innocents, but repeating Nixon’s ‘mastercoup’– putting American lives at risk for nothing more valuable than a presidential campaign — made it clear that the Republican Party was deliberately degenerating from a political party into a criminal junta. I have always been a proud Democrat, but it was the whole sordid, murderous Iran-Contra scandal which convinced me that (to quote Driftglass and the Rude Pundit):

Anyone who votes for a modern Republican is voting for a Bad Person.

57 replies
  1. 1
    Tone In DC says:

    Amen.
    I remember those hearings. The lies and lack of any accountability (or shame) made me positively furious.

  2. 2
    smintheus says:

    In retrospect it seems more like a one-two punch to constitutional government. First came the failure to properly investigate and impeach the president over Iran-Contra. Then came the failure to properly investigate and impeach the next president over the October Surprise affair.

  3. 3
    Benjamin Franklin says:

    Republicans are the best ever, at Plausible Denialism. They still relish
    Ollie North’s cock-slapping of the Rule of Law. It’s always partisan, with the Republicans. They epitomize; ‘End justifies means’.

  4. 4
    feebog says:

    Just posted the Charley Pierce link on my facebook page. Time to remind everyone just what a corrupt enterprise the entire Reagan administration was.

  5. 5
    Soonergrunt says:

    I watched the Iran-Contra hearings on television that summer after injuring my hand and being unable to get a summer job. I was sixteen. It was my political awakening, and I have been a (fairly) liberal Democrat ever since then.

  6. 6
    El Tiburon says:

    I was a young teenager and very apolitical. But damn, those hearings were good day-time fodder.

    My one recollection was Oliver North’s attorney, Brandon Sullivan (I think that was his name) was being grilled by some crazy-haired democrat about something. The congressman kept trying to get Sullivan to butt out.

    Finally, Sullivan blasted, “What am I? A potted plant?” At the time I had no real idea who the good and bad guys were, just that I liked Brandon Sullivan.

    Oh, to be young and dumb and full of piss and vinegary.

  7. 7
    El Tiburon says:

    @Soonergrunt:
    I was thinking it was summertime which explains why I had the time to watch. I’m sure back then, especially where I lived out in the country, we didn’t have cable TV so these hearings beat soaps.

  8. 8
    Mike in NC says:

    Failed media sez: “But both sides do it!”

  9. 9
    Tone In DC says:

    @El Tiburon:

    North never gave a straight answer (or much of an answer at all) during those hearings, as I recall.

    Poindexter’s memory was almost as bad as Scooter Libby’s a few years ago.

  10. 10
    EconWatcher says:

    I have to say, that old scandal seems almost quaint when you consider what was done to the Constituion–mostly openly and in plain view–during the W administration.

    Yes, they created a slush fund through ugly dealings to bypass Congress in Iran-Contra, and that was both ilegal and dangerous to Democratic government. But how does that compare to claiming that any American citizen can be seized on American soil and held indefinitely, with no lawyer and no charges, if the President in his unreviewable discretion utters two words(“unlawful combatant”).

    It’s all piker’s stuff compared to that.

  11. 11
    Mnemosyne says:

    The mythos remains that Ollie North got off because “the people” loved him when they saw him on TV, but that’s not actually true — when they did polls, a majority of Americans thought that North was lying.

    What happened was that the media loved him, and they worked hard to get him exonerated. To me, that was one of the first times the media jumped into the arms of the Republicans, and they’ve never left.

  12. 12
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    I was in my twenties as well. I was of course outraged, and wondered whether that was an overreaction, based on the general attitude of so many, and the media coverage. I remember my father, then in his 70s, telling me “Iran Contra makes Watergate look like a tea party by comparison.” That’s when I knew it was really a big fucking deal, that was just minimized by the VSPs.

  13. 13
    Regnad Kcin says:

    it wasn’t the lying; it was the “well, so what, anyways it’s good for USA USA USA USA #1” when caught red-handed.

    and us, caught without any Joseph Nye Welch that day…

  14. 14

    I was a 16-year-old who still believed he was a Republican. After SDI, Iran-Contra was one of the earliest cracks in that facade for me.

