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Iran-Contra Affair

The Iran-Contra Affair involved a secret foreign policy operation directed by White House officials in the NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL (NSC) under President RONALD REAGAN. The operation had two goals: first, to sell arms to Iran in the hope of winning the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and second, to illegally divert profits from these sales to the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Discovery of the secret operation, in 1986, triggered a legal and political uproar that rocked the Reagan administration. The numerous related investigations and indictments did not end until 1993 and even then questions remained about the roles of senior White House officials in this arms-for-hostages deal.

The affair came to public attention on November 3, 1986, when a Lebanese publication, Al-Shiraa, first reported that the United States had sold arms to Iran. The news was shocking because the Reagan administration had previously denounced Iran as a supporter of international TERRORISM. Shortly after the Al-Shiraa report Nicaraguan forces downed a U.S. plane and captured its pilot. The pilot's confession led to a second startling revelation: a private U.S. enterprise was supplying arms to Contra rebels.

The enterprise seemed designed to circumvent the will of Congress. In the early 1980s, after bitter debate, Congress had passed legislation barring the use of federal monies to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Through a series of amendments to appropriations bills enacted between 1982 and 1986, known as the Boland amendments, this legislation blocked the Reagan administration's wish to go on supporting the Contras. Now it was revealed that private citizens and private monies were being used to this end. Moreover, the operation was being directed from within the White House by the NSC—the president's advisory cabinet on security affairs and covert operations. Directing the Iran-Contra enterprise were Vice Admiral John Poindexter, national security assistant, and his subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, deputy director for political-military affairs.

Each branch of government quickly began a separate investigation into the affair. In December 1986, President Reagan issued an EXECUTIVE ORDER creating the Tower Commission, named after its chair, John Tower. The purpose of this three-member review board was to recommend changes in executive policy regarding the future roles and procedures of the NSC staff. Reagan's creation of the commission was a tacit disavowal of presidential knowledge or responsibility for the actions of Iran-Contra participants. Although admitting that his administration had negotiated secretly with Iran in order to free the hostages in Lebanon, he publicly denied knowing about the arms-supplying enterprise directed by his own NSC staff.

Simultaneously, the Senate and the House of Representatives each created a select Iran-Contra committee. These committees were charged with holding hearings to uncover facts and to recommend legislative action to prevent future illegal foreign policy operations. In their zeal to fully expose the affair, the committees granted limited forms of IMMUNITY to several key witnesses. This decision proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it provided Congress and the U.S. public with a wider understanding of the affair through televised hearings (which also made a public figure out of Lieutenant Colonel North). But it ultimately proved harmful to efforts to prosecute North and Vice Admiral Poindexter.

The attorney general requested that an INDEPENDENT COUNSEL be appointed to investigate wrongdoing. An independent counsel is a special appointee who is given the authority to bring indictments and pursue convictions. For this important role, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Independent Counsel Division, selected Lawrence E. Walsh, a former AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION president and former federal judge. Legal authority for Walsh's appointment existed in provisions of the Ethics in Government Act (Pub. L. No. 95-521 [Oct. 26, 1978], 92 Stat. 1824 [28 U.S.C.A. § 592(c) (1) (1982)]).

The various Iran-Contra investigations soon uncovered a plethora of legal violations. The covert arms sales to Iran violated numerous statutes that restricted the transfer of arms to nations that support international terrorism, principally the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (Pub. L. No. 90-629, 89 Stat. 1320 [22 U.S.C.A. §§ 2751–2796c (1989 Supp.)]). By failing to report the Iranian sales to Congress, the Reagan administration had ignored reporting provisions in the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act (Pub. L. No. 96-450, tit. IV, 407(b) (1), 94 Stat. 1981 [50 U.S.C.A. § 413 (1982)]). That law required the president to notify Congress in a timely fashion of any "significant anticipated intelligence activity, and to make a formal written "finding" (declaration) that each covert operation was important to national security. Three findings were at issue in the Iran-Contra affair: (1) Not only had President Reagan failed to report the first arms sales, but he had also authorized them through Israeli intermediaries by "oral" findings that were not authorized by intelligence oversight statutes. (2) The CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA) justified a second shipment of arms to the Iranians through a "retroactive" finding issued by the CIA's general counsel; Poindexter admitted destroying this finding. (3) President Reagan admitted signing a third written finding, in January 1986, but later claimed he had never read it.

