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
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 ).
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'
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.
█ LARRY GILMAN
In October and November of 1986, it was discovered that for several years, agents of the United States government had been running an illegal operation to sell weapons to Iran and funnel the profits to the Contras, a military organization dedicated to overthrowing the leftist government of Nicaragua. In December, 1986, Lawrence E. Walsh was appointed independent counsel by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. (An independent counsel is a prosecutor appointed by the Court of Appeals at the request of the Attorney General of the United States to investigate suspected crimes by members of the executive branch of government.) During the early phases of the investigation, a cover-up was attempted
by the Reagan administration. In the words of Walsh's final report, "following the revelation of [the Iran-Contra] operations in October and November 1986, Reagan Administration officials deliberately deceived the Congress and the public about the level and extent of official knowledge of and support for these operations."
The Iran-Contra investigation lasted from 1986 to 1994. During this period, Walsh charged 14 Reagan Administration officials with criminal acts. He obtained convictions and guilty pleas in 11 cases. Two convictions were overturned on a technicality, and several officials, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, were issued pre-trial pardons by President George H. W. Bush during the "lame duck" period following his electoral defeat in 1992. Walsh's investigation concluded that "the sales of arms to Iran contravened United States Government policy and may have violated the Arms Export Control Act," that "the provision and coordination of support to the Contras violated the Boland Amendment ban on aid to military activities in Nicaragua" (passed by Congress in 1984), and that "the Iran operations were carried out with the knowledge of, among others, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State George P. Schultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberg, and Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey." Walsh did not did not have legal power to bring charges against President Reagan or Vice President George H. Bush, as the Boland Amendment was not a criminal statute containing specific enforcement provisions. Congress did not exercise its power to impeach.
Historical background. In 1979, the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua was overthrown by a left-wing revolutionary group calling itself the Sandinistas (after Nicaragua revolutionary leader Augusto Cesár Sandino, 1893–1934). Soon after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to secretly fund and equip the Contras, mostly former members of the Somoza military who sought the overthrow of the Sandinista government, and who were operating from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica (to the north and south of Nicaragua, respectively). On December 8, 1982, a bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives forbidding U.S. covert actions "for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua;" some funding for the Contras was still allowed. Some of the Congressional reluctance to give U.S. support to the Contras arose from their unsavory tactics. As General John Galvin, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, testified to Congress, the Contras were directed by the CIA to "[go] after soft [i.e., undefended] targets … not to try to duke it out with the Sandinistas directly." In practice, this meant attacking medical clinics, schools, farmer's cooperatives, and other undefended elements of the civil infrastructure, causing almost exclusively civilian casualties.
In May, 1984, Congress discovered that its 1982 restrictions had been disregarded by the Reagan administration. CIA agents, acting at the behest of National Security Council member Oliver North, had been placing mines in Nicaraguan harbors despite the Congressional ban on such activities. Consequently, Congress cut off all funding for the Contras and passed the Boland Amendment, a statute prohibiting any U.S. agency involved in "intelligence activities" from "supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization or individual."
The "Enterprise." Direct and indirect support for the Contras continued in spite of the Boland Amendment, coordinated by Oliver North through a complex network he termed the "Enterprise." North's agents solicited money and arms for the Contras from three primary sources: (1) countries dependent on U.S. support, including South Africa, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Israel; (2) wealthy Americans sympathetic to President Reagan's policies; and (3) weapons sales to Iran. The Reagan administration was secretly selling arms to Iran (in probable violation of the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, according to independent counsel Walsh); North's organization diverted money from these sales to the Contras. The Contras also raised money by allegedly selling large quantities of crack cocaine in the United States with CIA complicity. All these activities violated the Boland Amendment's ban on aid to military activities in Nicaragua, as well as other laws.
Administration support of the Contras became public knowledge when a Contra military supply plane was shot down over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986. An American crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, was taken prisoner and revealed that he was a CIA agent. A month later, a Lebanese newspaper exposed the Reagan administration's secret sales of arms to Iran. On November 25, 1986, Justice Department officials went public with the information that these two news items were linked: proceeds from the Iranian arms sales has been diverted to the Contras.
At this stage, what independent counsel Walsh characterized in his official report as "a new round of illegality" began: "Senior Reagan administration officials engaged in a concerted effort to deceive Congress and the public about their knowledge of and support for the operations."
