Iran Contra Affair - History

Iran Contra Affair - History

The United States secretly sold weapons to Iran which it was publicly boycotting. It used the money to support the Contra guerillas in Honduras who were battling the Sandinist government in Nicaragua. Supporting the Contras violated US law. In November 1985 the whole affair came to light.

When Iran had stormed the American Embassy in Teheran and took American diplomats hostage the United States imposed an arms embargo on Iran. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the Iranians became desperate to obtain spare parts for their American equipped armed forces. The Defense Department had concluded that the embargo was not working and would force Iran into Soviet arms. Despite that report, the US launched a worldwide program called Operation Staunch to stop counties throughout the world from selling weapons to Iran.

At the same time, the Contras were waging war in Nicaragua against the Sandinista government which was very left. The Reagan Administration had made it their priority to try to topple the Sandinista government. The Congress, however, did not support helping Sandinista and had passed the Boland Amendment. It first limited and then cut off all funding to the Sandinistas.

The exact date of when the US started supplying arms to the Iranians has remained a question of dispute, but by 1985 the US was both directly and through Israel selling weapons to the Iranians. The sales were used as leverage to obtain the release of Americans held Lebanon. The point man on the project was Colonel Oliver North who worked on the National Security Council. The money from the secret sales was used to fund the contras operating in Honduras against the Nicaraguan Government.

The Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa first discovered the sale of the arms to Iran on November 3rd. When an airlift of guns to Honduras was downed over Nicaragua, the other side of the story came out. The Iranians confirmed the story. President Reagan appeared on national television on November 13, 1985, and said:

My purpose was ... to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship ... At the same time, we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there.

After a Congressional investigation, a long list of people was indicted for their parts in the affair. President H W Bush pardoned all.

Iran-Contra connection revealed

Three weeks after a Lebanese magazine reported that the United States had been secretly selling arms to Iran, Attorney General Edwin Meese reveals that proceeds from the arms sales were illegally diverted to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.

On November 3, the Lebanese magazine Ash Shiraa reported that the United States had been secretly selling arms to Iran in an effort to secure the release of seven American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon. The revelation, confirmed by U.S. intelligence sources on November 6, came as a shock to officials outside President Ronald Reagan’s inner circle and went against the stated policy of the administration. In addition to violating the U.S. arms embargo against Iran, the arms sales contradicted President Reagan’s vow never to negotiate with terrorists.

On November 25, controversy over the administration’s secret dealings with Iran deepened dramatically when Attorney General Meese announced that the arms sales proceeds were diverted to fund Nicaraguan rebels—the Contras—who were fighting a guerrilla war against the elected leftist government of Nicaragua. The Contra connection caused outrage in Congress, which in 1982 had passed the Boland Amendment prohibiting the use of federal money 𠇏or the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.” The same day that the Iran-Contra connection was disclosed, President Reagan accepted the resignation of his national security adviser, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, and fired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a Poindexter aide. Both men had played key roles in the Iran-Contra operation. Reagan accepted responsibility for the arms-for-hostages deal but denied any knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras.

In December 1986, Lawrence Walsh was named special prosecutor to investigate the matter, and in the summer of 1987 Congress held televised hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal. Both investigations revealed that North and other administration officials had attempted to cover-up illegally their illicit dealings with the Contras and Iran. In the course of Walsh’s investigation, eleven White House, State Department, and intelligence officials were found guilty on charges ranging from perjury, to withholding information form Congress, to conspiracy to defraud the United States. In his final report, Walsh concluded that neither Reagan nor Vice President George Bush violated any laws in connection with the affair, but that Reagan had set the stage for the illegal activities of others by ordering continued support of the Contras after Congress prohibited it. The report also found that Reagan and Bush engaged in conduct that contributed to a 𠇌oncerted effort to deceive Congress and the public” about the Iran-Contra affair.

On Christmas Eve in 1992, shortly after being defeated in his reelection bid by Bill Clinton, President George Bush pardoned six major figures in the Iran-Contra affair. Two of the men, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and former chief of CIA operations Duane Clarridge, had trials for perjury pending.

What Does William Barr Have to Do With Iran Contra?

Jeffrey J. Matthews is a professor of leadership and American history at the University of Puget Sound and the author of &ldquoColin Powell: Imperfect Patriot&rdquo (University of Notre Dame, 2019).

Donald Trump&rsquos nomination of William Barr to become attorney general has recast the spotlight on the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Barr served as attorney general in the Bush administration from late 1991 to early 1993. Most notably, Barr railed publicly against a long running independent counsel investigation of the Reagan-Bush administration and he fully supported President Bush&rsquos last minute pardon of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan&rsquos former defense secretary. Weinberger had been indicted on five felony charges, including accusations that he obstructed federal investigations and lied to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair.

In the wake of Bush&rsquos recent death, innumerable editorials have heaped praise on the late president for his prudent and polite leadership. Far too little attention has been paid to his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

No writer has been more generous to Bush than journalist Jon Meacham, the author of The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. In a New York Times editorial assessing Bush&rsquos legacy, Meacham lauded the nation&rsquos forty-third vice president and forty-first president for being especially principled and pragmatic a leader whose &ldquolife offers an object lesson in the best that politics&hellipcan be.&rdquo Bush, Meacham noted admiringly, saw politics as a noble pursuit, a means to faithfully serve the public, &ldquonot a vehicle for self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment.&rdquo

But the history of Bush&rsquos involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal is not one of nobility and virtue. The object lesson, in fact, is that even our most revered leaders are fallible human beings subject to making unethical decisions out of misdirected loyalties or self-preservation.

There is no doubt that Bush, as a loyal vice president, was aware of and endorsed the Reagan administration&rsquos covert policies in the Middle East and Central America. Specifically, he knew of the illicit program of selling arms to Iran, a U.S. designated terrorist state, in hopes of recovering American hostages in Lebanon. And, he knew of the illegal program of suppling aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Years later when running for reelection as president, Bush admitted to his diary that, &ldquoI&rsquom one of the few people that know fully the details [of Iran-Contra]&hellip.It is not a subject we can talk about.&rdquo

It is also clear that Reagan and his senior staff, Bush included, understood that the Iran and Contra programs were illegal. At one point, in regard to the arms-for-hostages initiative, Reagan informed his advisers that he would risk going to prison because the American people would want him to break the law if it meant saving the lives of hostages. &ldquoThey can impeach me if they want,&rdquo Reagan said, and then he quipped &ldquovisiting days are Wednesday.&rdquo

Shortly after the Iranian weapons deals became public, Bush tried to distance himself from the Iran-Contra scandal by telling reporters that it was &ldquoridiculous to even consider selling arms to Iran.&rdquo Knowledge of Bush&rsquos involvement could jeopardize his plans to succeed Reagan. Such deceptive maneuvering was galling to Reagan&rsquos secretary of state, George Shultz, who knew all too well that Bush had supported the Iran project. Shultz told a friend: &ldquoWhat concerns me is Bush on TV,&rdquo because he risks &ldquogetting drawn into a web of lies&hellip.He should be very careful how he plays the loyal lieutenant.&rdquo

Bush did become president and his eventual pardon of Weinberger, just weeks before leaving office, was not an act of virtuous public service even Reagan had refused to grant pardons to those involved with Iran-Contra. Bush&rsquos decision was a self-serving one as a trial examining Weinberger&rsquos role in Iran-Contra, including the administration&rsquos orchestrated cover-up, risked exposing the outgoing president&rsquos complicity.

Hearing of Weinberger being pardoned, Judge Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating Iran-Contra, issued a statement of condemnation: &ldquoPresident Bush&rsquos pardon&hellipundermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office&mdashdeliberately abusing the public trust without consequence."

Among the lessons of Iran-Contra is that a healthy democracy must have robust checks on executive authority in order to minimize abuses of power. A quarter century ago, the president&rsquos attorney general, William Barr, staunchly opposed the independent counsel&rsquos investigation of wrongdoing in the White House, and he also firmly supported Bush&rsquos use of pardons as a means of self-protection. Are we to believe that Barr&rsquos relationship with President Trump will be any different?

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Dr. Matthews forthcoming book:


The United States was the largest seller of arms to Iran under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the vast majority of the weapons that the Islamic Republic of Iran inherited in January 1979 were American-made. [14] To maintain this arsenal, Iran required a steady supply of spare parts to replace those broken and worn out. After Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage, U.S. President Jimmy Carter imposed an arms embargo on Iran. [14] After Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, Iran desperately needed weapons and spare parts for its current weapons. After Ronald Reagan took office as President on 20 January 1981, he vowed to continue Carter's policy of blocking arms sales to Iran on the grounds that Iran supported terrorism. [14]

A group of senior Reagan administration officials in the Senior Interdepartmental Group conducted a secret study on 21 July 1981, and concluded that the arms embargo was ineffective because Iran could always buy arms and spare parts for its American weapons elsewhere, while at the same time the arms embargo opened the door for Iran to fall into the Soviet sphere of influence as the Kremlin could sell Iran weapons if the United States would not. [14] The conclusion was that the United States should start selling Iran arms as soon as it was politically possible to keep Iran from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. [14] At the same time, the openly declared goal of Ayatollah Khomeini to export his Islamic revolution all over the Middle East and overthrow the governments of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other states around the Persian Gulf led to the Americans perceiving Khomeini as a major threat to the United States. [14]

In the spring of 1983, the United States launched Operation Staunch, a wide-ranging diplomatic effort to persuade other nations all over the world not to sell arms or spare parts for weapons to Iran. [14] This was at least part of the reason the Iran–Contra affair proved so humiliating for the United States when the story first broke in November 1986 that the US itself was selling arms to Iran.

At the same time that the American government was considering their options on selling arms to Iran, Contra militants based in Honduras were waging a guerrilla war to topple the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) revolutionary government of Nicaragua. Almost from the time he took office in 1981, a major goal of the Reagan administration was the overthrow of the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua and to support the Contra rebels. [15] The Reagan administration's policy towards Nicaragua produced a major clash between the executive and legislative branches as Congress sought to limit, if not curb altogether, the ability of the White House to support the Contras. [15] Direct U.S. funding of the Contras insurgency was made illegal through the Boland Amendment, the name given to three U.S. legislative amendments between 1982 and 1984 aimed at limiting U.S. government assistance to Contra militants. Funding ran out for the Contras by July 1984, and in October a total ban was placed in effect. The second Boland Amendment, in effect from 3 October 1984 to 3 December 1985, stated:

During the fiscal year 1985 no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose of or which may have the effect of supporting directly or indirectly military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, organization, group, movement, or individual. [15]

In violation of the Boland Amendment, senior officials of the Reagan administration continued to secretly arm and train the Contras and provide arms to Iran, an operation they called "the Enterprise". [16] [17] As the Contras were heavily dependent upon U.S. military and financial support, the second Boland amendment threatened to break the Contra movement and led to President Reagan in 1984 to order the National Security Council (NSC) to "keep the Contras together 'body and soul'", no matter what Congress voted for. [15]

A major legal debate at the center of the Iran–Contra affair concerned the question of whether the NSC was one of the "any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities" covered by the Boland amendment. The Reagan administration argued it was not, and many in Congress argued that it was. [15] The majority of constitutional scholars have asserted the NSC did indeed fall within the purview of the second Boland amendment, though the amendment did not mention the NSC by name. [18] The broader constitutional question at stake was the power of Congress versus the power of the presidency. The Reagan administration argued that because the constitution assigned the right to conduct foreign policy to the executive, its efforts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua were a presidential prerogative that Congress had no right to try to halt via the Boland amendments. [19] By contrast congressional leaders argued that the constitution had assigned Congress control of the budget, and Congress had every right to use that power not to fund projects like attempting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua that they disapproved of. [19] As part of the effort to circumvent the Boland amendment, the NSC established "the Enterprise", an arms-smuggling network headed by a retired U.S. Air Force officer turned arms dealer Richard Secord that supplied arms to the Contras. It was ostensibly a private sector operation, but in fact was controlled by the NSC. [18] To fund "the Enterprise", the Reagan administration was constantly on the look-out for funds that came from outside the U.S. government in order not to explicitly violate the letter of the Boland amendment, though the efforts to find alternative funding for the Contras violated the spirit of the Boland amendment. [20] Ironically, military aid to the Contras was reinstated with Congressional consent in October 1986, a month before the scandal broke. [21] [22]

As reported in The New York Times in 1991, "continuing allegations that Reagan campaign officials made a deal with the Iranian Government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the fall of 1980" led to "limited investigations." However "limited," those investigations established that "Soon after taking office in 1981, the Reagan Administration secretly and abruptly changed United States policy." Secret Israeli arms sales and shipments to Iran began in that year, even as, in public, "the Reagan Administration" presented a different face, and "aggressively promoted a public campaign. to stop worldwide transfers of military goods to Iran." The New York Times explains: "Iran at that time was in dire need of arms and spare parts for its American-made arsenal to defend itself against Iraq, which had attacked it in September 1980," while "Israel [a U.S. ally] was interested in keeping the war between Iran and Iraq going to ensure that these two potential enemies remained preoccupied with each other." Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir, a high-ranking Israeli Defense Ministry in 1981, said there was a "oral agreement" to allow the sale of "spare parts" to Iran. This was based on an "understanding" with Secretary Alexander Haig (which a Haig adviser denied). This account was confirmed by a former senior American diplomat with a few modifications. The diplomat claimed that "[Ariel] Sharon violated it, and Haig backed away. ". A former "high-level" CIA official who saw the reports of arms sales to Iran by Israel in the early 1980s estimated that the total was about 2 billion a year. But also said that "The degree to which it was sanctioned I don't know." [4]

On 17 June 1985, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane wrote a National Security Decision Directive which called for the United States of America to begin a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. [14] The paper read:

Dynamic political evolution is taking place inside Iran. Instability caused by the pressures of the Iraq-Iran war, economic deterioration and regime in-fighting create the potential for major changes inside Iran. The Soviet Union is better positioned than the U.S. to exploit and benefit from any power struggle that results in changes from the Iranian regime . The U.S should encourage Western allies and friends to help Iran meet its import requirements so as to reduce the attractiveness of Soviet assistance . This includes provision of selected military equipment. [23]

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was highly negative, writing on his copy of McFarlane's paper: "This is almost too absurd to comment on . like asking Qaddafi to Washington for a cozy chat." [24] Secretary of State George Shultz was also opposed, stating that having designated Iran a State Sponsor of Terrorism in January 1984, how could the United States possibly sell arms to Iran? [24] Only the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency William Casey supported McFarlane's plan to start selling arms to Iran. [24]

In early July 1985, the historian Michael Ledeen, a consultant of National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, requested assistance from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres for help in the sale of arms to Iran. [25] Having talked to an Israeli diplomat David Kimche and Ledeen, McFarlane learned that the Iranians were prepared to have Hezbollah release American hostages in Lebanon in exchange for Israelis shipping Iran American weapons. [24] Having been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism since January 1984, [26] Iran was in the midst of the Iran–Iraq War and could find few Western nations willing to supply it with weapons. [27] The idea behind the plan was for Israel to ship weapons through an intermediary (identified as Manucher Ghorbanifar) to the Islamic republic as a way of aiding a supposedly moderate, politically influential faction within the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini who was believed to be seeking a rapprochement with the United States after the transaction, the United States would reimburse Israel with the same weapons, while receiving monetary benefits. [28] McFarlane in a memo to Shultz and Weinberger wrote:

The short term dimension concerns the seven hostages the long term dimension involves the establishment of a private dialogue with Iranian officials on the broader relations . They sought specifically the delivery from Israel of 100 TOW missiles . [24]

The plan was discussed with President Reagan on 18 July 1985 and again on 6 August 1985. [24] Shultz at the latter meeting warned Reagan that "we were just falling into the arms-for-hostages business and we shouldn't do it." [24]

The Americans believed that there was a moderate faction in the Islamic republic headed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful speaker of the Majlis who was seen as a leading potential successor to Khomeini and who was alleged to want a rapprochement with the United States. [29] The Americans believed that Rafsanjani had the power to order Hezbollah to free the American hostages and establishing a relationship with him by selling Iran arms would ultimately place Iran back within the American sphere of influence. [29] It remains unclear if Rafsanjani really wanted a rapprochement with the United States or was just deceiving Reagan administration officials who were willing to believe that he was a moderate who would effect a rapprochement. [29] Rafsanjani, whose nickname is "the Shark" was described by the British journalist Patrick Brogan as a man of great charm and formidable intelligence known for his subtlety and ruthlessness whose motives in the Iran–Contra affair remain completely mysterious. [29] The Israeli government required that the sale of arms meet high-level approval from the United States government, and when McFarlane convinced them that the U.S. government approved the sale, Israel obliged by agreeing to sell the arms. [25]