The investigations took two turns. Congress and the Tower Commission completed their hearings and issued reports and independent counsel Walsh pursued wide-ranging indictments against several individuals, including Reagan administration officials. In 1987, Congress issued the 690-page Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair (S. Rep. No. 216, H.R. Rep. No. 433, 100th Cong., 1st Sess. 423). The report charged the president with failing to execute his constitutional duty to uphold the law. However, its conclusion did not support changes in legislation to prevent a future breakdown of legality in foreign policy affairs. Iran-Contra, the report said, reflected a failure of people rather than of laws. This assertion pointed to a central political disagreement about the affair: although Democrats were harsh in their condemnation, Republican members of Congress tended to view the investigation itself as an effort by Democrats to interfere with a Republican president's foreign policy. In like fashion, the 1987 Tower Commission

In December 1986 Lawrence E. Walsh was appointed independent counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra Affair. The investigation of the scandal ended in August 1993.

report downplayed any need for legislation to revise national security decision making. Instead, it criticized Reagan's lax management style.

After the reports, attention shifted to the independent counsel's investigation. In March 1988, GRAND JURY indictments were brought against North, Poindexter, Richard V. Secord, and Albert Hakim. The indictments included four distinct charges: conspiring to obstruct the U.S. government; diverting public funds from arms sales to Iran to aid the Contras in Nicaragua; stealing public funds for private ends; and lying to Congress and other government officials. With the exception of the routine criminal charge of theft, the most serious points in the indictments essentially accused the defendants of conducting a private foreign policy in violation of constitutional norms.

Before independent counsel Walsh could begin his prosecutions, several pretrial delays took place. First, the law providing for an independent counsel was challenged. The Reagan administration, joining a number of its former officials who were subject to other independent counsel investigations, argued that the law unconstitutionally denied the president important executive power. In June 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this argument and upheld the law's constitutionality in Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 108 S. Ct. 2597, 101 L. Ed. 2d 569. Next, the first four Iran-Contra defendants—Poindexter, North, Secord, and Hakim—moved for dismissal of the charges brought by Walsh. They argued that their compelled testimony before the joint congressional committees had violated their FIFTH AMENDMENT rights against SELF-INCRIMINATION. In United States v. Poindexter, 698 F. Supp. 300 (D.D.C. 1988), U.S. district judge Gerhard Gesell denied the motion, clearing the way for the trials to begin.

Soon, a more serious obstacle hampered Walsh's prosecution: the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT and the White House refused to release classified information crucial to the case on the grounds that it was vital to national security. Without this information, much of Walsh's case collapsed. He was forced to dismiss the broader charges of conspiracy and diversion—the crux of the Iran-Contra Affair's illegality—and to pursue instead the less serious charges remaining in the indictments.

Walsh won a conviction against Lieutenant Colonel North on May 4, 1989, for obstructing Congress, destroying documents, and accepting an illegal gratuity (United States v. North, 713 F. Supp. 1448 [D.D.C.]). The trial disclosed evidence that suggested that both Presidents Ronald Reagan and GEORGE H. W. BUSH had greater roles in the Iran-Contra Affair than either the Tower Commission or the congressional committees had concluded. During the trial, North's attorneys failed in an attempt to subpoena Reagan, whom North would later squarely blame for complete knowledge of the affair, in his memoir Under Fire: An American Story. Subsequent to the conviction, Judge Gesell denied two motions for an acquittal and a mistrial. Gesell sentenced North to two years' PROBATION, 1,200 hours of community service, and a $150,000 fine.