Outcome of the investigation. Fourteen officials were charged with criminal violations as a result of the Iran-Contra investigation. All individuals tried were convicted; one CIA official's case was dismissed because the government refused to declassify information needed for his defense; and two convictions were overturned on technicalities. A few of the most prominent persons charged, as described in the final report of the independent counsel, are listed below:
(1) Elliott Abrams (Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs): plead guilty to withholding information from Congress.
(2) Robert C. McFarlane (National Security Advisor): plead guilty to four counts of withholding information from Congress.
(3) Oliver L. North (Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps and Assistant Deputy Director for Political-Military Affairs of the National Security Council, 1981–1986): convicted of altering and destroying documents, accepting an illegal gratuity, and aiding and abetting in the obstruction of Congress.
(4) John M. Poindexter (National Security Advisor): convicted of conspiracy, false statements, falsification, destruction and removal of records, and obstruction of Congress. Poindexter's conviction on all counts was overturned on appeal on the grounds that although he lied to Congress, he did so while speaking under a guarantee of immunity. Independent counsel Walsh noted in his final report that North's and Poindexter's convictions were "reversed on appeal on constitutional grounds that in no way cast doubt on the factual guilt of the men convicted."
(5) Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was charged with four counts of false statements and perjury. He was pardoned before trial by President George H. W. Bush, who also pardoned Elliot Abrams, Robert McFarlane, and two other men at the same time.
Aftermath. The Iran-Contra affair, like the CIA-organized invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, struck a global blow to American credibility. Officials at the highest level had been detected organizing international terrorism (i.e., the Contras), violating U.S. law, and lying under oath. However, like that of the Bay of Pigs before it, the long-term impact of the Iran-Contra affair on U.S. politics and foreign policy was slight, and the central figures in the controversy later enjoyed high-profile careers in both the public and private sectors.
█ FURTHER READING:
Busby, Robert. Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair. Chippenham, Wiltshire, Great Britain: Macmillan, 1999.
Marshall, Jonathan, Peter Scott, and Jane Hunter. The Iran-Contra Connection. Boston: South End Press, 1987.
Walsh, Lawrence E. "Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran-Contra Matters: Volume I: Investigations and Prosecutions." United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Division for the Purpose of Appointing Independent Counsel. August 4, 1993. <http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/walsh/> (December 10, 2002).
Webb, Gary. "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion." 2002. Originally published in San Jose Mercury News, 1996. <http://home.attbi.com/~gary.webb/wsb/html/view.cgi-home.html-.html> (December 10, 2002).
The revelations mushroomed into the greatest U.S. political scandal since Watergate, raising constitutional, legal, and ethical issues concerning the congressional role in foreign policy and the conduct of administration officials. Investigations by a presidentially appointed panel and a joint committee of Congress focused on whether or not President Ronald Reagan knew about or had authorized the diversion—an act that could have constituted an impeachable offense—and whether Congress's constitutional foreign policy and budget prerogatives as well as U.S. laws had been violated. An independent counsel investigated the legality of third‐country fund‐raising for projects banned by Congress, as well as the obstruction of justice by administration officials. Congress ultimately found that the common ingredients of the Iran and Contra policies were “secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law.” And while blaming President Reagan for allowing a “cabal of the zealots” to take charge of foreign policy, it backed away from accusing him directly of illegal acts. The parallel investigation by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh secured criminal convictions of nearly a dozen senior administration officials and private citizens for acts such as perjury, conspiracy, fraud, and the destruction of evidence. Walsh's efforts were compromised by congressional grants of immunity to key U.S. officials during several months of televised hearings. All convicted U.S. officials and those awaiting trial, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, were pardoned by President George Bush on 24 December 1992 following his defeat for reelection.
The roots of the scandal involving the Contras lay in the Reagan administration's decision in 1981 to conduct covert political and paramilitary operations aimed at “the Cuban presence and Cuban‐Sandinista support structure in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America.” Following a series of controversies, including that over the participation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1983 and 1984, Congress enacted 1984 legislation known as the Boland amendment, which banned any U.S. agency involved in intelligence activities from supporting military and paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.
Notwithstanding the law, President Reagan instructed subordinates to keep the Contras together “body and soul.” Operational control of the Contra program shifted from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the National Security Council. Both prior to and after the passage of the Boland amendment, senior U.S. officials, including the president himself, solicited Contra military aid from private individuals and third countries, including South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Brunei. National Security Council aide Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North coordinated the resupply operation, which had its own pilots, planes, secure communications, and secret Swiss bank accounts. With the support of his superiors, national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, and, apparently, CIA director William Casey, North directed a network of former military and intelligence officials and businesspeople, code‐named “the Enterprise,” in effect creating a private covert operations capability outside normal channels of oversight and accountability. All the while, the administration insisted publicly that the Contras were in desperate straits due to the congressional cutoff; it also spent federal funds for prohibited propaganda operations aimed at influencing future congressional votes.