  15. 15
    C Nelson Reilly says:

    Experts agree: Meese is a pig

  16. 16
    Soonergrunt says:

    @Mnemosyne: well, that, and he took an immunity bath. His smart lawyer got him immunity for anything he might say to the committee, and then he basically admitted to or touched on everything having to do with the whole sordid affair. It only looked like he was falling on his sword for his president.

  17. 17
    Soonergrunt says:

    @Cris (without an H): I thought I was a republican then because everybody was supposed to be a republican and because it pissed my parents off.
    Then I got a good look, for hours every day, for weeks at a time, at who and what republicans really are.

  18. 18
    El Tiburon says:

    @Soonergrunt:

    I thought I was a republican then because everybody was supposed to be a republican and because it pissed my parents off.

    This would be a good topic one day: a brief telling of our political awakenings.

    You are welcome.

  19. 19
    k488 says:

    I remember Iran/Contra well (a cake shaped like a key?!?), and I remember Watergate well. And bad as the latter was (and it was bad), the former struck me as much worse, while the consequences seemed far less…consequential. We’ve progressed (or regressed) further in both domains through my life-time, with the W years, Abu Graib, torture, and so on. The worse things get, the less accountability seems to play any meaningful role.

  20. 20
    ChrisB says:

    All I remember about Iran-Contra is that Oliver North was a hero.

    How else would he have gotten his own TV show?

  21. 21
    Irony Abounds says:

    I’ve never been comfortable identifying with the Democrats. It’s just that the Republican Party since 1964 has become such a collection of loathsome creatures that I get sick to my stomach thinking about what will happen if they control Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court after 2012. I really need to register as part of the Anti-Republican Party.

  22. 22
    Sad_Dem says:

    My brother was married to a genuine Ollie North supporter at the time. Not for long. The whole post is on the money, along with Mnemosyne’s observation that the media lied on behalf of the Republicans by constantly telling us that Ollie was wildly popular. He had his supporters, but most people saw him for what he was.

  23. 23
    piratedan says:

    ot:

    http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.co.....gistration

    and on topic….. how dare you question the actions of these American patriots! Freedom!

  24. 24
    El Cid says:

    Also, the bipartisan coverup of the Office of Public Diplomacy, whose work was so useful in pushing the Iraq war. (“Pushing”, though not necessarily against much resistance, given their ever-willing accomplices running the billion-dollar media.)

    As historians ponder George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency, they may wonder how Republicans perfected a propaganda system that could fool tens of millions of Americans, intimidate Democrats, and transform the vaunted Washington press corps from watchdogs to lapdogs.
    __
    To understand this extraordinary development, historians might want to look back at the 1980s and examine the Iran-Contra scandal’s “lost chapter,” a narrative describing how Ronald Reagan’s administration brought CIA tactics to bear domestically to reshape the way Americans perceived the world.
    __
    That chapter – which we [at Consortium News] are publishing here for the first time – was “lost” because Republicans on the congressional Iran-Contra investigation waged a rear-guard fight that traded elimination of the chapter’s key findings for the votes of three moderate GOP senators, giving the final report a patina of bipartisanship.
    __
    Under that compromise, a few segments of the draft chapter were inserted in the final report’s Executive Summary and in another section on White House private fundraising, but the chapter’s conclusions and its detailed account of how the “perception management” operation worked ended up on the editing room floor.
    __
    The American people thus were spared the chapter’s troubling finding: that the Reagan administration had built a domestic covert propaganda apparatus managed by a CIA propaganda and disinformation specialist working out of the National Security Council.
    __
    “One of the CIA’s most senior covert action operators was sent to the NSC in 1983 by CIA Director [William] Casey where he participated in the creation of an inter-agency public diplomacy mechanism that included the use of seasoned intelligence specialists,” the chapter’s conclusion stated.
    __
    “This public/private network set out to accomplish what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might attempt – to sway the media, the Congress, and American public opinion in the direction of the Reagan administration’s policies.”
    __
    However, with the chapter’s key findings deleted, the right-wing domestic propaganda operation not only survived the Iran-Contra fallout but thrived.