In 1985, President Reagan entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for colon cancer surgery. Reagan’s recovery was nothing short of miserable, as the 74-year-old President admitted having little sleep for days in addition to his immense physical discomfort. While doctors seemed to be confident that the surgery was successful, the discovery of his localized cancer was a daunting realization for Reagan. From seeing the recovery process of other patients, as well as medical “experts” on television predicting his death to be soon, Reagan’s typical optimistic outlook was dampened. These factors were bound to contribute to psychological distress in the midst of an already distressing situation. [30] Additionally, Reagan’s invocation of the 25th amendment prior to the surgery was a risky and unprecedented decision that smoothly flew under the radar for the duration of the complex situation. While it only lasted slightly longer than the length of the procedure (approximately seven hours and 54 minutes), this temporary transfer of power was never formally recognized by the White House. It was later revealed that this decision was made on the grounds that “Mr. Reagan and his advisors did not want his actions to establish a definition of incapacitation that would bind future presidents.” Reagan expressed this transfer of power in two identical letters that were sent to the speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, and the president pro tempore of the senate, Sen. Strom Thurmond. [31]

While the President was recovering in the hospital, McFarlane met with him and told him that representatives from Israel had contacted the National Security Agency to pass on confidential information from what Reagan later described as the "moderate" Iranian faction headed by Rafsanjani opposed to the Ayatollah's hardline anti-American policies. [28] The visit from Macfarlane in Reagan’s hospital room was the first visit from an administration official outside of Donald Reagan since the surgery. The meeting took place five days after the surgery and only three days after doctors gave the news that his polyp had been malignant. The three participants of this meeting had very different recollections of what was discussed during its 23-minute duration. Months later, Reagan even stated that he “had no recollection of a meeting in the hospital in July with Macfarlane and that he had no notes which would show such a meeting.” This does not come as a surprise considering the possible short and long-term effects of anesthesia on patients above the age of 60, in addition to his already weakened physical and mental state. [30]

According to Reagan, these Iranians sought to establish a quiet relationship with the United States, before establishing formal relationships upon the death of the aging Ayatollah. [28] In Reagan's account, McFarlane told Reagan that the Iranians, to demonstrate their seriousness, offered to persuade the Hezbollah militants to release the seven U.S. hostages. [32] McFarlane met with the Israeli intermediaries [33] Reagan claimed that he allowed this because he believed that establishing relations with a strategically located country, and preventing the Soviet Union from doing the same, was a beneficial move. [28] Although Reagan claims that the arms sales were to a "moderate" faction of Iranians, the Walsh Iran/Contra Report states that the arms sales were "to Iran" itself, [34] which was under the control of the Ayatollah.

Following the Israeli–U.S. meeting, Israel requested permission from the United States to sell a small number of BGM-71 TOW antitank missiles to Iran, claiming that this would aid the "moderate" Iranian faction, [32] by demonstrating that the group actually had high-level connections to the U.S. government. [32] Reagan initially rejected the plan, until Israel sent information to the United States showing that the "moderate" Iranians were opposed to terrorism and had fought against it. [35] Now having a reason to trust the "moderates", Reagan approved the transaction, which was meant to be between Israel and the "moderates" in Iran, with the United States reimbursing Israel. [32] In his 1990 autobiography An American Life, Reagan claimed that he was deeply committed to securing the release of the hostages it was this compassion that supposedly motivated his support for the arms initiatives. The president requested that the "moderate" Iranians do everything in their capability to free the hostages held by Hezbollah. [36] Reagan always publicly insisted after the scandal broke in late 1986 that the purpose behind the arms-for-hostages trade was to establish a working relationship with the "moderate" faction associated with Rafsanjani to facilitate the reestablishment of the American–Iranian alliance after the soon to be expected death of Khomeini, to end the Iran–Iraq war and end Iranian support for Islamic terrorism while downplaying the importance of freeing the hostages in Lebanon as a secondary issue. [37] By contrast, when testifying before the Tower Commission, Reagan declared that hostage issue was the main reason for selling arms to Iran. [38]

The following arms were supplied to Iran: [34] [39]

  • First arms sales in 1981 (see above)
  • 20 August 1985 – 86 TOW anti-tank missiles
  • 14 September 1985 – 408 more TOWs
  • 24 November 1985 – 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles
  • 17 February 1986 – 500 TOWs
  • 27 February 1986 – 500 TOWs
  • 24 May 1986 – 508 TOWs, 240 Hawk spare parts
  • 4 August 1986 – More Hawk spares
  • 28 October 1986 – 500 TOWs

First arms sale Edit

The first arms sales to Iran began in 1981, though the official paper trail has them beginning in 1985 (see above). On 20 August 1985, Israel sent 96 American-made TOW missiles to Iran through an arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar. [40] Subsequently, on 14 September 1985, 408 more TOW missiles were delivered. On 15 September 1985, following the second delivery, Reverend Benjamin Weir was released by his captors, the Islamic Jihad Organization. On 24 November 1985, 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles were delivered.

Modifications in plans Edit

Robert McFarlane resigned on 4 December 1985, [41] [42] stating that he wanted to spend more time with his family, [43] and was replaced by Admiral John Poindexter. [44] Two days later, Reagan met with his advisors at the White House, where a new plan was introduced. This called for a slight change in the arms transactions: instead of the weapons going to the "moderate" Iranian group, they would go to "moderate" Iranian army leaders. [45] As each weapons delivery was made from Israel by air, hostages held by Hezbollah would be released. [45] Israel would continue to be reimbursed by the United States for the weapons. Though staunchly opposed by Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the plan was authorized by Reagan, who stated that, "We were not trading arms for hostages, nor were we negotiating with terrorists". [46] In his notes of a meeting held in the White House on 7 December 1985, Weinberger wrote he told Reagan that this plan was illegal, writing:

I argued strongly that we have an embargo that makes arms sales to Iran illegal and President couldn't violate it and that 'washing' transactions through Israel wouldn't make it legal. Shultz, Don Regan agreed. [47]

Weinberger's notes have Reagan saying he "could answer charges of illegality but he couldn't answer charge that 'big strong President Reagan' passed up a chance to free hostages." [47] Now retired National Security Advisor McFarlane flew to London to meet with Israelis and Ghorbanifar in an attempt to persuade the Iranian to use his influence to release the hostages before any arms transactions occurred this plan was rejected by Ghorbanifar. [45]

On the day of McFarlane's resignation, Oliver North, a military aide to the United States National Security Council (NSC), proposed a new plan for selling arms to Iran, which included two major adjustments: instead of selling arms through Israel, the sale was to be direct at a markup and a portion of the proceeds would go to Contras, or Nicaraguan paramilitary fighters waging guerrilla warfare against the Sandinista National Liberation Front#1984 election Sandinista government, claiming power after an election full of irregularities.[See Washington Post at the time.] The dealings with the Iranians were conducted via the NSC with Admiral Poindexter and his deputy Colonel North, with the American historians Malcolm Byrne and Peter Kornbluh writing that Poindexter granted much power to North ". who made the most of the situation, often deciding important matters on his own, striking outlandish deals with the Iranians, and acting in the name of the president on issues that were far beyond his competence. All of these activities continued to take place within the framework of the president's broad authorization. Until the press reported on the existence of the operation, nobody in the administration questioned the authority of Poindexter's and North's team to implement the president's decisions". [48] North proposed a $15 million markup, while contracted arms broker Ghorbanifar added a 41% markup of his own. [49] Other members of the NSC were in favor of North's plan with large support, Poindexter authorized it without notifying President Reagan, and it went into effect. [50] At first, the Iranians refused to buy the arms at the inflated price because of the excessive markup imposed by North and Ghorbanifar. They eventually relented, and in February 1986, 1,000 TOW missiles were shipped to the country. [50] From May to November 1986, there were additional shipments of miscellaneous weapons and parts. [50]

Both the sale of weapons to Iran and the funding of the Contras attempted to circumvent not only stated administration policy, but also the Boland Amendment. Administration officials argued that regardless of Congress restricting funds for the Contras, or any affair, the President (or in this case the administration) could carry on by seeking alternative means of funding such as private entities and foreign governments. [51] Funding from one foreign country, Brunei, was botched when North's secretary, Fawn Hall, transposed the numbers of North's Swiss bank account number. A Swiss businessman, suddenly $10 million richer, alerted the authorities of the mistake. The money was eventually returned to the Sultan of Brunei, with interest. [52]

On 7 January 1986, John Poindexter proposed to Reagan a modification of the approved plan: instead of negotiating with the "moderate" Iranian political group, the United States would negotiate with "moderate" members of the Iranian government. [53] Poindexter told Reagan that Ghorbanifar had important connections within the Iranian government, so with the hope of the release of the hostages, Reagan approved this plan as well. [53] Throughout February 1986, weapons were shipped directly to Iran by the United States (as part of Oliver North's plan), but none of the hostages were released. Retired National Security Advisor McFarlane conducted another international voyage, this one to Tehran – bringing with him a gift of a bible with a handwritten inscription by Ronald Reagan [54] [55] and, according to George Cave, a cake baked in the shape of a key. [54] Howard Teicher described the cake as a joke between North and Ghorbanifar. [56] McFarlane met directly with Iranian officials associated with Rafsanjani, who sought to establish U.S.-Iranian relations in an attempt to free the four remaining hostages. [57]

The American delegation comprised McFarlane, North, Cave (a retired CIA officer who worked in Iran in the 1960s–70s), Teicher, Israeli diplomat Amiram Nir and a CIA translator. They arrived in Tehran in an Israeli plane carrying forged Irish passports on 25 May 1986. [58] This meeting also failed. Much to McFarlane's disgust, he did not meet ministers, and instead met in his words "third and fourth level officials". [58] At one point, an angry McFarlane shouted: "As I am a Minister, I expect to meet with decision-makers. Otherwise, you can work with my staff." [58] The Iranians requested concessions such as Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which the United States rejected. [57] More importantly, McFarlane refused to ship spare parts for the Hawk missiles until the Iranians had Hezbollah release the American hostages, whereas the Iranians wanted to reverse that sequence with the spare parts being shipped first before the hostages were freed. [58] The differing negotiating positions led to McFarlane's mission going home after four days. [59] After the failure of the secret visit to Tehran, McFarlane advised Reagan not to talk to the Iranians anymore, advice that was disregarded. [59]

Subsequent dealings Edit

On 26 July 1986, Hezbollah freed the American hostage Father Lawrence Jenco, former head of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon. [59] Following this, William Casey, head of the CIA, requested that the United States authorize sending a shipment of small missile parts to Iranian military forces as a way of expressing gratitude. [60] Casey also justified this request by stating that the contact in the Iranian government might otherwise lose face or be executed, and hostages might be killed. Reagan authorized the shipment to ensure that those potential events would not occur. [60] North used this release to persuade Reagan to switch over to a "sequential" policy of freeing the hostages one by one, instead of the "all or nothing" policy that the Americans had pursued until then. [59] By this point, the Americans had grown tired of Ghobanifar who had proven himself a dishonest intermediary who played off both sides to his own commercial advantage. [59] In August 1986, the Americans had established a new contact in the Iranian government, Ali Hashemi Bahramani, the nephew of Rafsanjani and an officer in the Revolutionary Guard. [59] The fact that the Revolutionary Guard was deeply involved in international terrorism seemed only to attract the Americans more to Bahramani, who was seen as someone with the influence to change Iran's policies. [59] Richard Secord, an American arms dealer, who was being used as a contact with Iran, wrote to North: "My judgment is that we have opened up a new and probably better channel into Iran". [59] North was so impressed with Bahramani that he arranged for him to secretly visit Washington D.C and gave him a guided tour at midnight of the White House. [59]

North frequently met with Bahramani in the summer and fall of 1986 in West Germany, discussing arms sales to Iran, the freeing of hostages held by Hezbollah and how best to overthrow President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the establishment of "a non-hostile regime in Baghdad". [59] In September and October 1986 three more Americans – Frank Reed, Joseph Cicippio, and Edward Tracy – were abducted in Lebanon by a separate terrorist group, who referred to them simply as "G.I. Joe," after the popular American toy. The reasons for their abduction are unknown, although it is speculated that they were kidnapped to replace the freed Americans. [61] One more original hostage, David Jacobsen, was later released. The captors promised to release the remaining two, but the release never happened. [62]

During a secret meeting in Frankfurt in October 1986, North told Bahramani that: "Saddam Hussein must go". [59] North also claimed that Reagan had told him to tell Bahramani that: "Saddam Hussein is an asshole." [59] Behramani during a secret meeting in Mainz informed North that Rafsanjani "for his own politics . decided to get all the groups involved and give them a role to play." [63] Thus, all the factions in the Iranian government would be jointly responsible for the talks with the Americans and "there would not be an internal war". [63] This demand of Behramani caused much dismay on the American side as it made clear to them that they would not be dealing solely with a "moderate" faction in the Islamic Republic, as the Americans liked to pretend to themselves, but rather with all the factions in the Iranian government – including those who were very much involved in terrorism. [63] Despite this the talks were not broken off. [63]

After a leak by Mehdi Hashemi, a senior official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the arrangement on 3 November 1986. [64] The leak may have been orchestrated by a covert team led by Arthur S. Moreau Jr., assistant to the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, due to fears the scheme had grown out of control. [65]

This was the first public report of the weapons-for-hostages deal. The operation was discovered only after an airlift of guns (Corporate Air Services HPF821) was downed over Nicaragua. Eugene Hasenfus, who was captured by Nicaraguan authorities after surviving the plane crash, initially alleged in a press conference on Nicaraguan soil that two of his coworkers, Max Gomez and Ramon Medina, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. [66] He later said he did not know whether they did or not. [67] The Iranian government confirmed the Ash-Shiraa story, and ten days after the story was first published, President Reagan appeared on national television from the Oval Office on 13 November, stating:

My purpose was . to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship . At the same time we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there. [7]

The scandal was compounded when Oliver North destroyed or hid pertinent documents between 21 November and 25 November 1986. During North's trial in 1989, his secretary, Fawn Hall, testified extensively about helping North alter and shred official United States National Security Council (NSC) documents from the White House. According to The New York Times, enough documents were put into a government shredder to jam it. [49] Hall also testified that she smuggled classified documents out of the Old Executive Office Building by concealing them in her boots and dress. [68] North's explanation for destroying some documents was to protect the lives of individuals involved in Iran and Contra operations. [49] It was not until 1993, years after the trial, that North's notebooks were made public, and only after the National Security Archive and Public Citizen sued the Office of the Independent Counsel under the Freedom of Information Act. [49]

During the trial, North testified that on 21, 22 or 24 November, he witnessed Poindexter destroy what may have been the only signed copy of a presidential covert-action finding that sought to authorize CIA participation in the November 1985 Hawk missile shipment to Iran. [49] U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese admitted on 25 November that profits from weapons sales to Iran were made available to assist the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. On the same day, John Poindexter resigned, and President Reagan fired Oliver North. [69] Poindexter was replaced by Frank Carlucci on 2 December 1986. [70]

When the story broke, many legal and constitutional scholars expressed dismay that the NSC, which was supposed to be just an advisory body to assist the President with formulating foreign policy had "gone operational" by becoming an executive body covertly executing foreign policy on its own. [71] The National Security Act of 1947, which created the NSC, gave it the vague right to perform "such other functions and duties related to the intelligence as the National Security Council may from time to time direct." [72] However, the NSC had usually, although not always, acted as an advisory agency until the Reagan administration when the NSC had "gone operational", a situation that was condemned by both the Tower commission and by Congress as a departure from the norm. [72] The American historian James Canham-Clyne asserted that Iran–Contra affair and the NSC "going operational" were not departures from the norm, but were the logical and natural consequence of existence of the "national security state", the plethora of shadowy government agencies with multi-million dollar budgets operating with little oversight from Congress, the courts or the media, and for whom upholding national security justified almost everything. [72] Canham-Clyne argued that for the "national security state", the law was an obstacle to be surmounted rather than something to uphold and that the Iran–Contra affair was just "business as usual", something he asserted that the media missed by focusing on the NSC having "gone operational." [72]

In Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987, journalist Bob Woodward chronicled the role of the CIA in facilitating the transfer of funds from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras spearheaded by Oliver North. According to Woodward, then-Director of the CIA William J. Casey admitted to him in February 1987 that he was aware of the diversion of funds to the Contras. [73] The controversial admission occurred while Casey was hospitalized for a stroke, and, according to his wife, was unable to communicate. On 6 May 1987, William Casey died the day after Congress began public hearings on Iran–Contra. Independent Counsel, Lawrence Walsh later wrote: "Independent Counsel obtained no documentary evidence showing Casey knew about or approved the diversion. The only direct testimony linking Casey to early knowledge of the diversion came from [Oliver] North." [74] Gust Avrakodos, who was responsible for the arms supplies to the Afghans at this time, was aware of the operation as well and strongly opposed it, in particular the diversion of funds allotted to the Afghan operation. According to his Middle Eastern experts, the operation was pointless because the moderates in Iran were not in a position to challenge the fundamentalists. However, he was overruled by Clair George. [75]

On 25 November 1986, President Reagan announced the creation of a Special Review Board to look into the matter the following day, he appointed former Senator John Tower, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to serve as members. This Presidential Commission took effect on 1 December and became known as the Tower Commission. The main objectives of the commission were to inquire into "the circumstances surrounding the Iran–Contra matter, other case studies that might reveal strengths and weaknesses in the operation of the National Security Council system under stress, and the manner in which that system has served eight different presidents since its inception in 1947". The Tower Commission was the first presidential commission to review and evaluate the National Security Council. [76]

President Reagan appeared before the Tower Commission on 2 December 1986, to answer questions regarding his involvement in the affair. When asked about his role in authorizing the arms deals, he first stated that he had later, he appeared to contradict himself by stating that he had no recollection of doing so. [77] In his 1990 autobiography, An American Life, Reagan acknowledges authorizing the shipments to Israel. [78]

The report published by the Tower Commission was delivered to the president on 26 February 1987. The Commission had interviewed 80 witnesses to the scheme, including Reagan, and two of the arms trade middlemen: Manucher Ghorbanifar and Adnan Khashoggi. [77] The 200-page report was the most comprehensive of any released, [77] criticizing the actions of Oliver North, John Poindexter, Caspar Weinberger, and others. It determined that President Reagan did not have knowledge of the extent of the program, especially about the diversion of funds to the Contras, although it argued that the president ought to have had better control of the National Security Council staff. The report heavily criticized Reagan for not properly supervising his subordinates or being aware of their actions. A major result of the Tower Commission was the consensus that Reagan should have listened to his National Security Advisor more, thereby placing more power in the hands of that chair.