North appealed. On July 20, 1990, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in U.S. v. North, 910 F.2d. 843 ((D.C. Cir. 1990), suspended all three of North's felony convictions and completely overturned his conviction for destroying classified documents. At issue was North's earlier testimony before Congress. The appellate ruling was based on the same reasoning as the contention made by North, Poindexter, Secord, and Hakim before their trials: Congress's decision to grant immunity to North had clashed with the Fifth Amendment protection of witnesses against self-incrimination. The appeals court directed the trial court to reexamine North's earlier testimony. Some critics argued that the appellate ruling, written by Judge Laurence Silberman, smacked of partisanship; Silberman had been, in 1980, cochair of the Reagan-Bush foreign policy advisory group. Walsh pressed on, but on September 16, 1991, Judge Gesell dropped all charges against North (North, 920 F. 2d 940 [D.C. Cir. 1990], cert. denied, 500 U.S. 941, 111 S. Ct. 2235, 114 L. Ed. 2d 477 [1991]).

Vice Admiral Poindexter's trial was similar to North's. After failing to win release of classified subpoenaed materials, Walsh narrowed his case to charges that Poindexter had provided false information and made false statements to Congress. Unlike North's attorneys, however, Poindexter's successfully subpoenaed former president Reagan, who became the first former president ordered to testify in a criminal trial regarding the conduct of affairs during his administration. Reagan provided an eight-hour videotaped deposition. However, Poindexter failed to win access to the former president's diaries, which his attorneys argued were crucial to Poindexter's defense.

Walsh's prosecution of Poindexter succeeded through a PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE. In testimony for the prosecution, Lieutenant Colonel North said that he had seen Poindexter destroy a high-level secret document, signed by the president, which described the Iran arms sales as an exchange-for-hostages deal. North also claimed that he lied to members of Congress at Poindexter's direction. Other testimony revealed that Poindexter had erased some five thousand computer files after the Iran-Contra story broke in the media in November 1986.

On April 7, 1990, jurors convicted Poindexter on all five of the counts in the indictment. Sentenced on June 11, 1990, to six months in prison, he became the first Iran-Contra defendant to receive a prison term, but remained free pending his appeal. Here, as in North, the conviction was overturned. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Poindexter's testimony before Congress had been unfairly used against him in his trial (Poindexter, 951 F. 2d 369 [D.C. Cir. 1991]).

If the reversal of convictions against Poindexter and North represented a defeat to Walsh, so did several plea bargains that his office secured in the late 1980s. Critics had expected more serious convictions to result from his intense investigation. In March 1988, former national security adviser Robert McFarlane pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress and was fined a modest amount. Two private fundraisers, Carl Channell and Richard Miller, pleaded guilty to using a tax-exempt organization to raise money to purchase arms for the Contras. Channell was sentenced to probation only; Miller was ordered to do minimal public service. In November 1989, Secord, Hakim, and a corporation owned by Hakim all pleaded guilty to relatively minor counts. As Walsh's office persevered, it could show little in terms of prosecutions, and Republicans in Congress derided the multimillion-dollar investigation as a vindictive exercise in partisan politics.

Then, in 1992, Walsh brought an indictment against the highest-ranking Reagan administration official to be charged in the Iran-Contra Affair: Caspar W. Weinberger, former defense secretary. Weinberger was indicted on June 16, 1992, on five felony counts: one count of obstructing the congressional committees'

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was convicted of obstructing Congress, destroying documents, and accepting an illegal gratuity, but the decision was later reversed by a higher court.

investigations; two counts of making false statements to investigators working for Walsh and Congress; and two counts of perjury related to his congressional testimony. Penalties for each count were a maximum of five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Walsh based the case on evidence gathered from notes that Weinberger had written while serving for six years in the Reagan administration. These nearly illegible notes, scrawled on 1,700 small scraps of paper, formed a personal diary. Weinberger had given them to the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, with the requirement that no one could read them without his personal consent. Throughout Iran-Contra investigations, Weinberger had repeatedly testified to Congress and the Tower Commission that he had argued against the arms-for-hostages scheme when it was discussed by White House officials. Walsh did not make Weinberger's involvement an issue in the 1992 indictment. Instead, he zeroed in on Weinberger's testimony under oath that he had not kept notes or a personal diary during the arms sale period. The discovery of the notes in the Library of Congress suggested that Weinberger had presented false testimony.