U.S. policy toward Iran was developed independently of Nicaragua, but shared many of the same operatives as well as covert practice. After the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran by Islamic militants in November 1979, the Carter administration had embargoed trade and financial transactions, including arms shipments, to the Iranian regime. The Reagan administration sought to tighten the embargo by enlisting the cooperation of European and other governments, designating Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism.
Despite the public policy of isolation, when U.S. hostages were seized in Lebanon by militants with apparent ties to Iran, the administration undertook covert “arms‐for‐hostage” sales of weapons to the Iranian government in 1985–86. President Reagan did not issue the legally required intelligence “findings” before initiating the covert sales of antitank and antiaircraft missiles, and Congress was not notified of them. The sales also appeared to have violated U.S. arms export laws. The secret arms sales occurred against a backdrop of public statements by President Reagan that the United States would make no deals with terrorists. Although three hostages were released as a result of U.S. efforts, three new ones were taken during the same period.
In the wake of the Iran‐Contra Affair, Congress and President Bush skirmished over reforms to the Intelligence Oversight Act. Bush refused to sign the bill in 1990, although a compromise was enacted in 1991.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations; Iran, U.S. Military Involvement in; Nicaragua, U.S. Military Involvement in.]
House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition , Iran‐Contra Affair, 13 November 1987, 100th Cong., 1st Sess., 1987.
Oliver L. North , Taking the Stand: The Testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North, 1987. Tower Commission Report: The Full Text of the President's Special Review Board, 1987.
Theodore Draper , A Very Thin Line: The Iran‐Contra Affairs, 1991.
Cynthia J. Arnson , Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America, 1976–1993, 1993.
Lawrence E. Walsh , Firewall: The Iran‐Contra Conspiracy and Cover‐up, 1997.
Cynthia J. Arnson
IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR. On 8 July 1985, President Ronald Reagan addressed the American Bar Association and described Iran as part of a "confederation of terrorist states … a new, international version of Murder, Inc." Ironically, that same month, members of the Reagan administration were initiating a clandestine policy through which the federal government helped supply arms to Iran in its war with Iraq, the nation supported by the United States. Millions of dollars in profits from the secret arms sales were laundered through Israel and then routed to Central America in support of rebel forces known as the contras, whose professed aim was to overthrow the duly elected government in Nicaragua. Both Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed the policy but lost the debate to members of the National Security Council. The Iran-Contra Affair, arguably the crisis that did most to erode public confidence in the Reagan presidency, occupied the nation's attention through much of the next two years.
Reagan's staunch opposition to communism and his commitment to the safety of U.S. citizens throughout the world fostered the crisis. In 1979, a communist Sandinista government assumed power in Nicaragua. Soon after Reagan assumed office in 1981, his administration began
to back the contra rebel forces with overt assistance. Congress terminated funding for the contras when evidence of illegal covert actions surfaced and public opinion turned against administration policy. At the same time, the public shared the president's disillusion with events in the Middle East because of the October 1983 bombing of a U.S. marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 Americans, and the contemporaneous abduction in Lebanon of several U.S. citizens as hostages. Events in both hemispheres came together in the late summer of 1985. From then until 1986, the United States provided Iran with TOW antitank missiles and parts for ground-launched Hawk antiaircraft missiles. The actions violated both the government's embargo on weapons sales to Iran and its avowed policy of not arming terrorists, because the Iranian government apparently was sponsoring Lebanese terrorism. The administration's rationale for its actions was the benefits promised for the contras. Private arms dealers, acting with the knowledge and approval of Reagan's National Security Council staff, overcharged Iran for the weapons and channeled the money to the rebels.
During a White House ceremony early in November 1986, reporters asked the president to comment on rumors that the United States had exchanged arms for hostages. He repudiated the stories, then appeared on national television one week later to explain the administration's case, a case grounded in denial of any wrongdoing. "We did not," he declared in his conclusion, "repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we." Just six days later, however, on 19 November, Reagan opened a press conference by announcing that he had based his earlier claims on a false chronology constructed by the National Security Council and the White House staff. He announced formation of the President's Special Review Board, known as the Tower Commission. Headed by former Senator John Tower, the board included former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and former national
security adviser Brent Scowcroft. In late February 1987, the board concluded that the president was guilty of no crime but found that Reagan's lax management allowed subordinates the freedom to shape policy.