In January 1987, Congress announced it was opening an investigation into the Iran–Contra affair. Depending upon one's political perspective, the Congressional investigation into the Iran–Contra affair was either an attempt by the legislative arm to gain control over an out-of-control executive arm, a partisan "witch hunt" by the Democrats against a Republican administration or a feeble effort by Congress that did far too little to rein in the "imperial presidency" that had run amok by breaking numerous laws. [79] The Democratic-controlled United States Congress issued its own report on 18 November 1987, stating that "If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have." [3] The congressional report wrote that the president bore "ultimate responsibility" for wrongdoing by his aides, and his administration exhibited "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law". [80] It also read that "the central remaining question is the role of the President in the Iran–Contra affair. On this critical point, the shredding of documents by Poindexter, North and others, and the death of Casey, leave the record incomplete".

Reagan expressed regret regarding the situation in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on 4 March 1987, and in two other speeches. [81] Reagan had not spoken to the American people directly for three months amidst the scandal, [82] and he offered the following explanation for his silence:

The reason I haven't spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth. And as frustrating as the waiting has been, I felt it was improper to come to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous statements, which would then have to be corrected, creating even more doubt and confusion. There's been enough of that. [82]

Reagan then took full responsibility for the acts committed:

First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I'm still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior. [82]

Finally, the president acknowledged that his previous assertions that the U.S. did not trade arms for hostages were incorrect:

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. [82]

To this day, Reagan's role in these transactions is not definitively known. It is unclear exactly what Reagan knew and when, and whether the arms sales were motivated by his desire to save the U.S. hostages. Oliver North wrote that "Ronald Reagan knew of and approved a great deal of what went on with both the Iranian initiative and private efforts on behalf of the contras and he received regular, detailed briefings on both. I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically." [83] Handwritten notes by Defense Secretary Weinberger indicate that the President was aware of potential hostage transfers [ clarification needed ] with Iran, as well as the sale of Hawk and TOW missiles to what he was told were "moderate elements" within Iran. [6] Notes taken by Weinberger on 7 December 1985 record that Reagan said that "he could answer charges of illegality but he couldn't answer charge [sic] that 'big strong President Reagan passed up a chance to free hostages'". [6] The Republican-written "Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran–Contra Affair" made the following conclusion:

There is some question and dispute about precisely the level at which he chose to follow the operation details. There is no doubt, however, . [that] the President set the US policy towards Nicaragua, with few if any ambiguities, and then left subordinates more or less free to implement it. [84]

Domestically, the affair precipitated a drop in President Reagan's popularity. His approval ratings suffered "the largest single drop for any U.S. president in history", from 67% to 46% in November 1986, according to a The New York Times/CBS News poll. [85] The "Teflon President", as Reagan was nicknamed by critics, [86] survived the affair, however, and his approval rating recovered. [87]

Internationally, the damage was more severe. Magnus Ranstorp wrote, "U.S. willingness to engage in concessions with Iran and the Hezbollah not only signaled to its adversaries that hostage-taking was an extremely useful instrument in extracting political and financial concessions for the West but also undermined any credibility of U.S. criticism of other states' deviation from the principles of no-negotiation and no concession to terrorists and their demands." [88]

In Iran, Mehdi Hashemi, the leaker of the scandal, was executed in 1987, allegedly for activities unrelated to the scandal. Though Hashemi made a full video confession to numerous serious charges, some observers find the coincidence of his leak and the subsequent prosecution highly suspicious. [89]

In 1994, just five years after leaving office, President Reagan announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. [90] Lawrence Walsh, who was appointed Independent Council in 1986 to investigate the transactions later implied Reagan's declining health may have played a role in his handling of the situation. However, Walsh did note that he believed President Reagan's “instincts for the country’s good were right". [91]

Indictments Edit

    , Secretary of Defense, was indicted on two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice on 16 June 1992. [92] Weinberger received a pardon from George H. W. Bush on 24 December 1992, before he was tried. [93] , National Security Adviser, convicted of withholding evidence, but after a plea bargain was given only two years of probation. Later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. [94] , Assistant Secretary of State, convicted of withholding evidence, but after a plea bargain was given only two years probation. Later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. [95] , Chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force, convicted of withholding evidence and sentenced to one year probation. Later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. , Chief of Covert Ops-CIA, convicted on two charges of perjury, but pardoned by President George H. W. Bush before sentencing. [96] , member of the National Security Council was indicted on 16 charges. [97] A jury convicted him of accepting an illegal gratuity, obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and destruction of documents. The convictions were overturned on appeal because his Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by use of his immunized public testimony [98] and because the judge had incorrectly explained the crime of destruction of documents to the jury. [99] , Oliver North's secretary, was given immunity from prosecution on charges of conspiracy and destroying documents in exchange for her testimony. [100]
  • Jonathan Scott Royster, Liaison to Oliver North, was given immunity from prosecution on charges of conspiracy and destroying documents in exchange for his testimony. [101]
  • National Security Advisor John Poindexter was convicted of five counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury, defrauding the government, and the alteration and destruction of evidence. A panel of the D.C. Circuit overturned the convictions on 15 November 1991 for the same reason the court had overturned Oliver North's, and by the same 2 to 1 vote. [102] The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. [103] . An ex-CIA senior official, he was indicted in November 1991 on seven counts of perjury and false statements relating to a November 1985 shipment to Iran. Pardoned before trial by President George H. W. Bush. [104][105] . Former Air Force major general, who was involved in arms transfers to Iran and diversion of funds to Contras, he pleaded guilty in November 1989 to making false statements to Congress and was sentenced to two years of probation. As part of his plea bargain, Secord agreed to provide further truthful testimony in exchange for the dismissal of remaining criminal charges against him. [106][16] . A businessman, he pleaded guilty in November 1989 to supplementing the salary of North by buying a $13,800 fence for North with money from "the Enterprise," which was a set of foreign companies Hakim used in Iran–Contra. In addition, Swiss company Lake Resources Inc., used for storing money from arms sales to Iran to give to the Contras, plead guilty to stealing government property. [107] Hakim was given two years of probation and a $5,000 fine, while Lake Resources Inc. was ordered to dissolve. [106][108] . A former CIA clandestine service officer. According to Special Prosecutor Walsh, he earned nearly $883,000 helping retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord and Albert Hakim carry out the secret operations of "the Enterprise". He was indicted for concealing the full amount of his Enterprise profits for the 1985 and 1986 tax years, and for failing to declare his foreign financial accounts. He was convicted and served 16 months in prison, the only Iran-Contra defendant to have served a prison sentence. [109]

The Independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, chose not to re-try North or Poindexter. [110] In total, several dozen people were investigated by Walsh's office. [111]

George H. W. Bush's involvement Edit

On 27 July 1986, Israeli counterterrorism expert Amiram Nir briefed Vice President Bush in Jerusalem about the weapon sales to Iran. [112]

In an interview with The Washington Post in August 1987, Bush stated that he was denied information about the operation and did not know about the diversion of funds. [113] Bush said that he had not advised Reagan to reject the initiative because he had not heard strong objections to it. [113] The Post quoted him as stating, "We were not in the loop." [113] The following month, Bush recounted meeting Nir in his September 1987 autobiography Looking Forward, stating that he began to develop misgivings about the Iran initiative. [114] He wrote that he did not learn the full extent of the Iran dealings until he was briefed by Senator David Durenberger regarding a Senate inquiry into them. [114] Bush added the briefing with Durenberger left him with the feeling he had "been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation". [114]

In January 1988 during a live interview with Bush on CBS Evening News, Dan Rather told Bush that his unwillingness to speak about the scandal led "people to say 'either George Bush was irrelevant or he was ineffective, he set himself outside of the loop.'" [115] Bush replied, "May I explain what I mean by 'out of the loop'? No operational role." [115] [116]

Although Bush publicly insisted that he knew little about the operation, his statements were contradicted by excerpts of his diary released by the White House in January 1993. [115] [117] An entry dated 5 November 1986 stated: "On the news at this time is the question of the hostages. I'm one of the few people that know fully the details, and there is a lot of flak and misinformation out there. It is not a subject we can talk about. " [115] [117]

Pardons Edit

On 24 December 1992, after he had been defeated for reelection, lame duck President George H. W. Bush pardoned five administration officials who had been found guilty on charges relating to the affair. [118] They were:

Bush also pardoned Caspar Weinberger, who had not yet come to trial. [119] Attorney General William P. Barr advised the President on these pardons, especially that of Caspar Weinberger. [120]

In response to these Bush pardons, Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who headed the investigation of Reagan Administration officials' criminal conduct in the Iran–Contra scandal, stated that "the Iran–Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed." Walsh noted that in issuing the pardons Bush appears to have been preempting being implicated himself in the crimes of Iran–Contra by evidence that was to come to light during the Weinberger trial, and noted that there was a pattern of "deception and obstruction" by Bush, Weinberger and other senior Reagan administration officials. [110] [11] [12]

Modern interpretations Edit

The Iran–Contra affair and the ensuing deception to protect senior administration officials (including President Reagan) was cast as an example of post-truth politics by Malcolm Byrne of George Washington University. [121]

The 100th Congress formed a Joint Committee of the United States Congress (Congressional Committees Investigating The Iran-Contra Affair) and held hearings in mid-1987. Transcripts were published as: Iran–Contra Investigation: Joint Hearings Before the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran (U.S. GPO 1987–88). A closed Executive Session heard classified testimony from North and Poindexter this transcript was published in a redacted format. The joint committee's final report was Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran–Contra Affair With Supplemental, Minority, and Additional Views (U.S. GPO 17 November 1987). The records of the committee are at the National Archives, but many are still non-public. [122]

Testimony was also heard before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and can be found in the Congressional Record for those bodies. The Senate Intelligence Committee produced two reports: Preliminary Inquiry into the Sale of Arms to Iran and Possible Diversion of Funds to the Nicaraguan Resistance (2 February 1987) and Were Relevant Documents Withheld from the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran–Contra Affair? (June 1989). [123]

The Tower Commission Report was published as the Report of the President's Special Review Board (U.S. GPO 26 February 1987). It was also published as The Tower Commission Report by Bantam Books (ISBN 0-553-26968-2).

The Office of Independent Counsel/Walsh investigation produced four interim reports to Congress. Its final report was published as the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters. Walsh's records are available at the National Archives. [124]

Iran Contra Affair - History

The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On

Documents Spotlight Role of Reagan, Top Aides

Pentagon Nominee Robert Gates Among Many
Prominent Figures Involved in the Scandal

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 210

Posted - November 24, 2006

For more information contact:
Malcolm Byrne - 202/994-7043
Peter Kornbluh - 202/994-7116
Thomas Blanton - 202/994-7000

Related links

The Iran-Contra Scandal:
The Declassified History

A National Security Archive Documents Reader
Edited by Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne
Order from

The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988

A major microfiche set now available on-line as part of the "Digital National Security Archive" through ProQuest Information and Learning

  • Elliott Abrams - currently deputy assistant to President Bush and deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy, Abrams was one of the Reagan administration's most controversial figures as the senior State Department official for Latin America in the mid-1980s. He entered into a plea bargain in federal court after being indicted for providing false testimony about his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Contras, although he later accused the independent counsel's office of forcing him to accept guilt on two counts. President George H. W. Bush later pardoned him.
  • David Addington - now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and by numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power, Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney.
  • John Bolton - the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time.
  • Richard Cheney - now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees' Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
  • Robert M. Gates - President Bush's nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987 because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when he was re-nominated in 1991. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
  • Manuchehr Ghorbanifar - the quintessential middleman, who helped broker the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all sides' goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections.
  • Michael Ledeen - a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11, introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring contacts inside Iran.
  • Edwin Meese - currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan's controversial attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry by the nation's top law enforcement officer.
  • John Negroponte - the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S. military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Negroponte's profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
  • Oliver L. North - now a radio talk show host and columnist, he was at the center of the Iran-Contra spotlight as the point man for both covert activities. A Marine serving on the NSC staff, he steadfastly maintained that he received high-level approval for everything he did, and that "the diversion was a diversion." He was found guilty on three counts at a criminal trial but had those verdicts overturned on the grounds that his protected congressional testimony might have influenced his trial. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from Virginia in 1996. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)
  • Daniel Ortega - the newly elected president of Nicaragua was the principal target of several years of covert warfare by the United States in the 1980s as the leader of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. His democratic election in November 2006 was not the only irony -- it's been suggested by one of Oliver North's former colleagues in the Reagan administration that North's public statements in Nicaragua in late October 2006 may have taken votes away from the candidate preferred by the Bush administration and thus helped Ortega at the polls.
  • John Poindexter - who found a niche deep in the U.S. government's post-9/11 security bureaucracy as head of the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program (formally disbanded by Congress in 2003), was Oliver North's superior during the Iran-Contra period and personally approved or directed many of his activities. His assertion that he never told President Reagan about the diversion of Iranian funds to the Contras ensured Reagan would not face impeachment.
  • Otto Reich - President George W. Bush's one-time assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Reich ran a covert public diplomacy operation designed to build support for Ronald Reagan's Contra policies. A U.S. comptroller-general investigation concluded the program amounted to "prohibited, covert propaganda activities," although no charges were ever filed against him. Reich paid a price in terms of congressional opposition to his nomination to run Latin America policy, resulting in a recess appointment in 2002 that lasted less than a year. (See previous Electronic Briefing Book)

Robert Gates faced intense investigative scrutiny in the aftermath of Iran-Contra over his knowledge of, and forthrightness about, North's role in the Contra resupply effort. Gates has maintained that he was unaware of the NSC aide's operational activities in support of the rebels. However, two of his former colleagues believe that he was aware, according to the Iran-Contra independent counsel's final report, which notes several pieces of evidence that appear to support that conclusion. Among them are these three documents, which relate to North's campaign to get the CIA to buy various assets his "Enterprise" had acquired in the course of working with the Contras.

The first document, from Vincent Cannistraro, a career CIA official then on the NSC staff, specifically mentions "Ollie's ship," a vessel North and his associates used to ferry arms to the rebels, and indicates the subject will come up at Poindexter's next meeting with CIA Director Casey and DDCI Gates. Cannistraro later concluded from the discussion that followed that Gates was aware of the ship's use in the resupply operations and of North's connection to it.

The second and third documents are e-mails between North and Poindexter. In his note, North says it appears the NSC (and possibly Poindexter himself) has instructed the CIA not to buy "Project Democracy's" assets. Poindexter's response, which is difficult to read, states: "I did not give Casey any such guidance. I did tell Gates that I thought the private effort should be phased out. Please talk to Casey about this. I agree with you."