  25. 25
    Catsy says:

    @ChrisB:

    All I remember about Iran-Contra is that Oliver North was a hero.

    And you can reliably calibrate the value of anyone’s opinions on rule of law, patriotism, national security or ethics based on whether or not they still believe that.

  26. 26
    JGabriel says:

    Charles Pierce:

    Iran-Contra … was the moment when all the checks and balances failed, when our faith in the Constitution was most sorely tested, and when it was found most seriously wanting. Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible. It is when the Constitution became a puppet show.

    In a similar vein, I always think of Iran-Contra as the moment after Watergate when the Republicans said to themselves, “Let’s try this again … Holy Fuck, it worked! The country barely said ‘Jack Boo’. Let’s keep doing that!”

    Edited to Add:

    But.

    At least Congress held hearings and tried to get people prosecuted in Iran Contra. The Bush Torture Regimen is when Congress completely gave up the ghost and stopped trying.

    .

  27. 27
    Benjamin Franklin says:

    “However, with the chapter’s key findings deleted, the right-wing domestic propaganda operation not only survived the Iran-Contra fallout but thrived.”

    Indeed. When you invoke Watergate (—silence) because there was actual consequences, notwithstanding jail-time. Iran Contra had no consequences;
    ergo…..no problema……

    VINDICATION !!!!!! That’s the way Republicans roll…

  28. 28
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible.

    Impunity breeds impunity. I was pretty disgusted that the BBC recently ran a thinkpiece entitled “Has Obama changed America’s standing in the world?” that quoted Elliot Abrams exclusively as the “for the worse” side, without mentioning that his credentials come from being balls-deep in Iran-Contra, wriggling out of felony charges, and receiving a pardon from Daddy Bush

    The questioners at the GOP ‘national security debate’ the other day should have been videolinked in from cells in The Hague.

  29. 29
    redshirt says:

    @Irony Abounds: I’m right there with you. I have no love for the Democratic Party – any Institution, really – but I so loathe and fear the Republican party that I now go to great lengths to support Dem candidates wherever and whenever I can.

  30. 30
    JGabriel says:

    @feebog:

    Time to remind everyone just what a corrupt enterprise the entire Reagan administration was.

    After more than two decades, I remain flabbergasted that “Reagan Administration” has not become a synonym for “corrupt administration”.

    .

  31. 31
    vtr says:

    Don’t forget that all this was necessary because the Ortega Regime was a communist threat “only three days drive from Harlingen, Texas,” according to Reagan. I was never sure what the hell Ortega thought he might find in Harlingen, Texas. Does anyone know of an account of the reasons why the Bush Administration, a couple years later, threw Noriega into the klink?

  32. 32
    Chris says:

    Sooner @ 17: I feel you. That’s my story exactly, substituting “Iraq war,” “Valerie Plame,” “warrantless wiretapping” and “torture” for “Iran Contra.”

  33. 33
    JRManning says:

    Saint Ronald Reagan *LIES his ass off* about Trading Arms for Hostages- then gets caught and has to admit he lied:

    WATCH: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....&NR=1

  34. 34
    DFH no.6 says:

    @JGabriel:

    After more than two decades, I remain flabbergasted that “Reagan Administration” has not become a synonym for “corrupt administration”.

    I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but really, you should not be flabbergasted – the whitewashing of the execrable Reagan and his crew (very much including the Iran-Contra affair) has been so thorough in the intervening years that to most Americans they are remembered (or thought of, if too young to remember) as an overall good presidential administration.

    Defeat of communism, morning in America, and all that.

    To rightwingers it is much more than that – it’s the Best Administration Ever.

    Facts, as usual, have a liberal bias, but what good is that when we’re surrounded with too many cowardly Dems in office and a right-leaning, sycophantic media?

    The good guys are thus left to fight the fascists with one hand behind our backs.

  35. 35
    Mnemosyne says:

    @vtr:

    I think you’re mixing up Ortega and Noriega (or, at least, you needed a paragraph break between the two thoughts).