On June 19, 1992, Weinberger pleaded not guilty to all five felony charges. Judge Thomas F. Hogan set a tentative trial date of November 2, 1992, one day before the presidential election. This timing raised the question of whether Weinberger's trial would cause political embarrassment for President George H. W. Bush, who was campaigning against BILL CLINTON. Four days before the election, Walsh announced a new indictment against Weinberger. It centered on a note that had been written by Weinberger about a 1986 White House meeting and that seemed to contradict Bush's claim that as vice president he had not been involved in the armsfor-hostages decision making. Senate Republicans, angered by the indictment, asked the Justice Department to name an independent counsel to investigate whether the Clinton campaign had been behind the indictment. Attorney General WILLIAM P. BARR denied the request.

The case progressed no further. In a surprise reprieve on Christmas Eve, 1992, President Bush pardoned Weinberger and five others implicated in the Iran-Contra Affair. The pardon cited Weinberger's record of public and military service, his recent ill health, and a desire to put Iran-Contra to rest. Bush also pardoned former assistant SECRETARY OF STATE Elliot Abrams; former CIA officials Clair George, Duane Clarridge, and Alan Fiers; and former national security adviser McFarlane. Bush deemed all six men patriots and said their prosecution represented not law enforcement but the "criminalization of policy differences," essentially repeating his long-standing argument that Iran-Contra was really a case where Democrats had pursued a political witch-hunt to punish Republican officials over disagreements on foreign policy (Grant of Exec. Clemency, Proclamation No. 6518, 57 Fed. Reg. 62,145).

Reaction to the pardons divided along party lines, with Republicans hailing Bush and Democrats criticizing him. Walsh accused Bush of furthering a cover-up and thwarting judicial process. He had long maintained that top Reagan administration officials had engaged in a cover-up to protect their president. Now, he promised, Bush would become the subject of his remaining investigation.

Bush's only testimony had taken place in a January 1988 videotaped deposition. An unsettled question was why Bush's personal diaries were withheld from prosecutors for six years; their existence was only disclosed to the independent counsel's office following the 1992 presidential election. Throughout 1993, Walsh sought to interview the former president but was blocked by Bush's attorneys. Bush consistently insisted on placing limits on any interview. Walsh refused those limits, complained that Bush was stalling the investigation, and ultimately abandoned the attempt to question Bush.

Walsh also chose, in 1993, not to indict another high-ranking Reagan administration official, former attorney general EDWIN MEESE III. In 1986, Meese said that Reagan did not know about the arms sales to Iran. Walsh contended that the statement was false, but admitted that building a criminal case against Meese would have been difficult: too much time had passed and could therefore have bolstered memory loss as a defense.

On August 6, 1992, after six-and-a-half years and $35.7 million, Walsh concluded the Iran-Contra investigation and submitted his final report to the special court that had appointed him. By 1993, the Iran-Contra Affair seemed over, in one sense. The STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS on crimes that may have been committed during it had expired, and no further prosecution would be forthcoming. However, additional revelations followed as historians sifted through emerging evidence, notably in the memoirs of key participants. The lessons of the affair continued to be debated. Some said that Iran-Contra exposed a pattern of zealous disregard, by the EXECUTIVE BRANCH, of legislative constraint on foreign policy, that dated back to the VIETNAM WAR. Others took the view held by the Reagan and Bush administrations: namely, that nothing terrible had happened.


Walsh, Lawrence E. 1997. Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. New York: W. W. Norton.

——. 1993. Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

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