Document 7: NSC, Diagram of "Enterprise" for Contra Support, July 1986

Oliver North sketched this organizational flow chart of the private sector entities that he had organized to provide ongoing support for the Contra war, after Congress terminated official assistance. The diagram identifies the complex covert "off-the-shelf" resource management, financial accounting, and armaments and paramilitary operational structures that the NSC created to illicitly sustain the Contra campaign in Nicaragua.

Document 8: U.S. Embassy Brunei, Cables, "Brunei Project," SECRET, August 2, 1986 & September 16, 1986

In preparation for a secret mission by an emissary -- Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Elliott Abrams - to seek secret funds for the Contra war from the Sultan of Brunei, the U.S. Ambassador in Brunei sent a cable stating that a meeting time had been organized during the Sultan's upcoming trip to London. Abrams used the alias "Mr. Kenilworth" in his meetings, and arranged for the Sultan to secretly transfer $10 million into a bank account controlled by Oliver North. "I said that we deeply appreciate his understanding our needs and his valuable assistance," Abrams cabled on September 16th, after the secret meeting. (The Sultan was given a private tour of the USS Vinson as a token of appreciation.) The funds were lost, however, because the account number Abrams provided was incorrect. Eventually Abrams was forced to plead guilty to charges of misleading Congress after testimony such as: "We're not, you know, we're not in the fund-raising business."

Document 9: NSC, Diaries, North Notebook Entries on Manuel Noriega, August 24 & September 22, 1986

In one of the most controversial efforts to enlist third country support for the Contra war, Oliver North arranged to meet Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in a London hotel in September 1986. In return for ending U.S. pressure on Panama for Noriega's drug smuggling operations and helping to "clean up" his image, Noriega proposed to engage in efforts to assassinate the Sandinista leadership. With authorization from National Security Advisor John Poindexter, North met with Noriega in a London hotel on September 22 and discussed how Panama could help with sophisticated sabotage operations against Nicaraguan targets, including the airport, oil refinery and port facilities. According to notes taken by North at the meeting, they also discussed setting up training camps in Panama for Contra operatives.

Document 10: CIA, Memorandum for the record from Robert M. Gates, "Lunch with Ollie North," TOP SECRET/EYES ONLY, October 10, 1986

Robert Gates faced additional criticism for attempting to avoid hearing about the Iran and Contra operations as they were unfolding, instead of taking a more active role in stopping them. As Gates testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 1986, his approach was to keep the agency's distance from the so-called private Contra resupply operation. ". [W]e have, I think, conscientiously tried to avoid knowing what is going on in terms of any of this private funding . we will say I don't want to hear anything about it." In this memo for the record, Gates, clearly continuing to protect the CIA, relates that North told him the "CIA is completely clean" on the private resupply matter. The independent counsel's report later commented that "Gates recorded North's purportedly exculpatory statement uncritically, even though he was by then clearly aware of the possible diversion of U.S. funds through the 'private benefactors.'"

Document 11: Independent Counsel, Court Record, "U.S. Government Stipulation on Quid Pro Quos with Other Governments as Part of Contra Operation," April 6, 1989

The most secret part of the Iran-Contra operations were the quid pro quo arrangements the White House made with countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other governments who were enlisted to support the Contra war. As part of his defense, Oliver North attempted to "grey mail" the U.S. government by insisting that all top secret documents on the quid pro quos should be declassified for trial. Instead, the government agreed to the "stipulation" - a summary of the evidence in the documents -- presented here.

This comprehensive synopsis reveals the approaches to, and arrangements with, numerous other governments made by the CIA and NSC in an effort to acquire funding, arms, logistics and strategic support for the Contra war. The effort ranged from CIA acquisitions of PLO arms seized by Israel, to Oliver North's secret effort to trade favors with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. In the case of Saudi Arabia, President Reagan personally urged King Fahd to replace funds cut by the U.S. Congress. In the end, the Saudis contributed $32 million dollars to finance the Contra war campaign.


Document 12: CIA, Memorandum, "Subject: Fabricator Notice - Manuchehr ((Gorbanifar))," SECRET, July 25, 1984

One of the key figures in the disastrous arms-for-hostages deals with Iran was weapons broker Manuchehr Ghorbanifar. Despite the CIA's dismissal of him as a "fabricator," by 1985 Ghorbanifar managed to persuade senior officials in three governments -- the United States, Iran and Israel -- to utilize him as their middleman. The parallels with Iraq in 2003 are apparent: American officials (in this case) lacking a fundamental understanding of, information about, or contacts in the country in question allowed themselves to rely on individuals whose motives and qualifications required far greater scrutiny. Ironically, press reports featuring interviews with former officials indicate that Ghorbanifar has met with Pentagon representatives interested in his take on current Iranian politics. (See also the reference to Ghorbanifar in the Introduction to this briefing book.)

Document 13: CIA, Draft Presidential Finding, "Scope: Hostage Rescue - Middle East," (with cover note from William J. Casey), November 26, 1985

Of the six covert transactions with Iran in 1985-1986, the most controversial was a shipment of 18 HAWK (Homing-All-the-Way-Killer) anti-aircraft missiles in November 1985. Not only did the delivery run afoul -- for which the American operatives blamed their Israeli counterparts -- but it took place without the required written presidential authorization. The CIA drafted this document only after Deputy Director John McMahon discovered that one had not been prepared prior to the shipment. It was considered so sensitive that once Reagan signed off retroactively on December 5, John Poindexter kept it in his office safe until the scandal erupted a year later -- then tore it up, as he acknowledged, in order to spare the president "political embarrassment." The version presented here is a draft of the one Poindexter destroyed.

Document 14: Diary, Caspar W. Weinberger, December 7, 1985

The disastrous November HAWK shipment prompted U.S. officials to take direct control of the arms deals with Iran. Until then, Israel had been responsible for making the deliveries, for which the U.S. agreed to replenish their stocks of American weapons. Before making this important decision, President Reagan convened an extraordinary meeting of several top advisers in the White House family quarters on December 7, 1985, to discuss the issue. Among those attending were Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger. Both men objected vehemently to the idea of shipping arms to Iran, which the U.S. had declared a sponsor of international terrorism. But in this remarkable set of notes, Weinberger captures the president's determination to move ahead regardless of the obstacles, legal or otherwise: "President sd. he could answer charges of illegality but he couldn't answer charge that 'big strong President Reagan passed up chance to free hostages.'"

Document 15: White House, John M. Poindexter Memorandum to President Reagan, "Covert Action Finding Regarding Iran," (with attached presidential finding), January 17, 1986

While the Finding Reagan signed retroactively to cover the November 1985 HAWK shipment was destroyed, this Finding and cover memo from which Reagan received a briefing on the status of the Iran operation survived intact. It reflects the president's personal authorization for direct U.S. arms sales to Iran, a directive that remained in force until the arms deals were exposed in November 1986.

Document 16: NSC, Oliver L. North Memorandum, "Release of American Hostages in Beirut," (so-called "Diversion Memo"), TOP SECRET/SENSITIVE, April 4, 1986

At the center of the public's perception of the scandal was the revelation that the two previously unconnected covert activities -- trading arms for hostages with Iran and backing the Nicaraguan Contras against congressional prohibitions -- had become joined. This memo from Oliver North is the main piece of evidence to survive which spells out the plan to use "residuals" from the arms deals to fund the rebels. Justice Department investigators discovered it in North's NSC files in late November 1986. For unknown reasons it escaped North's notorious document "shredding party" which took place after the scandal became public.

Document 17: White House, Draft National Security Decision Directive (NSDD), "U.S. Policy Toward Iran," TOP SECRET, (with cover memo from Robert C. McFarlane to George P. Shultz and Caspar W. Weinberger), June 17, 1985

The secret deals with Iran were mainly aimed at freeing American hostages who were being held in Lebanon by forces linked to the Tehran regime. But there was another, subsidiary motivation on the part of some officials, which was to press for renewed ties with the Islamic Republic. One of the proponents of this controversial idea was National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, who eventually took the lead on the U.S. side in the arms-for-hostages deals until his resignation in December 1985. This draft of a National Security Decision Directive, prepared at his behest by NSC and CIA staff, puts forward the argument for developing ties with Iran based on the traditional Cold War concern that isolating the Khomeini regime could open the way for Moscow to assert its influence in a strategically vital part of the world. To counter that possibility, the document proposes allowing limited amounts of arms to be supplied to the Iranians. The idea did not get far, as the next document testifies.

Document 18: Defense Department, Handwritten Notes, Caspar W. Weinberger Reaction to Draft NSDD on Iran (with attached note and transcription by Colin Powell), June 18, 1985

While CIA Director William J. Casey, for one, supported McFarlane's idea of reaching out to Iran through limited supplies of arms, among other approaches, President Reagan's two senior foreign policy advisers strongly opposed the notion. In this scrawled note to his military assistant, Colin Powell, Weinberger belittles the proposal as "almost too absurd to comment on . It's like asking Qadhafi to Washington for a cozy chat." Richard Armitage, who is mentioned in Powell's note to his boss, was an assistant secretary of defense at the time and later became deputy secretary of state under Powell.

Document 19: George H. W. Bush Diary, November 4-5, 1986

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush became entangled in controversy over his knowledge of Iran-Contra. Although he asserted publicly that he was "out of the loop -- no operational role," he was well informed of events, particularly the Iran deals, as evidenced in part by this diary excerpt just after the Iran operation was exposed: "I'm one of the few people that know fully the details . " The problem for Bush was greatly magnified because he was preparing to run for president just as the scandal burst. He managed to escape significant blame -- ultimately winning the 1988 election -- but he came under fire later for repeatedly failing to disclose the existence of his diary to investigators and then for pardoning several Iran-Contra figures, including former Defense Secretary Weinberger just days before his trial was set to begin. As a result of the pardons, the independent counsel's final report pointedly noted: "The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete."

Document 20: Caspar W. Weinberger Memorandum for the Record, "Meeting . with the President . in the Oval Office," November 10, 1986

This memo is one of several documents relating to the Reagan administration's attempts to produce a unified response to the growing scandal. The session Weinberger memorializes here was the first that included all the relevant senior officials and it is notable as much for what it omits as for what it describes. For example, there is no mention of the most damaging episode of the Iran initiative -- the November 1985 HAWK missile shipment -- and the absence of an advance presidential finding to make it legal. This issue was at the center of administration political concerns since it, along with the matter of the "diversion," were the most likely to raise the prospect of impeachment.

1. For more complete collections of primary documents, see Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, (New York: The New Press, 1993), and the National Security Archive's major microfiche set, The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988 (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey, 1989), now available on-line as part of the "Digital National Security Archive" through ProQuest Information and Learning.

Iran-Contra Affair

The Iran-Contra Affair was a clandestine action not approved of by the United States Congress. It began in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan's administration supplied weapons to Iran¹ — a sworn enemy — in hopes of securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's leader. This article is rooted in the Iran Hostage Crisis. The U.S. took millions of dollars from the weapons sale and routed them and guns to the right-wing "Contra"² guerrillas in Nicaragua. The Contras were the armed opponents of Nicaragua's Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction, following the July 1979 overthrow of strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the ending of the Somoza family's 43-year reign. Illegal trading The transactions that took place in the Iran-Contra scandal were contrary to the legislation of the Democratic-dominated Congress and contrary to official Reagan administration policy. Part of the deal was that, in July 1985, the United States would send 508 American-made TOW anti-tank missiles from Israel to Iran for the safe exchange of a hostage, the Reverend Benjamin Weir. After that successful transfer, the Israelis offered to ship 500 HAWK surface-to-air missiles to Iran in November 1985, in exchange for the release of all remaining American hostages being held in Lebanon. Eventually the arms were sold with proceeds going to the contras, and the hostages were released. In February 1986, 1,000 TOW missiles were shipped to Iran. From May to November, there were more shipments of various weapons and parts. Eventually Hezbollah elected to kidnap more hostages following their release of the previous ones, which rendered meaningless any further dealings with Iran. The affair is exposed It was not until 1986 that word had gotten out about the secret transactions. The Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa published a series of articles in November 1986, that exposed the weapons-for-hostages deal. On November 18th, 1987, the Congress issued a report on the affair that stated the president bore "ultimate responsibility." Upon further investigation, Attorney General Edwin Meese verified the report and an independent special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, was assigned to investigate the deals involving the arms sale and the Contra support. President Reagan appointed a review board, headed by former Republican Senator John Tower. The Tower Commission's report concluded that the president had been inefficient in controlling the National Security Council, the agency that had actually made the illegal deals, and had known about the arms sale to the Iranians. However, it could not be discovered in hearings if the president had known about the Contra support. Court hearings and convictions The hearings surrounding the scandals were televised from May to August in 1987. Military aide Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North, former CIA chief William J. Casey, National Security Advisor John Poindexter, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, and many other high-ranking government officials were publicly investigated. It was finally found that National Security Advisor Poindexter had personally authorized the diversion of money to the Contra rebels all the while withholding the information from President Reagan. The CIA's William J. Casey played a part in the conspiracy, but he died during the hearings. As a military aide to the National Security Council, North had been the main negotiator. During his hearings he repeatedly explained that he was "under orders from his superiors." North's plea of innocence was overlooked, and in May 1989, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and unlawfully destroying government documents. A few years later, when George H.W. Bush was president, North's conviction was expunged on the grounds that he had acted strictly out of patriotism. Poindexter was convicted in April 1990 on five counts of deceiving Congress and sentenced to six months in prison. Two years later, Weinberger also was convicted of five counts of deceiving Congress. Both Poindexter and Weinberger's convictions were overturned — which relieved them of any accumulated responsibility. On Christmas Eve 1992, President Bush issued presidential pardons to all indicted in the scandal. The Iran-Contra Affair was ended.

¹Iran was locked in a war with Iraq.
²Abbreviation for contrarrevolucionario, a Spanish-language term meaning counter- revolutionary.
See Iranian Hostage Crisis.

The most well-known and politically damaging of the scandals came to light since Watergate was in 1986, when Ronald Reagan conceded that the United States had sold weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of a largely unsuccessful effort to secure the release of six U.S. citizens being held hostage in Lebanon. It was also disclosed that some of the money from the arms deal with Iran had been covertly and illegally funneled into a fund to aid the right-wing Contras counter-revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Iran–Contra affair, as it became known, did serious damage throughout the Reagan presidency. The investigations were effectively halted when Reagan's vice-president and successor, George H. W. Bush pardoned Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before his trial began. [2]

    , United States Secretary of Defense, was pardoned before trial produced by George H. W. Bush agreed to cooperate with investigators and in return was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges instead of facing possible felony indictments. He was sentenced to two years' probation and one hundred hours of community service. He was also pardoned by Bush on December 24, 1992 along with five other former Reagan Administration officials who had been implicated in connection with Iran–Contra. [3]
  1. National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors and was sentenced to two years' probation and 200 hours of community service and was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. [3] He was also pardoned by Bush. was the Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Central American Task Force. He pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding information from Congress and was sentenced to one year of probation and one hundred hours of community service. He was also pardoned by Bush. [3][4] – Partner with Oliver North in IBC, an Office of Public Diplomacy front group, convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States. [3][5] was Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Division of Covert Operations under President Reagan. George was convicted of lying to two congressional committees in 1986. He was pardoned by Bush. [3][4][6] was indicted on nine felony counts of lying to Congress and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to Congress. [3][7] was convicted of four counts of tax-related offenses for failing to report income from the Iran/Contra operations. [3][8] – Office of Public Diplomacy, partner in International Business- first person convicted in the Iran/Contra scandal, pleaded guilty of one count of defrauding the United States [3][5] , Reagan's national security advisor, was found guilty of five criminal counts including lying to Congress, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. His conviction was later overturned on grounds that he did not receive a fair trial (the prosecution may have been influenced by his immunized testimony in front of Congress.) [3][9] was indicted on sixteen charges in the Iran–Contra affair and found guilty of three—aiding and abetting obstruction of Congress, shredding or altering official documents and accepting a gratuity. His convictions were later overturned on the grounds that his immunized testimony had tainted his trial. [3][10] also pardoned before trial by Bush pleaded guilty to supplementing the salary of North indicted on four counts of obstruction and false statements case dismissed when Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh refused to declassify information needed for his defense

The HUD rigging scandal occurred when Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce and his associates rigged low income housing bids to favor Republican contributors to Reagan's campaign as well as rewarding Republican lobbyists such as James G. Watt Secretary of the Interior. [11] Sixteen convictions were eventually handed down, [12] including the following:

    , Reagan's Secretary of the Interior was indicted on 24 felony counts and pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. He was sentenced to five years' probation, and ordered to pay a $5000 fine. [13] – Assistant HUD Secretary. Pleaded guilty to one count of scheming to give illegal gratuities [14] pardoned by President Bill Clinton, November, 2000 [15]
  1. Thomas Demery – Assistant HUD Secretary – pleaded guilty to steering HUD subsidies to politically connected donors. Found guilty of bribery and obstruction of justice [14] – executive assistant to Secretary Pierce – indicted on thirteen counts, three counts of conspiracy, one count of accepting an illegal gratuity, four counts of perjury, and five counts of concealing articles. She was convicted on twelve. She appealed and prevailed on several counts but the convictions for conspiracy remained. [14] , Special Assistant to the Secretary of HUD, convicted for accepting payments to favor Puerto Rican land developers in receiving HUD funding. [16] convicted of perjury and bribery. [14] , the Treasurer of the United States from 1989 to 1993 [17]

Secretary Pierce, the "central person" in the scandal, was not charged because he made "full and public written acceptance of responsibility." [17]

Retired Federal Judge Arlin Adams served as independent counsel in the first five years of the prosecution, through 1995. [14] and Larry Thompson completed the work 1995–98. [17]

When an administration staff member leaves office, federal law governs how quickly one can begin a lobbying career.