    You know what that scary, scary dictator Daniel Ortega did when he was voted out of office? He went back into the Nicaraguan Parliament as a regular member, had a couple more unsuccessful presidential campaigns, and finally got himself re-elected president in 2006.

    Clearly, he’s just like Stalin!

  36. 36
    Chris says:

    Vtr,
    Take this for what it’s worth, but Noriega claims that Ollie North asked to use Panama as a Contra safe haven and he said no. He’s convinced that’s why America turned on him.
    I think it’s more likely because Noriega was emerging as a key ally of the Medellin and Cali cartels at the same time we were dialing up the war on drugs. (He also kept up healthy ties to Cuba, Libya and the USSR. He was never fully our guy, so I doubt anyone in Washington was sorry to see him go).

  37. 37
    El Cid says:

    @pseudonymous in nc: Abrams was the point man in attacking New York Times reporter Ray Bonner and getting rid of him for his correct reporting of the slaughtering and genocidal behavior of ‘our’ allies in Central America, in this case the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador by ‘our’ good non-Communist friends continuing our hellhole rule of that nation.

    The NYT went along, and apologized 10 years later — Bonner’s correctness now undeniable thanks to the unearthing of the rotting corpses by the teams of forensic anthropologists now documenting the gleefully massacring nature of ‘our’ allies there.

    At least these days, Chevron CEO’s son Bill Keller apologized a bit more quickly for his term in turning the NYT into a pro-war hack crew.

    I’ve always hated the ‘political system’ for having it be a much bigger scandal the ways that Congress was or was not informed or permission granted than the fact that we hired literally genocidal armies to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent people for daring to desire the sorts of pro-democracy reforms which South America has now achieved in the last 10 years.

    Violating the Boland amendment is an absolute horror, well, enough to be talked about by VSP’s decades later, but, you know, directing and funding actual genocide in Guatemala as Christian Evangelical soldiers smash babies’ heads beneath their boots is a bit of a footnote to history to ‘fans’ of Guatemalan history and obscure UN-backed investigations.

  38. 38
    Chris says:

    Mnemosyne,
    Yeah, and when that happened in 06, Ollie North went down to Nicaragua to campaign against him, calling him a Communist agent and telling people (I shit you not) that they’d “suffered enough from the influence of foreigners.” Irony died in that campaign.

  39. 39
    Chris says:

    And El Cid: amen brother.

  40. 40
    El Cid says:

    @Chris: We aren’t foreigners. We’re natives where ever we go. It’s just up to the locals to see that, and to make themselves worthy of our recognition.

  41. 41
    Arclite says:

    Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible.

    Well, I’d argue that happened when Ford pardoned Nixon, but all the other stuff is spot on.

  42. 42
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Violating the Boland amendment is an absolute horror, well, enough to be talked about by VSP’s decades later, but, you know, directing and funding actual genocide in Guatemala as Christian Evangelical soldiers smash babies’ heads beneath their boots is a bit of a footnote to history to ‘fans’ of Guatemalan history and obscure UN-backed investigations.

    They can stick a fucking Chiquita banana up their arses.

  43. 43
    vtr says:

    Thanks, Cris – Republicans never met a right wing dictator south of the Rio Grande that they didn’t like. When Bush I came into office, he started pounding Noriega, and all we ever heard was that we needed to rid the region of a dictator. I never saw an article about the real motivations. I do remember, though, that our military forces set up speakers and blasted the Noriega household with Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Devil’s Arpeggio” for several days until he couldn’t take it any more and surrendered.

  44. 44
    HE Pennypacker, Wealthy Industrialist says:

    Great post, Anne. I was in my 20’s as well, and that whole sordid affair radicalized my thinking.

  45. 45
    Soonergrunt says:

    @vtr: It was the Papal Nuncio that Noriega had holed up in (it being an embassy) and it was heavy metal and rap music that the psyops guys blasted at the building, until word came from on high to use less offensive music. Then they changed over to the other stuff.