    , Reagan’s Chief of Staff, was convicted of lying to both a congressional committee and to a federal grand jury about his lobbying activities after he left the government. He received three years' probation and was fined $100,000 after being convicted for lying to a congressional subcommittee. [18] Reagan's Press Secretary was convicted on charges of illegal lobbying after leaving government service in Wedtech scandal. His conviction was later overturned. [19]

A number of scandals occurred at the Environmental Protection Agency under the Reagan administration. Over twenty high-level EPA employees were removed from office during Reagan's first three years as president. [20] Additionally, several Agency officials resigned amidst a variety of charges, ranging from being unduly influenced by industry groups to rewarding or punishing employees based on their political beliefs. [21] Sewergate, the most prominent EPA scandal during this period, involved the targeted release of Superfund grants to enhance the election prospects of local officials aligned with the Republican Party.

    , an administrator at the EPA, misused Superfund monies and was convicted of perjury. She served three months in prison, was fined $10,000 and given five years' probation. [22] , the controversial head of the EPA. Burford, citing "Executive Privilege," refused to turn over Superfund records to Congress. [23] She was found in Contempt, whereupon she resigned.

Savings and loan crisis in which 747 institutions failed and had to be rescued with $160 billion in taxpayer dollars. [24] Reagan's "elimination of loopholes" in the tax code included the elimination of the "passive loss" provisions that subsidized rental housing. Because this was removed retroactively, it bankrupted many real estate developments which used this tax break as a premise, which in turn bankrupted 747 Savings and Loans, many of whom were operating more or less as banks, thus requiring the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to cover their debts and losses with taxpayer money. This with some other "deregulation" policies, ultimately led to the largest political and financial scandal in U.S. history to that date, the savings and loan crisis. The ultimate cost of the crisis is estimated to have totaled around $150 billion, about $125 billion of which was directly subsidized by the U.S. government, which further increased the large budget deficits of the early 1990s. See Keating Five.

As an indication of this scandal's size, Martin Mayer wrote at the time, "The theft from the taxpayer by the community that fattened on the growth of the savings and loan (S&L) industry in the 1980s is the worst public scandal in American history. Teapot Dome in the Harding administration and the Credit Mobilier in the times of Ulysses S. Grant have been taken as the ultimate horror stories of capitalist democracy gone to seed. Measuring by money, [or] by the misallocation of national resources . the S&L outrage makes Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier seem minor episodes." [25]

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it "the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance and larceny of all time." [26]

    was a three-year investigation launched in 1986 by the FBI into corruption by U.S. government and military officials, and private defense contractors.
    , appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1981 by Republican President Ronald Reagan, [27] was found to have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. He pleaded guilty to bribery and served four years in prison. [28] , Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, took over when Paisley resigned his office. [29] Gaines was convicted of accepting an illegal gratuity and theft and conversion of government property. He was sentenced to six months in prison. [30] , Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, was the 50th conviction obtained under the Ill Wind probe when he pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and conspiring to defraud the government. [31]
    Wedtech Corporation convicted of bribery for Defense Department contracts
    Attorney General, resigned but never convicted. [32] White House Press Secretary, whose conviction of lobbying was overturned. [33] sentenced to 2½ years. [34] sentenced to 2½ years. [35]

Debategate involved the final days of the 1980 presidential election and briefing papers that were to have been used by President Jimmy Carter in preparation for the October 28, 1980, debate with Reagan had somehow been acquired by Reagan's team. This fact was not divulged to the public until late June 1983, after Laurence Barrett published Gambling With History: Reagan in the White House, an in-depth account of the Reagan administration's first two years.

James Baker swore under oath that he had received the briefing book from William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager, but Casey vehemently denied this. The matter was never resolved as both the FBI and a congressional subcommittee failed to determine how or through whom the briefing book came to the Reagan campaign. [36]

Retirement and declining health

In the presidential election of 1988, Reagan campaigned actively for the Republican nominee, Vice President Bush. In large part because of Reagan’s continued popularity, Bush defeated Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis by 53 percent to 46 percent in the popular vote the vote in the electoral college was 426 to 111. Reagan retired to his home in Los Angeles, where he wrote his autobiography, An American Life (1990). In 1994, in a letter to the American people, Reagan disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease, a degenerative brain disorder.

To some observers Reagan’s declining health had been evident for many years. Mindful of her husband’s diminished capacity, Nancy Reagan occasionally would screen him from the press by intercepting reporters’ questions and then whispering an appropriate response in his ear. Reagan’s health problems made public appearances difficult for the former president, but his popularity hardly waned. National Airport in Washington, D.C., was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by Congress and President Bill Clinton in February 1998. Reagan’s conservative policies and heated rhetoric had always infuriated liberals, and his administration had experienced its share of scandals and disappointments. But to his millions of fans and political admirers, this tribute was the least the government could do for the man who had helped to end the Cold War and restored, however fleetingly, the country’s confidence in itself and its faith in a better tomorrow.

National History Standards

Era 10 Contemporary United States (1968 to present)

Standard 1: Recent developments in foreign and domestic politics

Standard 1B: The student understands domestic politics in contemporary society

Historical Thinking Standards

Standard 5: Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making

  • Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation
  • Evaluate alternative courses of action, keeping in mind the information available at the time, in terms of ethical considerations, the interests of those affected by the decision, and the long-and short-term consequences of each
  • Evaluate the implementation of a decision by analyzing the interest it served estimating the position, power, and priority of each player involved assessing the ethical dimensions of the decision and evaluating its costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives

Common Core State Standards: Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Grades 6-12

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Grades 11-12

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole..
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines "faction" in Federalist No. 10).
  • Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
  • Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  • Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Maryland State Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

Expectation: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

    • Topic A: America impacts the World (1981-present)
      • Indicator 1: Analyze United States foreign policy from 1981 to the present (5.6.1).


      • Through analysis of primary sources, students will be able to construct and provide support for an historical interpretation of North's role in the Iran-Contra Affair.
      • Students will determine if Oliver North was acting as a patriot, a pawn or an outlaw.

      Topic Background

      Between 1984 and 1985, seven Americans were abducted in Beirut, Lebanon by Hezbollah, a fundamentalist, Shiite terrorist organization with links to the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. President Ronald Reagan denounced the Iranian government and urged Americans to refrain from selling any arms or goods to Iran. In 1985, the United States Congress passed the International Security and Development Cooperation Act (ISDCA), which enabled the president to prohibit trade with any country supporting or harboring terrorists or terrorist organizations. The United States government appeared to take a hard stance on terrorism in the Middle East. In the meantime, however, Reagan's administration had already begun the process of selling weapons to Iran, using Israel as an intermediary, in an effort to secure the release of the hostages. In 1986, the arms for hostages deal turned into a major scandal in Washington and beyond. At a press conference on November 25, 1986, Reagan claimed he was "deeply troubled that the implementation of a policy aimed at resolving a truly tragic situation in the Middle East has resulted in such controversy." Reagan said that he believed that his administration's policy goals had been "well founded." 1

      In order to understand the rationale for the administration's willingness to exchange weapons for hostages, it is necessary to understand the complexity of the growing tensions in Latin American and the Middle East in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the Carter and Reagan Administrations, the number of communist-led and supported governments in Latin America and parts of the Middle East had increased. In countries such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan, communist governments had gained control. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and supported the communist People's Democratic Party.

      In Iran, meanwhile, a homegrown revolution had overthrown the American-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled to the United States. In 1979, Islamic cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took total control of the government, with the goal of establishing an Islamic republic and ridding Iran of all Western influence. In an act of deliberate aggression against the United States, the new Islamic government captured and held 52 Americans in Tehran for 444 days.

      Many historians agree that the inability of the Carter administration to resolve the crisis was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Negotiations were, in fact, secretly underway, but the release of the hostages did not occur until Reagan was sworn into office in January 1981. The United States broke off relations with Iran and instituted a series of economic sanctions in an attempt to weaken the theocratic government.

      In Latin America, the Sandinistas, a Marxist-socialist organization, took control of Nicaragua, challenging the Monroe Doctrine that had influenced American foreign policy in the Western hemisphere for decades. By the beginning of the 1980s, it appeared to the United States that communism and the Soviet Union were gaining momentum in the region, posing a threat to the United States.

      In the 1984 election, Ronald Reagan won 49 of the 50 states in a landslide. In response to his mandate, Reagan enacted his own "Reagan Doctrine," in which he proclaimed, "we must not break our faith with those who are risking their lives - on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua - to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours since birth. Support for freedom fighters is self defense." 2 Reagan's defense of freedom fighters was indicative of his staunch anti-communist beliefs.

      Reagan had promised to confront the spread of communism and restore American's faith in their economy and government. As historian Gil Troy described in Morning in America, "In foreign and domestic policy, he [Reagan] believed that America could pursue peace by strengthening the military." 3 In Nicaragua, Reagan supported the rebel forces attempting to overthrow the communist Sandinista government and military. In December 1981, Reagan sent the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) into Nicaragua as a paramilitary force to help the Contras. Congress did not support the rebels and outlawed assisting them with Boland Amendment in 1982 and again in 1984. In the Second Boland Amendment, Congress clearly stated that "none of the funds. may be used by the Central Intelligence Agency of the Department of Defense to furnish military equipment, military training or advice, other support for military activities, to any group or individual, not part of a country's armed forces, for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras." 4

      Nevertheless, the CIA acquired weapons confiscated from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the Israeli government in May 1983 and July 1984 and supplied the Contras with the weapons in Nicaragua. During this time, in June 1984, Reagan met with Vice President George Bush, and other chief aids to find other means to help the Contras. During this meeting, the idea to assist the Contras through a third party emerged. In March 1985, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, proposed to National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane that Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and Iran serve as possible third party donors. 5 In April, President Reagan had called President Roberto Suazo Còrdova of Honduras to assure him that that the United States was committed to helping the Contras even without financial assistance from Congress. Support for the Contras was not favored in the country, with the American people divided about whether or not to interfere in Nicaragua. Public opinion polls showed shifts ranging from forty-seven percent to sixty-five percent against assistance for the Contras. 6

      In the summer of 1986, Oliver North began raising funds for the secret operations in Nicaragua by meeting with officials from Brunei and Panama. In August of 1986, North met with General Manuel Noriega, the military dictator of Panama and a known drug trafficker, to organize an arrangement between the two countries. In a message to National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, North explained Noriega's willingness to "take care of the Sandinista leadership" in return for U.S. assistance in "cleaning up" his image. Though an exchange never occurred, it demonstrated the extent to which the administration was willing to go in order to meet its foreign policy goals in Latin America. 7

      Between 1985 and 1986, the arms deals between Israel, Iran, and the United States were in motion. The CIA made arrangements with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian businessman, to broker the exchange of weapons. On August 20, 1985, the Israelis provided the Iranians with 96 TOW anti-tank missiles. In September, 408 more TOW missiles were delivered to Iran and one hostage was released the same day. In October, another hostage was reportedly killed despite Iran's guarantees. The United States continued the covert supply of weapons to Israel for sale to Iran. In November, the Israelis sent eighteen HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, but they were rejected. Consequently, in December of 1985, the CIA determined that they could no longer provide arms without explicit presidential approval. The United States took a more direct role in the exchange process when Reagan insisted that his administration could not pass up an opportunity to free the hostages. 8

      In February 1986, an American and Iranian contact met to discuss the details of another exchange and concluded the following:

      Despite the exchange of weapons on two occasions in February, no other hostages were released.

      In early March, the Iranians demanded more weapons and U.S. officials refused to accept these demands, but then in April a new agreement had been reached. Using the Israelis, the administration organized the sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the profits to the Contras in Nicaragua under a plan known as "Enterprise" led by Oliver North. "Enterprise received approximately $16.1 million in profits from the Iran arms sales by marking up the price charged to Iran over the price paid to the U.S. Government. approximately $3.8 million was 'diverted' from the arms proceeds to the freedom fighters" in Nicaragua. 10 On November 2, 1986, an Iranian official leaked the news that the U.S. government had been selling arms to Iran.

      In 1987, members of Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra Affair to determine who had taken part and to what extent President Reagan was involved. The Democrats had managed to maintain their majority hold on Congress despite Reagan's Republican, presidential victory. As the joint committee of the House and Senate prepared for their investigation, Reagan assured the American public that the United States government did not negotiate with terrorists and ordered his own White House investigation, the Tower Commission, to look into affair in late 1986.

      On March 4, 1987, Reagan again spoke to the American public and informed them that his administration had taken part in an arms-for-hostages program without his knowledge and as president, he assumed the blame. In his address, Reagan claimed that he overlooked the specifics of the freeing of the hostages because he was more concerned about their welfare than the specifics of the plan. On May 5, 1987 joint committee hearings were held to investigate the covert arms sale. On August 12, Reagan again addressed the nation to quell public concerns. This time, he took the blame, but insisted that he was unaware of the complexity of the Iran-Nicaraguan exchange.

      Congress released its report on November 16, 1987 and revealed that members within the U.S. military and Reagan's administration were aware of the details of the exchanges. The document, compiled primarily by Democrats on the House and Senate Select Committee, claimed that Reagan was unknowing of the operations however, the report did blame him by stating that "if the President did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have." The Majority Report by the Congress stressed the importance of the powers of Congress and the need for the executive branch to recognize the legislative branch's role in foreign policy decisions. 11

      On the other hand, the Minority Report of the Iran-Contra Congressional Report, compiled primarily by Republican members, offered a different perspective and criticized the congressional committee as a witch hunt. The Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives stressed that "there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for "the rule of law," no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover up." The Minority Report stressed that the Boland Amendment was an attempt by Congress to control the executive branch and determine foreign policy in Latin America. The Republican generated report stressed that the executive branch had the right to act decisively in order to safe guard the United States of America. 12

      The Minority and Majority Reports for the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrated the growing tension that had existed between the Executive and Legislative branches since the Vietnam War. The divergent findings of the reports underscored this partisanship.

      Following the Congressional Report, numerous members of the Reagan administration were indicted for providing false testimony, conspiracy, and diversion. Oliver North was indicted and charged with 16 counts. In January 1989, North's trial began and Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-Contra Investigation, noted "the trial would. reveal. how much high level support the Contras had received from the Reagan administration in defiance of the Boland amendments." 13

      The defense's witnesses portrayed North as a hero and savior, while the prosecution relied on witness testimonies that depicted him as a thief and liar. During the trial, North admitted to altering documents and misinforming Congress about the events related to the Contras however, he insisted that it was not unlawful because he was carrying out orders. Lawrence Walsh noted that the trial became about whether or not Oliver North was a "pawn or knight errant." In the end, the jury found North guilty of "aiding and abetting the preparation of the false testimony for the Congressional testimony. destruction of NSC documents, and. acceptance of illegal gratuity." 14

      Following the trial, Walsh claimed that the verdict "nailed North as the felon he was," yet he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Afterwards, North emerged as a national figure. North's fame allowed him to become the host of War Stories, a military documentary on Fox News Channel, an author of eleven books, and a public speaker. In 1994, U.S. News and World Report noted that 45 percent of Americans had a "positive opinion of North" and 62 percent believed he did what was best for the country. 15 Based on Oliver North's involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, America's foreign policy stance during the Cold War, and American public sentiment towards North's actions, how should Oliver North's role in the Iran-Contra Affair be remembered? Was Oliver North a patriot, a pawn or an outlaw?

      1 Ronald Reagan, "Remarks Announcing the Review of the National Security Council's Role in the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy." 25 November 1986. Available from University of Texas at Austin Accessed 27 June 2011.

      2 Charles Krauthammer, "Essay: The Reagan Doctrine," Time, 1 April 1985.

      3 Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 239.

      4 "Appropriations - Deficiency Act, 11 September 1984," United States Government Accountability Office, available from Accessed 27 June 2011.

      5 National Security Archives, "The Iran Contra Affair 20 Years On," George Washington University, available from

      6 Gil Troy, Morning in America.

      7 Alexander Cockburn, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (New York: New Left Books, 1998) 287-288.

      8 "Iran-Contra Report: Arms, Hostages and Contras: How a Secret Foreign Policy Unraveled," The New York Times , 19 November 1987.

      9 National Security Archives, "White House, John M. Poindexter Memorandum to President Reagan, Covert Action Finding Regarding Iran, 17 January 1986," available from George Washington University

      10 American Presidency Project. "Excerpts from the Tower Commission's Reports." University of California Santa Barbara, available from Accessed 27 June 2011.

      11 American Presidency Project, "Congressional Committee Iran Contra Majority Report."

      12 Understanding the Iran Contra Affair, "Minority Report," Brown University, available from Accessed 27 June 2011.

      13 Lawrence E. Walsh, Firewall: The Iran Contra Conspiracy and Cover Up (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997)184.


      Contras - a member of the U.S.-supported, counter-revolutionary force that tried to overthrow the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s

      Covert - secret not intended to be known, seen, or found out

      Extralegal - not permitted by or subject to the law

      Islamic - a monotheistic (singular god) religion based on the word of God as revealed to Muhammad during the seventh century

      Marxist - a person who subscribes to the political, economic and social principles and policies of socialism as advocated by Karl Marx, a 19th-century revolutionary philosopher and economist

      Paramilitary - an organization supplying military weapons and tactical aid to a group fighting against the official ruling power

      Pawn - one who is used for the advantage of another person or organization

      Teaching Procedures

      Overarching Question: How did American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East and Latin America during the 1980s lead to the Iran-Contra Affair?

      History Lab Focus Question: Based on his actions in the Iran-Contra Affair, should Oliver North be regarded as a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw?


      • Projector and markers
      • RS#01: Background on the Iran-Contra Affair Iran-Contra Sources (All students will receive RS#02 Source 1 and RS#09 Source Evaluation Sheet. Make enough copies of the next six sources for students to work on one individually and then in a group.)
      • RS#02: Source 1 - Congressional Hearings, Majority Report, 1987 (Excerpt)
      • RS#03: Source 2 - Reagan Doctrine, 1985
      • RS#04: Source 3 - Legislation, 1982-1985
      • RS#05: Source 4 - Hearing Testimony, Adolfo Calero, 1987
      • RS#06: Source 5 - Email from Oliver North
      • RS#07: Source 6 - Hearing Testimony, Fawn Hall, 1987
      • RS#08: Source 7 - Polls, 1986-1994
      • RS#09: Source Evaluation Sheet
      • RS#10: Assessment Option 1 - Oliver North Trading Card
      • RS#11: Assessment Option 2 - Ballad of Oliver North
      • RS#12: Composition Scoring Tool (for Assessment Options)
      • RS#13: Iran-Contra Affair Timeline (for teacher reference)


      Step 1: Initiate the Lab

      • What sort of government did Iran have in 1980 and what happened to U.S.-Iranian relations as a result of the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis?
      • Students may mention actions taken in Cuba (rise of Fidel Castro and Soviet alliance, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis) as an example.

      Transition: Mention that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Administration (NSA) continued to take a large and covert role in the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War era. Intelligence gathering in a zero-sum environment often led to risky and unethical decision-making.

      • Post the overarching question and focus question on the board for students to use for reference.
      • Explain that in this History Lab, students will examine the decision-making on two hot button, interconnected foreign relations matters during the Reagan administration: The kidnapping of seven Americans in Beirut, Lebanon by forces allied with the radical Iranian government in the mid-1980s and the administration's determination to support anti-communist forces in toppling the Communist government of Nicaragua. They will see how the extra-legal actions taken by members of the administration, in particular those of Lt. Colonel Oliver North, led to a major scandal in the late 1980s.
      • Post and review the vocabulary for the History Lab.

      Assign the reading "Background on the Iran-Contra Affair" (RS#01) for homework. Ask students to take notes, as they read, on the major events and actors. Students should write down when the events occurred and in what order.

      Step 2: Frame the Lab

      As a class, construct and display a timeline of the major events and people for the Iran-Contra affair, using the homework reading and student notes.

      • Why did the Reagan administration want to help the Contras in Nicaragua?
      • Why was it illegal for the Reagan administration to help the Contras in Nicaragua by the mid-1980s? (Discuss the Boland Amendments passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Reagan from 1982-1984. The amendments prohibited direct support of the Nicaraguan Contras, although the restrictions were loosened between the first and subsequent versions of the legislation.)
      • If Americans were being held hostage in Lebanon, why would Iran help?

      If students are having difficulty understanding the events, considering using the parody made by a television show like American Dad to simplify the "plot" and engage the students. The American Dad parody, titled "Oliver North Song," is available on YouTube.

      Also refer to the reference timeline (RS#13).

      Step 3: Model the Historical Process

      Distribute RS#02 "Source 1 - Congressional Joint Hearing, Majority Report, 1987 (Excerpt)"

      Have students read the sample source. As a class, identify and discuss the text, context, and subtext for the source. Review definitions, if necessary:

      Text - What information is provided by the source?

      Context - The conditions under which the source was created. Why was the source produced? What was going on during the time period?

      Subtext - What information can be determined by reading between the lines? Was the document meant to be read by the public? Whom was the source intended and why was it produced?

      • Does the source offer any information to support the idea that the arms-for-hostages deal was necessary?
      • Is there any evidence that arms-for-hostages deal was illegal?
      • Who was the author of this source? Is this source biased (was the author trying to influence the reader)? Reread the text. Underline examples indicating whether the author believed Oliver North was a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw.

      Transition: Distribute RS#09 "Source Evaluation Sheet." Explain that students will now examine a variety of evidence in an attempt to answer the focus question. Have students complete the section for Source 1.

      Step 4: Facilitate the Lab

      Provide each student with one of the six other sources. Allow students time to read the source and identify if the source supports North's portrayal as a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw. Move students into groups based on the source.

      Have students complete their portion of RS#09 Source Evaluation Sheet by circling the term or terms and supplying supporting details from the source. Provide time for the students to assess the subtext of each source and its impact on the text of the source.

      Step 5: Present Information and Interpretations

      Each group will present its findings to the class. All students will complete RS#09.

      Step 6: Connect to the Overarching Question

      Discuss the focus question: Based on his actions in the Iran-Contra Affair, should Oliver North be regarded as a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw?

      • Which sources support the viewpoint of Oliver North as a patriot?
      • Which sources support the viewpoint of Oliver North as a pawn? (For example, the Majority Report notes how Oliver North followed the direction of his superior officers in the administration.)
      • Which sources support the viewpoint of Oliver North as a criminal? (For example, according to the legislation, Oliver North broke the law.)
      • How should Oliver North be regarded? Which sources are the most persuasive?

      Make the connection to the overarching question. Ask students: How did American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East and Latin America during the 1980s lead to the Iran-Contra Affair?

      • How did Iran-Contra reflect the concerns of the Reagan Administration and its foreign policy in Latin America and the Middle East during the Cold War?
      • Could the United States have pursued alternative actions with Lebanon to secure the release of the American hostages?
      • Did the United States have the right to take action against the government in Nicaragua?
      • Prediction: How would U.S. actions in Nicaragua affect the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union? Explain.
      • Prediction: Would the Cold War intensify or improve because of U.S. actions in Latin America and the Middle East? Justify your response.

      Step 7: Assess Student Understanding

      The assessment can be a homework assignment. Use RS#12 Composition Scoring Tool to evaluate student writing (optional).

      Assessment Option 1 - Oliver North Trading Card (RS#10)
      In 1988, a company produced a set of 35 trading cards on the individuals involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Each card contained an image of the individual and a biography.

      Distribute RS#10 Assessment Option 1 - Oliver North Trading Card

      Explain: You have been commissioned to create a trading card for Oliver North for a set of cards on the Iran-Contra Affair. Using the template on the sheet, develop a "character sketch," to include an image of North (on the left) and a biography (on the right), that is based on your interpretation of his role in Iran-Contra and how he should be remembered. Take into account the timeline of events and the other "actors." Explain your rationale by referencing at 2-4 historical sources. Write in complete sentences.

      Assessment Option 2 - Ballad of Oliver North (RS#11)
      Many songwriters use the events of the day as their inspiration. In 1987, Tom Bridges recorded the song, "Give 'Em Hell Ollie," about Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair. (Follow this link: to listen to the song.) Discuss how Bridges depicts North. Was North a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw? Your task is to develop your own song lyrics about Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair.

      Distribute RS#11 Assessment Option 2 - Ballad of Oliver North

      Explain: Write the lyrics for your own song about Oliver North. Based on what you have learned, express your view of North. Do you see him as a patriot, a pawn, or an outlaw? Make sure to include some of the other "actors" and the chronology of the events. Bonus - Set your song to music.


      Student Resources

      RS#01 Background on the Iran-Contra Affair
      RS#02 Source 1 - Joint Hearing Majority Report, 1987
      RS#03 Source 2 - Reagan Doctrine, 1985
      RS#04 Source 3 - Legislation, 1982-1985
      RS#05 Source 4 - Testimony, Adolfo Calero, 1987
      RS#06 Source 5 - North Email to John Poindexter, 1986
      RS#07 Source 6 - Testimony, Fawn Hall, 1987
      RS#08 Source 7 - Polls, 1986-1994
      RS#09 Source Evaluation Sheet
      RS#10 Assessment Option 1 - Trading Card
      RS#11 Assessment Option 2 - Song

      Teacher Resources

      NOTE:For some Resource Sheets, an associated teacher resource is provided with additional information. These are numbered RS#XX.1.
      RS#12 Composition Scoring Tool
      RS#13 Iran-Contra Affair Timeline

      Primary Source Annotaions

      Iran Contra Affair - History

      The Iran-Contra Affairs of the 1980s stemmed from the Reagan Administration's foreign policies toward two seemingly unrelated countries, Nicaragua and Iran. The Administration believed that changes to these countries that occurred in the 1970s threatened U.S. national interests.

      In Nicaragua, a socialist movement (the Sandinistas) seized power through a revolution in 1979. The Administration, fearful of the potential spread of socialism throughout Latin America, eventually backed paramilitaries (the contras) who sought to overthrow this revolutionary regime. In the section on Nicaragua, you will find a brief background of U.S. policy toward the region since the 19th Century information on the history, composition, ideologies, and policies of the Sandinistas and contras and a detailed description of the actions the United States took in Nicaragua from 1979 until the Iran-Contra Affairs. You will also find a brief description of Nicaragua since the affairs.

      In 1979, power also changed hands in Iran when a radical Islamic movement overthrew the U.S.-backed government. Because the revolutionary government was unfriendly toward the United States and potentially allied with the Soviet Union, the Administration tried to bolster moderate elements within Iran, a policy that became more complicated when Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist groups seized American hostages. In the Iran section, you will find a history of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, as well as a history of Iran's domestic politics. Additionally, you will find a detailed section on the Reagan Administration's policies toward Iran with regard to both the regime and U.S. hostages.

      “The common ingredients of the Iran and Contra policies were secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law. the United States simultaneously pursued two contradictory foreign policies — a public one and a secret one” ( Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair ).

      The Iran-Contra Affair of 1984-1987 was not one, but two separate covert foreign policy issues concerning two different problems, in two separate countries, that were dealt in two very different ways. Under the management of the same few officials, both the Iran and the Contra policies intersected at certain important points giving rise to the singular title, Iran-Contra Affair. The first covert foreign policy initiative was the continued support for the democratic rebel Contras against the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in a time when Congress had cut off funds to the Contras. The second covert foreign policy initiative was the selling of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Iranian allies in Lebanon. The two policies intersected when profits from the arms sales to Iran were used to support the Nicaraguan Contras through third parties and private funds.

      This overview of the Iran-Contra Affair is organized into the following sections:

      1. Institutional History: NSC and CIA

      5. Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair

      The National Security Council (“NSC”) and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) developed in such a way that structurally allowed each to work around Congress and have the Executive Branch and third party actors implement and frame the foreign policy of the entire Unites States. To understand how, one must look historically at the evolution of these two groups. The beginning starts with the National Security Act of July 26, 1947. Truman signed this piece of legislation that gave birth simultaneously to both the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

      The NSC was not originally founded to facilitate presidential decision making, but it evolved with each administration until it became structured and powerful enough to perform covert operations. During Eisenhower’s administration in the mid 1950’s the NSC became a “virtual adjunct of the presidency.”[1] The NSC staff was now under a special assistant to the President and not the NSC directly, turning the Presidency into a bureaucracy itself. The Kennedy administration’s changes to the NSC were driven by the Bay of Pigs incident that left Kennedy skeptical of the traditional departments and led him to prefer a more direct and personal style of executing policies. It was under Kennedy that the “distinction between planning and operation” was altered.[2] Whereas the NSC was previously a planning entity, Kennedy made it also function operationally. This allowed the executive branch to avoid the State Department and furthered a trend of inflating the Office of the President through its replication of the rest of the government. The Office of the President grew in ways that sometimes supported, sometimes competed with, and other times ignored other governmental agencies and offices.

      The inflationary trend continued with the Reagan administration. The NSC became further professionalized with a staff of about forty-five under the National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and more than 200 people in support. [3] It became further structured in reflection of the State Department under Robert McFarlane’s successor, John Poindexter when it was organized into twelve directorates i.e. the African office, European Office, etc. The person most hurt, and most undermined by this trend was the Secretary of State, George Shultz during the Reagan administration, because now the president was performing similar duties, with similar staff support from his own office. The NSC was now “large and varied enough to carry out the president’s wishes covertly- even from the rest of the government.”[4] Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, deputy director of political-military affairs for the National Security Council staff was deeply involved in both the Iran and Contra affairs.

      Like the NSC, the CIA evolved with the different Presidential administrations. Under Eisenhower, the 1955 NSC directive outlined the spectrum of the CIA’s covert operations in an effort to turn the CIA into a “virtual Cold War machine against Communism-“ to “create and exploit troublesome problems for international Communism…reduce international Communist control over any areas of the world” and “develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerilla operations.” [5] Eisenhower did qualify that the covert operations had to be consistent with U.S. foreign and military policies. The War Powers Resolution, which was created as a check on presidential power by Congress did not include a check of covert wars and paramilitary activities that the CIA was authorized to conduct. The CIA director during the Reagan administration was William Casey.

      The U.S. has long intervened in Nicaraguan affairs, aiming to keep its political developments amicable with and aligned to American interests. As early as 1912 the U.S. has utilized military force to quell rebellions against American approved leaders or to help overthrow unwanted regimes. Therefore, when U.S. trained head of the Nicaraguan National Guard, Somoza García, forcefully took power in 1936, the U.S. made no move to protect the current administration under Augusto César Sandino. Sandino’s murder marked the beginning of the Somoza dynastic rule which lasted for the next 43 years. In 1961, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (“FSLN”), named in honor of Sandino, was created in opposition to the Somoza dynasty. Ideologically, the Sandinistas saw themselves as a Marxist-Leninist organization with aims of turning Nicaragua into a socialist state. Inspired by and closely connected to Cuba, the Sandinistas worked to create and consolidate their power in the context of a cold war era where socialist revolutions and uprisings were gaining in worldwide popularity.

      In 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, son of Somoza García, became president. He became notorious in Nicaragua for suppressing opposition and focusing on self-enrichment while in power. For example, in 1972, when an earthquake struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, Somoza exercised “emergency powers” to address the earthquake which in actuality resulted in him and his close friends confiscating the majority of international aid sent to help rebuild Nicaragua. This event consolidated the Nicaraguan’s disapproval of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, especially among the Sandinistas.

      In 1974, the Sandinistas kidnapped several Nicaraguan elites at a Christmas Party. Somoza responded to the affair by declaring a state of siege which spiraled into a series of serious human rights violations and guerilla attacks on peasants. In response, the United States, hyper-sensitive to the threat of communism and in conjunction with a contemporaneous trend of protecting human rights victims, began to pay attention to Nicaraguan affairs for the first time since the Somoza dynasty commenced in 1936. President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy was shaped not only by a consciousness of human rights, but also by a fatigue of foreign intervention due to the Vietnam War. President Carter cut off all aid to the Nicaraguan government until it improved its human rights violations. Somoza responded by lifting the state of siege. This was met by the Sandinistas re-initiating and expanding their attacks which were now supported by business elites including Alfonso Robelo, and academics, including Adolfo Calero.