  46. 46
    Maude says:

    Reagan had an office of disinformation.
    Iran Contra was a second government in the US running a huge, illegal operation.
    Ollie is with Hannity running a scam charity. How fitting.

  47. 47
    SRW1 says:

    Nixon and Reagan – proof that for Republicans allegiance to the Constutution is a malleable thing.

  48. 48
    MikeJ says:

    @vtr:

    Republicans never met a right wing dictator south of the Rio Grande that they didn’t like.

    Fixed.

    They liked Franco. They liked Hitler.

  49. 49
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    An old buddy of my dad’s, an actual WWII combat Marine, loathes Ollie North’s guts.

    He also doesn’t think much of John Wayne.

  50. 50
    Betsy says:

    I was reading “All the President’s Men” at the time the Iran-Contra scandal was making nightly news. Every night, a new official’s name would be named in the scandal.

    And as often as not, I would have read that name in the book earlier that day. It was uncanncy. No, it was canny. Your reference to Nixon is well-placed: the juniors and apprentices in the Watergate scandal were the back-room seniors and masterminds of Iran-Contra 20 years later.

    And the juniors and apprentices of Iran-Contra, it turns out, were the seniors and masterminds in the Bush-Cheney administration.

  51. 51
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    One of the greatest crimes of the Iran-Contra era was that when Lawerence Walsh was about to get the criminal Caspar Weinberger to flip on George H.W. Bush’s flat out perjury about being “out of the loop” on Iran-Contra, Bush pardoned Weinberger, Ford pardons Nixon style, to prevent Walsh’s flipping gambit.

    This is why if Saddam had succeeded in killing the shitstain Bush, I would have shed not a tear. That entire fucking family is scum.

  52. 52
    Gravenstone says:

    Iran-Contra was where my idiot early twentysomething self made the permanent break from the Republican party. Sadly, entirely too much of the country decided the proper response was to fall even deeper into worshipping the Reagan cult of personality (along with the lesser star of Ollie North, for a time anyway)

  53. 53
    Calouste says:

    @El Cid:

    Come to think of it, one of the good side effects of the Cheney-Bush obsession with Iraq was that it didn’t leave them time to stage any coups in Latin America.

  54. 54
    IrishGirl says:

    I still rant and rave about the Iran-Contra scandal being the most dangerous political maneuvering that this country has ever faced. Most people have no idea what I am talking about. We’re doomed as a democracy.

  55. 55
    Hurling Dervish says:

    @a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q): I knew Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor very well during the Iran-Contra Times. He said that Iran-Contra seemed much worse than Watergate because of the way the whole constitutional structure was short-circuited.

  56. 56
    Chris says:

    This is probably a dead thread, but now that I’m not typing from my android, I still wanted to write this:

    Those of you who say Iran-contra or even Watergate were the beginning of an era seem to be missing the mark by a little, IMO. The intelligence/security community has always gotten along with little to no supervision. The golden age for these agencies started in the thirties: after that, you had close to half a century of unregulated, unsupervised abuses, often carried out for a private agenda. Hoover ran the FBI for all intents and purposes as America’s secret police until he died, and the CIA wasn’t always clean either (favorite story: the 1954 coup against the democratic government of Guatemala, done to protect the interests of Chiquita, in which the CIA director and Secretary of State were both big shareholders).

    The only exception to this era was the 1970s: Watergate was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and after that, Congress tried to establish some control and accountability over the intel community (see also Church Committee hearings). Ultimately, they failed. But really, Iran-contra wasn’t anything new: it was restoring the intel/security community to the status quo. Unfortunately.

  57. 57
    El Cid says:

    @Chris: Yes. The true scandal of Iran-Contra is that the VSP’s in DC found themselves bothered when ordinary people and their Congresstypes gave somewhat of a shit about who we were hiring — with the applause of many responsible ‘liberal’ and New Republic types — to slaughter whom in some brown-skinned pissant country in our own backyard, when traditionally we had done pretty much whatever we wanted to them through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. (I.e., Brazil’s just ex-President Lula da Silva was jailed under a torture regime installed/backed by JFK, but Chilean democracy returned after being overthrown by Nixon.)

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