      On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista uprising culminated in their gaining full power in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas first move as new political leaders was to declare a state of emergency and expropriate land and businesses owned by the old dynastic family and friends, nationalize banks, mines, and transit systems, abolish old courts, denounce churches, and nullify the constitution, laws, and elections. A socialist state was born in Nicaragua. President Carter immediately sent $99 million in aid to the FSLN in an attempt to keep the new regime pro-U.S.. Simultaneously, however, Cuban officials were advising the FSLN on foreign and domestic policy and the FSLN sought an alliance with the Soviet bloc which they reached by March 1980 signing economic, cultural, technological, and scientific agreements with the USSR. Deliveries of Soviet weapons from Cuba began almost immediately after the signing of these agreements.

      It was mid-1980 when José Cardenal and Enrique Bermúdez founded what would become the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN, the main contra group (“the Contras”). The Contras found support among the populations disaffected by Sandinista policies – i.e. protestant evangelicals, farmers, Nicaraguan Indians, Creoles, and other disgruntled and disenfranchised parties. The Argentinean government was the first to support the Contras. They directly oversaw the Contras, trained the military forces, and chose the Contra leadership whereas the U.S. took on the role of supplying money and arms. Many worried that the Contras were a continuation of the Somoza regime because of their use of brutal tactics against noncombatants and their alleged human rights abuses.

      Once it became clear to Washington that the FSLN would not moderate its policies, President Carter authorized the CIA to support resistance forces in Nicaragua including propaganda efforts, but not including armed action. The Sandinistas supported expanding socialism abroad, including sending weapons to leftist rebels in El Salvador beginning in 1980 and continuing for the next ten years. Some argue that this international support from Nicaragua was also in effort to insure that the Soviets would fully support and protect Nicaragua in case of a U.S. attack or intervention. Sandinista support for the Salvadoran rebels had a profound impact on U.S.-Nicaragua relations throughout the 80’s.

      January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated during a rightward shift in U.S. politics. He quickly cut off all aid to FSLN indefinitely due to the Sandinista’s continued support of Salvadoran rebels. In response, the Sandinistas consolidated power and expanded arrests of perceived dissidents under the belief that the U.S. would invade. On December 1, 1981, Reagan signed an order that allowed the CIA to support the Contras with arms, equipment, and money. This order was implemented in conjunction with an overall strengthening of U.S. presence in Central America and the belief that covert activities are the most effective way to put pressure on a regime. This shift of foreign policy away from the Carter administration’s non-intervention culminated in June 1982 with the Reagan Doctrine which called for supporting democratization everywhere. It was at this point that the goal of the covert operations in Nicaragua shifted away from one of simply interdicting arms to one of supporting a change in government. Iran-Contra historian Theodore Draper, among others, argued, that this was the real goal all the long.

      To help popularize the foreign policy changes of the Reagan administration certain propaganda and media initiatives were implemented to sway public and congressional opinion. In January of 1983, National Security Decisions Directive was signed, entitled “Management of Public Diplomacy Relative to National Security,” institutionalizing public diplomacy. In effect, it was a special planning group within the NSC to coordinate public diplomacy campaigns. [6] This group was America’s first peacetime propaganda ministry. Every administration tries to influence public opinion, but not until Reagan was it so institutionalized. Another use of “white propaganda,” which Richard Miller described as "actually putting out [the] truth, straight information, not deception," was the State Department’s Group of Latin American Public Diplomacy (S/LPD). [7] This group, in actuality, reported directly to the NSC despite being housed within the State Department. Both committees utilized a variety of media propaganda and control efforts. A fourteen page memorandum dated March 20, 1985 from North to National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane explained over 80 publicity stunts to influence public and congressional opinion before upcoming Contra aid votes. [8] The public diplomacy officials also leaked select pieces of information that they wanted made public to journalists who favored Reagan. Strategic leaking and declassification of documents allowed the Executive Branch to manage the public perceptions of the American efforts in South America.

      Despite all the propaganda efforts, a series of high-profile articles began to divide the Executive Branch and the Legislature over the topic of Nicaragua and Contra support. In 1982, the CIA gained a more prominent role in the training and funding of the Contras. This attracted the attention of Newsweek, whose cover story on November 8, 1982 was entitled “America’s Secret War: Nicaragua.” The story outlined America’s efforts to “undermine the Sandinista government,” [9] and prompted a heated editorial response in The Boston Globe. This response article sparked Massachusetts Representative Edward P. Boland to lead a congressional effort to end all funding of Nicaraguan efforts. The first Congressional legislation aimed at preventing funding came on December 21, 1982 with the first Boland Amendment which barred “the use of funds ‘for the purpose of’ overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras.”

      In a joint session of Congress, President Reagan said, “The Congress shares both the power and the responsibility for our foreign policy,” but by the time Congress exercised said shared power by passing Boland I, the Reagan administration had already committed itself to supporting the Contras unconditionally and at any cost- even if that meant defying Congress. [10] Open defiance was impossible, so covert defiance was adopted as the Executive Branch’s new normal. Boland I left a loophole that the Reagan administration quickly utilized- as long as the U.S. itself did not intend to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, the U.S. could support the Contras under a different guise such as humanitarian aid or by the solicitation of money from third-party funds and private actors. Thus, Boland I had no real impact on the conduct of the war in Nicaragua.

      During the second half of 1983, the CIA helped the Contras to conduct air strikes on Sandino airport near Managua in addition to other targets. The CIA used its own assets to implement some of the covert actions in Nicaragua, including destroying several fuel tanks. The CIA also placed mines in Nicaraguan harbors on January 7, 1984 and February 29, 1984, damaging several ships. The Contras initially took credit for the mining, but it was later revealed by The Wall Street Journal that the mines were placed by the CIA. Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal disclosed that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a U.S. Marine who worked on the National Security Council staff at the Reagan White House, had knowledge of and encouraged such actions. Oliver North would become an integral figure in the Iran-Contra Affair.

      Also at this time, National Security advisor Robert McFarlane began meeting with Israeli counterpart David Kimche inquiring to whether or not Israel would help support the Contras. The solicitation of Israel proved unsuccessful, but a few months later, McFarlane secured money from Saudi Arabia in support of the Contras. McFarlane would later argue that he had not solicited the funds, but simply mentioning the loss of the Contra aid was enough to insight the Saudis to provide money for the cause. McFarlane was able to secure over $32 million from Saudi Arabia from 1984-1986. North added on another $2 million from Taiwan throughout the affair. Later in 1984, some people within Reagan’s administration began toying with the idea of setting up a private tax-exempt organization to raise money for the Contras. Carl “Spitz” Channell led this effort to secure private funds, many of the larger donors meeting with Oliver North and even President Reagan directly.

      Realizing the ineffectiveness of Boland I, Congress, still determined to stop the flow of funds to Nicaragua, passed a second Boland Amendment on October 12, 1984 which reads:

      “During fiscal year 1985, no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual.”

      Boland II left two loopholes for getting money to the Contras. The first loophole, like that of Boland I, was to solicit third-party funds from private donors or third party countries to give money to the Contras. The second loophole was to use the NSC which is “ the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials” based on the logic that the NSC is not covered under Boland. Oliver North, on loan to the NSC from the Marine Corps, began to undertake this activity. President Reagan trusted that North, in conjunction with McFarlane, would make sure to keep the Contras together “body and soul.” [11] The passage of Boland II led to creative means of operational support of the contras: arms deals, air supply ops and intelligence support, and further solicitation of additional third party funds.

      Arms Deals: In addition to seeking alternative funding, North and others sought to provide the contras with arms and supplies. Oliver North worked withRichard Secord- a retired Air Force General, and Albert Hakim an Iranian businessmen to supply the Contras with arms. In November 1984 the three solidified their first agreement and by the end of the following summer over $11 million in arms were given to the Contras via private funds.

      Air Supply Ops: In 1985, North worked with Secord to “build and oversee an air resupply operation for the contras.” A privately funded airstrip was built in Costa Rica in order to carry out this operation which was functional and successfully delivering arms to the Contras by May 1986. October 5, 1986 marked the end of the air supply operations when an aircraft was shot down by the Sandinistas, and crewmember Eugene Hasenfus was captured. This would eventually lead to the full exposure of the operation.

      Intelligence Support: North also provided “ broader strategic military advice.” He shared U.S. and CIA intelligence with the Contras about the location of new Soviet arms and equipment shipments into Nicaragua.

      When private funding and third party governments did not provide as much support as North wanted for the Contras, North came upon the idea of overcharging the Iranians for weapons sold to them by Americans “ and using the surplus to fund the Contra resupply operation and other covert activities .” North wrote what would later be infamously known as the Diversion Memo to the new National Security Advisor John Poindexter and President Reagan in which he outlined how $12 MM of the profit Secord and Hakim made from the sale of arms to Iran “ will be used to purchase critically needed supplies for the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance Forces .” Of all of the events of the Iran-Contra Affairs, it was this diversion scheme that was the most controversial and explosive.

      Secord and Hakim were motivated by the potential to profit from the activities they engaged in, thus the Contras did not receive all the money given to their cause. As Kagan writes, “For all the controversy raised about the diversion, the Contras were fortunate if they received $2 million worth of tangible benefits [between January and October 1986,] an amount that paled in comparison to the far less controversial $32 million they ultimately received from Saudi Arabia.” With government funding, 100% of the money goes directly to the beneficiary. With third party and private actors, a portion of that will be allocated as profit.

      Congress changed its position on Contra funding with a series of amendments and provisions that resulted in the loosening of the Boland language. The Boland Amendments originally aimed to prevent all funds from flowing into Nicaragua, but from 1985-1986 Congress began qualifying which funds and for what purposes was acceptable. In August 1985, Congress passed a provision which allocated $14 million directly to the Contras for humanitarian assistance. Later that year, in December 1985, as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act, Congress outlawed most U.S. government departments and agencies, except for the State Department, from soliciting money from third-party countries to fund the Contras for “humanitarian assistance only.” The State Department was allowed to solicit funds provided that the money donated was from the countries’ own funds and that the U.S. did not enter into “any express or implied arrangement making U.S. provision of assistance to the third country contingent on the third country’s assistance to the contras.” The amendment also included a no “quid pro quo” statement between the U.S. and the third country. In 1986, The Intelligence Authorization Bill allowed the CIA to provide training and intelligence to the Contras as long as it did not “amount to participation in the planning for execution of military or paramilitary operations” or participation in “logistics activities integral to such operations.” In the summer of 1986, Congress passed a provision allocating $100MM of their own budget in aid to the Contras.

      As an oil rich nation, Iran is a country that the U.S. has long held foreign policy interest in. The U.S. maintained favorable relations with Iran throughout the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s, secular, yet authoritarian, rule. During those years, Iran was one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East. It was this close relationship with the U.S. and its foundation in the Shah’s secularism that ultimately served as an impetus for riots and demonstrations to break out across Iran in 1978. These demonstrations grew in strength and number culminating in the Shah leaving Iran in January 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini naming Iran an Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khomeini immediately severed all ties with the U.S. and declared Israel an illegitimate country. He ruled Iran as a religious leader, further consolidating his power. Iran shifted from the U.S.’s most powerful and valued ally in the Middle East to an American enemy virtually overnight.

      The U.S., wary of losing its oil rich friend, and desperate to keep Soviets from influencing the region, quickly moved to “normalize relations” with Iran. Despite these efforts, the Muslim Followers of the line of the Imam, a fundamentalist, anti-imperialist group made up predominately of young radical revolutionaries, seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, symbolizing the end of cordial diplomacy between the two nations. Fifty-three hostages were taken by this group and the Iranian government and general public supported their actions further antagonizing relations between the two former allies. Although these hostages were eventually released the day of President Reagan’s inauguration, more hostages would soon be taken, and relations would further be galvanized.

      Iran’s need for weapons during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1990 complicated the Iranian-American relations. In the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. actively engaged in an arms embargo against Iran called Operation Staunch and religious fundamentalist group Islamic Holy War took more U.S. hostages beginning in March 1984. It was Iran’s need for weapons, and the United States’ desire to re-open diplomatic relations that in 1985 led Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian businessman working with the U.S., and Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian arms dealer, to devise a skeleton plan for what would later become the Iran arms deal. This deal would alter Iranian-American relations and lead to the most controversial piece of the Iran-Contra scandal: the diversion of funds from the sale of weapons to Iran to supporting the Nicaraguan Contras.

      On July 1, 1985, the New York Times quoted President Ronald Reagan saying, “The United States gives terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals.” Three days later, McFarlane met with Israeli David Kimche (who had previously met with Khashoggi and Ghorbanifar) and the arms-for-hostages deal was first outlined as both a means to obtain the release of American hostages in addition to an attempt to improve diplomatic relations. Thirteen days after Reagan denounced bartering with terrorists on July 16, 1985, McFarlane visited President Reagan and his Chief of Staff Donald Regan while the President was in the hospital recovering from abdominal surgery. McFarlane proposed their recently outlined arms-for-hostages deal that specifically called for the selling of 100 American made TOW antitank missiles to Iran via Israel in exchange for some if not all American hostages and open communications with Iran. America would also send replacement TOWs to Israel. There are conflicting accounts of what was said and agreed to at this meeting. Regan remembered McFarlane saying to the President, “they had been approached by the Israelis, who had had contact that they would put us in touch with that could lead to a breakthrough in reaching elements in the Government of Iran” and “that this could lead to some help in the hostage situation because we suspected that the Iranians were in some way connected in to the group who had abducted the Americans.” [12] McFarlane gave multiple versions of what the President said in the hospital. One version that McFarlane relayed to Poindexter was that Reagan “was all for letting the Israelis do anything they wanted.” [13] Another version McFarlane gave was that “As I recall [Reagan] said that he could understand how people who were trying to overthrown a government would need weapons, but we weren’t yet sure about whether they were legitimate. So he said that we, the United States, could not do it.” [14] President Reagan also gave multiple stories of that day. In 1987 he said that he did not remember meeting with McFarlane at all, but in 1990 he agreed that during the meeting he first became aware of the arms-for hostage initiative in Iran. [15]

      On August 20, 1985, the first load of 96 TOW missiles was sent from Israel to Iran. Khashoggi provided “bridge financing,” posting $1 million of his private funds until Iran paid Israel for the weapons. [16] The deal was wholly managed through private actors- Ghorbanifar for Iran and Schwimmer and Nimrodi for Israel. Lt. Colonel Oliver North was brought into the Iran affair by McFarlane to manage logistics in the interest of the United States. North continued to stay involved in Iran when Poindexter succeeded McFarlane. On September 15, 1985, American hostage Benjamin Weir was released after 408 more TOWs were shipped to Iran. Any profits from the deal went to Ghorbanifar, Schwimmer or Nimrodi.

      Major General Richard Secord was brought into the Iran affair by North to help resupply Israel’s weapon store and organize logistical issues such as moving “sensitive material” between Israel and Iran. In November 1985, a second load of missiles was sold to Iran. The second sale provided the first funds that were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras. To complete the diversion covertly, and without the knowledge of Congress, Secord and Hakim established a company called the Stanford Technology Trading Group International which was commonly known as “The Enterprise.” Israel transferred $1 million to an Enterprise-owned, Secord-Hakim Lake Resources Swiss bank account for the second arms shipment. This account had previously been used only for Nicaraguan Contra business. [17] Of the $1 million, only $150,000 was spent on the weapons, the other $850,000 was diverted, by North, to be used to support the Contras. Ordinarily the entire million would’ve been paid back to the Israelis, but in this instance, North “told them we used it for the purpose of the Contras, and they acknowledged that” –and they never asked for the money back. [18] In January of 1986, the diversion scheme continued when Ghorbanifar suggested that any extra money made through the arms sales be diverted to aiding the Contras. McFarlane’s successor, John Poindexter, approved this plan.

      The Second shipment of arms-for-hostages mentioned briefly above was a logistical nightmare that North described as “a horror story.” [19] The original plan was that on November 22 nd , 1985, 120 Hawk missiles would be shipped from Israel to Portugal on an Israeli 747. In Portugal the weapons would be unloaded, stored, and reloaded on a non-Israeli plane and shipped to Iran in two intervals. First, eighty Hawks would be sent, followed by the release of hostages. Second, contingent upon the hostages’ release, the remaining forty would then be sent to Iran. [20] Schwimmer, who was heading the Israeli operations, applied last minute to get the necessary special clearances to land the cargo of arms at the Portuguese airport in Lisbon. Schwimmer found the authorities hesitant to grant him permission. It was at this point that Oliver North got involved and met with Israeli Defense Minister Rabin in New York on November 18 th about the operational logistics of shipping the “oil drilling equipment” to Iran. [21] To help with logistics, North brought Secord on board rather than using someone from the U.S. government because Secord had close ties with leading Portuguese arms dealer, Defex.

      The first effort to get airport clearance was described to the Portuguese Foreign Ministry as Defex working with a retired American general to ship arms to Iran. This confused Portuguese officials because of what they understood as the United States’ opposition to all shipments of arms to Iran under Operation Staunch. Portugal was now skeptical of the whole affair especially in regards to who was making this arms shipment request- the United States Government, or a private citizen. When that request was denied, North worked with Dewey R. Clarridge, Chief of the European division of the CIA, to help deal with the Lisbon airport crisis and try again to obtain airport clearance. Portugal firmly insisted on receiving a “formal acknowledgement they were being asked to help in a weapons shipment” as not to later be charged with violating Operation Staunch. [22]

      Ultimately North and Clarridge used an alternate plan utilizing “proprietary” airline flights to make the arms shipment. A proprietary airline is such that it is owned and controlled by the CIA but operates as if it were an ordinary commercial operation when not utilized for special CIA assignment. When Clarridge decided to go the proprietary route he informed the CIA controller in Frankfurt that “an urgent fight” that was “in the interest of the U.S. government” would need to be flown. [23] This shipment method did not run smoothly either, running across problems in Cyprus, Turkey, and culminating in the realization that the wrong missiles had been sent once they reached Tehran. The horror story ended with the decision to immediately repeat the operation under U.S. instead of Israeli management, this time with more success.

      After experiencing difficulties such as the second arms shipment and problems in securing the discussed exchanges with Iran, on January 17, 1986, President Reagan signed a Presidential Finding authorizing direct U.S. arms sales to Iran. Secord and the Enterprise would still be used as a third party to release the U.S. of any liability. Israel, would still serve as the base, but it would no longer buy and sell weapons. Now the Enterprise would buy and sell weapons directly on behalf of the United States.

      After continuing difficulties in securing the release of hostages from Iran, North and Secord determined that the U.S. had to find an alternate channel for dealing with Iran, and put Hakim in charge of the effort. In August 1986, Hakim, with his new Iranian contact, Ali Hashemi Bahramani, worked out a nine-point plan that compromised both his and the Iranians’ interests. The resulting agreement was that the U.S. would send Iran 1,500 TOWs in exchange for the release of 𔄙 ½ hostages (1 definitely and the 2 nd with all effective possible effort).” Iran also offered to pay the U.S. $3.6 million in addition to releasing the hostages which meant more funds could be diverted to the Contras. Hakim, serving as a “U.S. representative,” implemented his nine-point plan beginning in October 28, 1986 with the first shipment of arms. Of the $3.6 million Iran paid to the Enterprise, $2 million of this was given to the CIA who supplied the weapons, and the remaining $1.6 million was diverted to the Contras.

      On November 3, 1986, two Lebanese newspapers broke the story of the Iran arms deal, and quickly thereafter the entire scandal began to unravel in the United States. The first two weeks following the newspaper leak were marked by an increasing crisis of confidence in the government as facts rapidly became public. By December 1986 everything from the Contra affair to the diversion scheme found its way into the press.

      Nov. 13, 1986: President Ronald Reagan made his Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy and again addressed the nation in a press conference on November 19 th . On the 13 th , Reagan said that the U.S. was working with the Iranian government, but on the 19 th , he admitted to working with a “particular group,” [24] implying he dealt with terrorist organizations. Further contradictions were made during the press conference on the 19 th when Reagan stated that, “we did not condone and do not condone the shipment of arms from other countries.” [25] This, however, was said after Chief of Staff Donald Regan had already admitted that the White House condoned an Israeli shipment of Arms to Iran in September 1985. By the 19 th , virtually everything about the Iran side of the affair had come out: missiles and spare parts to Iran, the role of Israel, McFarlane’s mission to Tehran, North, Ghorbanifar, etc. [26] Reagan’s blunders during the November 19 th conference set into motion public discourse on the President’s credibility and role in the whole affair.

      On November 21 st , Oliver North engaged in what he would later be referred to as a “shredding party,” destroying potentially incriminating documents, helped by his secretary Fawn Hall, in anticipation of the Justice Department lawyers coming to search his office the next day. North did not, however, destroy the smoking gun of the connection between the Iran arms sales and the funding for the Nicaraguan contras, the Diversion Memo. After Attorney General Meese, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds, and Chief of Staff to Attorney General Richardson interviewed North about the document, the Reagan administration raced to release this information to the public. Fearing accusations of a Watergate style cover-up and more seriously the possibility of impeachment, President Reagan himself publicly acknowledged diversion scheme of the arms deal to the public. [27]

      November 25, 1986 Reagan held a press conference where Attorney General Meese responded to the majority of questions. Meese said that the affair did not go any higher than Admiral Poindexter. [28] This press conference was also the first time the possibility of legal charges was discussed and North, watching from a TV in his office, found out simultaneously with the general public that he could be facing criminal charges. [29] That same day, Poindexter resigned as National Security Advisor, and North, who was only detailed to the NSC and appointed as assistant to the President was transferred back to the Marines.

      Three mechanisms were established to uncover the truth of the Iran-Contra Affair in hopes of regaining public trust in addition to fully understand the scandal: a special review board appointed by Reagan, an independent counsel per-Meese’s request, and the holding of immunized joint-congressional hearings.

      On November 26, 1986, one day after President Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese held a press conference at which they publicized the diversions scheme, President Reagan appointed former US. Senator John Tower and others to a special review board known as the Tower Commission. The Tower Commission was created with the purpose of “evaluating the operation of the National Security Council in general and the role of the NSC staff in particular.” [30] The Tower Commission released its findings on February 26, 1987, concluding that the NSC itself was sound, and placed a heavy amount of blame on Chief of Staff Regan and National Security Advisor Poindexter. Although the Tower Commission did not find Reagan “guilty” nor claimed that he knew more than he was leading on to, it did argue that Reagan should have been more informed, criticizing his managerial style of running the White House for causing him to act with neglect and lack of oversight.

      Per Request of Attorney General Meese III, a panel of three judges appointed an Independent Counsel, Lawrence Walsh, to investigate the legal issues of the Iran-Contra affairs on December 19 th, 1986. Walsh, a former judge and deputy attorney general under Eisenhower, requested an official appointment by the U.S. Department of Justice on March 5, 1987, in order to avoid challenges over the constitutionality of using an Independent Counsel (Note: Morrison v. Olson had not yet been decided). Walsh’s job was made extremely difficult because of the immunity granted to the joint-committee hearings. These difficulties were formally presented to Congress in a report dated April 28, 1987. Walsh also encountered a problem with graymail- the refusal to declassify documents even if necessary to conduct a fair trial. Only the Attorney General can overrule this refusal. The Legal Aftermath of the Iran-Contra fairs includes fourteen people that were criminally charged. Of those fourteen, four were convicted of felony charges, seven pleaded guilty to either felonies or misdemeanors, one case was dismissed, and two that were awaiting trial were pardoned by George H.W. Bush.

      On March 5, 1987, the joint hearings of the House Select Committee to investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, later referred to simply as the Iran- Contra hearings, began and lasted for 41-days. Co-Chairman Inouye in his opening statements describes the purpose of the hearings:

      “Our hearings are neither pro-Contra nor anti-Contra, neither pro-Administration nor anti-Administration. We are not prosecutors and this is not an adversarial proceeding. We meet here as American citizens, united in a common effort to find the facts lest we repeat the mistakes.”

      The witnesses were granted immunity under the Fifth Amendment to prevent self-incrimination and in an effort to uncover all the facts. Of the thirteen key witnesses, this will highlight two: Oliver North and the John Poindexter.

      Oliver North’s immunized testimony before the joint-congressional committee began on July 7 th and lasted until the July 14 th , 1987. Adorned in his military uniform complete with decorations of valor from Vietnam, the handsome soldier promised on the first day to tell the truth, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” North appeared to some a hero, to others a victim, (Reagan called him both in December 1986) but ultimately his favorability rating was 67% after his testimony.

      During the hearings, North admitted to shredding documents because the Attorney General’s people were coming to look through his office the next day:

      “Mr. NIELDS : And you shredded documents before they got there?
      Mr. NORTH : I would prefer to say that I shredded documents that day like I did on all other days, but perhaps with increased intensity that's correct.”

      North’s testimony also revealed his willingness to engage in controversial, possibly illegal, covert activities:

      Mr. NORTH. I want you to know lying does not come
      easy to me. I want you to know that it doesn't come easy to any-
      body, but I think we all had to weigh in the balance the difference
      between lives and lies . I had to do that on a number of occasions in
      both these operations, and it is not an easy thing to do.”

      The hearings’ Majority Report concluded that “North’s testimony demonstrates that he also lied to members of the Executive branch, including the Attorney General, and officials of the State Department, CIA and NSC.” And also that “other officials lied repeatedly to Congress and to the American people about the Contra covert action and Iran arms sales, and that he altered and destroyed official documents”

      The hearing’s Majority Report referred to North as the central figure of the Iran-Contra Affair. It acknowledged that he did not and could not have acted alone, but it was his coordination and involvement in all activities and secret operations that made him the leading character. North explained that he “sought approval for every one of [his] actions and it is well documented. [He] assumed when [he] had approval to proceed from…Bud McFarlane or Admiral Poindexter, that they had indeed solicited and obtained the approval of the President.” [31] The hearings committee Majority Report recognized this causal chain of command, but North admitted that simply following orders alone was not sufficient grounds for breaking the law. “Both he and adm. Poindexter have argued,” however “that their activities did not break the law because they did not use money appropriated by the Congress.” [32] The use of legal defenses was utilized again by North when he testified that he got a legal opinion from the staff counsel of the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board (“IOB”) - a group of civilians appointed by the President to act as an independent watchdog over intelligence organizations, that confirmed that the NSC was not violating Boland restrictions as long as the “solicitation, banking, and movement of supplies were done outside the United States.”[33] The IOB staff counsel during the Reagan years had previously failed the bar exam four times before passing and had never written a legal opinion until his appraisal of the relevance of the Boland amendment to the NSC. [34] No substantive legal advice was sought from the Justice Department, the State Department, the White House counsel, or any other administrative official within the government. [35]

      John Poindexter’s immunized testimony immediately followed Oliver North’s and lasted from July 15-17 to July 20-21, 1987. From an appearance standpoint, Poindexter provided a stark contrast to North. Wearing Civilian clothing because, as Poindexter said the first day of the hearings, “this issue is not a Navy issue,” Poindexter was much more awkward, less dynamic, and not as handsome as North. The Watergate Scandal’s legacy focused the hearings’ questions to ‘what did the President know and when did he know it?’ [36] These questions were addressed by Poindexter who took full responsibility for the affair. This is in direct contrast to the Watergate Scandal where John Dean turned against Nixon in the public hearings. [37]

      Poindexter testified that the “buck” stopped with him and that Reagan knew nothing about the dispersion plan. Poindexter cited three reasons for why he was justified in not informing the President: first, Poindexter, unlike McFarlane did not believe that the Boland Amendment applied to the NSC, thereby Poindexter believed that the diversion of funds to the Contras was legal second, he saw the diversion as a “detail” of the larger political goal of aiding the Contras and third, “the president would have supported the policy had he known about it.” [38] Chairman Hamilton criticized Poindexter for claiming the buck stops with him because “that is not where the buck is supposed to stop,” arguing that Poindexter only wanted “to deflect responsibility from the President and that should not be done in our system of government.” Poindexter admitted during his testimony that he destroyed Reagan’s signed finding that sent arms to Iran on November 21, 1986 in order to avoid “ political embarrassment,” and he also claimed to “not recall” several key incidents. Two-thirds of those polled after Poindexter’s testimony believed that he was “covering up” for others in the administration, and a majority said he was covering up for the President. [39]

      The Majority Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, released on November 18, 1987, like the Tower Commission, criticized Reagan for his blunders:

      “The President himself told the public that the U.S. Government had no connection to the Hasenfus airplane. He told the public that early reports of arms sales for hostages had ‘no foundation.’ He told the public that the United States had not traded arms for hostages. He told the public that the United States had not condoned the arms sales by Israel to Iran, when in fact he had approved them and signed a Finding, later destroyed by Poindexter, recording his approval. All of these statements by the President were wrong.”

      and his lack of oversight:

      “Nevertheless, the ultimate responsibility for the events in the Iran-Contra Affair must rest with the President. If the President did not know what his National Security Advisers were doing, he should have. It is his responsibility to communicate unambiguously to his subordinates that they must keep him advised of important actions they take for the Administration. The Constitution requires the President to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ This charge encompasses a responsibility to leave the members of his Administration in no doubt that the rule of law governs.”

      The day before the hearings began, 63% of Americans felt that “it's time for the country to give the president the benefit of the doubt and put the Iran arms affair behind us.” [40] One-third of those questioned during the hearings said that they would care “a great deal” if Reagan had known about the diversion scheme. [41] A few days after the hearings ended, 58% of those polled say that Congress spent too much time on the investigation. Ultimately, 58% said that the important questions had not even been answered.[42] Indeed, the Iran-Contra Affair did leave the United States with several enduring issues.

      Byrne, Malcolm, and Peter Kornbluh. The Iran-Contra Affair the Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988. Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey, 1990.

      Busby, Robert. Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair: the Politics of Presidential Recovery. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

      “Current Public Opinion Surveyed.” Facts on File World News Digest 7 August 1987.

      Draper, Theodore. A Very Thin Line: the Iran-Contra Affairs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991.

      Fried, Amy. Muffled Echoes: Oliver North and the Politics of Public Opinion. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

      Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis F. Thompson. Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006.

      “Iran-Contra Pardons Favored Poll Reflects Limited Concern about Affair.” The Washington Post 23 July 1987.

      Johnson, Loch K. America's Secret Power: the CIA in a Democratic Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

      “Most in Poll Say Witness is Hiding Facts.” The Washington Posit 17 July 1987.

      Perry, Robert, and Peter Kornbluh. "Iran-Contra's Untold Story." Foreign Policy 72 (1988). Web. 14 Nov. 2010. <>.

      Strong, Robert A. Decisions and Dilemmas: Case Studies in Presidential Foreign Policy Making since 1945. M.E. Sharpe, M.E. Sharpe. Web.

      Williams, Robert. Political Scandals in the USA. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn Pub., 2000.

      Overview written by Rachel Hunter, Brown 2012

      [1] Draper, Theodore. A Very Thin Line: the Iran-Contra Affairs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991, p. 4

      Iran-Contra Affair: Arms for Hostages

      And so at the end of 1985, Reagan decided to proceed with an Iranian initiative that involved the exchange of arms for the release of Americans. A year later, the administration was trying to contain a political crisis that some critics equated with Nixon’s Watergate. In March 1987, the president conceded reluctantly in a nationally televised address that he had tried to trade arms for hostages. “I let my personal concern for the hostages spill over into the geopolitical strategy of reaching out to Iran.” The public made clear its rejection of the deal: Reagan’s approval rating dropped twenty-one points in one month, to 46 percent.

      The “Contra” half of the scandal began in the fall of 1982 when Congress passed the first Boland amendment, prohibiting the expenditure of funds to “overthrow” the government of Nicaragua. Arguing that the Contras did not intend to overthrow the government, the administration continued to fund the rebels until December 1984, when Congress denied any direct or indirect support by any U.S. intelligence agency to the Contras. At this point, the pro-Contra effort was shifted from the CIA to the NSC, which the administration contended was not an “intelligence” agency, under the direction of John Poindexter and his aide Oliver North.

      Apparently with the approval of CIA Director William Casey, North diverted profits from arms sales to the Contras. Asked by Reagan to investigate the matter, Attorney General Edwin Meese III called the diversion of funds “a tremendous error that should never have been allowed to happen.” North, Poindexter, and others were indicted and convicted on charges stemming from Iran-Contra. But unlike Nixon, Reagan did not try to cover up the affair. Iran-Contra was concerned with public policy Watergate was always about politics. Reagan approved arms for hostages to save American lives Nixon tried to contain Watergate to save himself.

      In November 1987, a select committee of the House and Senate concluded that the president had been shielded from knowledge and had been unaware of the funds diversion. The Republican minority said that the mistakes of the Iran-Contra affair had been “mistakes in judgment and nothing more. There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘internal rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy.” Iran-Contra soon faded from the public’s consciousness as most Americans decided that it was an exception and not the rule of the Reagan Doctrine.

      This article is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding’s book A Brief History of the Cold War. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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      Watch the video: Lectures in History: Iran-Contra Affair