Concurrent executive branch and congressional investigations of Iran-Contra proceeded into 1987. As independent counsel, a position created by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, former federal Judge Lawrence E. Walsh explored allegations of wrongdoing. In May 1987, a joint Senate and House committee hastily convened for what became four months of televised hearings that included 250 hours of open testimony by thirty-two public officials. In its report on 17 November, the committee held President Reagan accountable for his administration's actions because his inattention to detail created an environment in which his subordinates exceeded their authority. In the spring of 1988, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress and later attempted suicide. Criminal indictments were returned against Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, the president's national security adviser; arms dealers Richard V. Secord and Albert A. Hakim; and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the National Security Council staff. The convictions of North and Poindexter were ultimately dismissed because evidence against them was compromised by their congressional testimony. In December 1992, just before leaving office, President George H. W. Bush pardoned six others indicted or convicted in the Iran-Contra Affair, including Weinberger, whose diaries allegedly would have shown that both Reagan and Bush knew of the arms-for-hostages deal. "Ollie" North, viewed by some as an unfairly censured patriot, went on to win the Republican Party's nomination in the 1994 Virginia senatorial election. Although he lost to the Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb, he remained in the public eye as a conservative pundit, columnist, and radio personality.
Busby, Robert. Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair: The Politics of Presidential Recovery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
Cohen, William S., and George M. Mitchell. Men of Zeal: A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings. New York: Viking, 1988.
Fried, Amy. Muffled Echoes: Oliver North and the Politics of Public Opinion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Lynch, Michael. The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.
President's Special Review Board. The Tower Commission Report: The Full Text of the President's Special Review Board. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Thelen, David P. Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television: How Americans Challenged the Media and Seized Political Initiative during the Iran-Contra Debate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Walsh, Lawrence E. Iran-Contra: The Final Report. New York: Times Books, 1994.
———. Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. New York: Norton, 1997.
The Iran-Contra hearings by a joint committee of both houses of Congress (the Senate Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran) were but one more episode in the almost constant twentieth-century battle between the presidency—not necessarily the President, but the executive branch and particularly the officials of the White House—and Congress for power over foreign affairs assigned by the Constitution to the national government. Iran-Contra, like watergate and the Steel Seizure Controversy, stands out among the few instances in which Congress mounted a successful, albeit short-lived, challenge to a thrust for power by the White House.
Following the debacle of the vietnam war, initiated by President john f. kennedy and carried on disastrously by Presidents lyndon b. johnson and richard m. nixon without a specific congressional declaration of war, the United States found itself chastened, but not necessarily enlightened, by the experience. A large but by no means unanimous portion of the population wished to continue the fight against communism wherever it could be found, but preferably on foreign soil and, if necessary, without the endorsement of Congress. If American lives were wasted by unsuccessful military adventures in Korea and Vietnam, eventually bringing peace without honor, perhaps clandestine support of anticommunist guerrillas, in Central America with the approval of Congress could bring us honor without peace. After many years of unrestrained but unsuccessful activity in which American matériel and largess were profligately expended, along with the lives of the residents, Congress decided to call a halt to at least some of its clandestine support for insurgent forces below America's southern border, absent congressional approval. And when Congress discovered—it was an all but open secret—that secret operations in the foreign affairs apparatus of the White House were providing the where-withal for much of the military resistance in Central America, in defiance of congressional law, a hearing was called to establish who, what, why, and when. As in Watergate, the hearings were politically dangerous because they came so close to involving the President himself in illegality. Unlike the case of Watergate, however, the President—in this instance, ronald reagan—seemed more guilty of nonfeasance than malfeasance, as an investigation by a committee that the President had appointed, with former Senator John Tower as chairman, seemed to indicate in its report.
Fundamentally, the obligation of the President and his aides to abide by the terms of the laws enacted by Congress are not to be gainsaid. According to Article II, section 3, of the Constitution, the President "shall take care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Occasionally, the question may legitimately arise whether in fact that language rightfully cabins the chief executive in the circumstances and there is a conflict between the two branches, which becomes a question of constitutional dimensions. Usually, the contesting sides reach a peaceful understanding. Sometimes the issue has to be resolved by the courts, as was the case when President harry s. truman seized the steel mills or when the executive branch froze the assets of the Iranian government without congressional authorization. Sometimes the controversy reaches the forum of a congressional hearing, as was the case with Watergate and again with the Iran-Contra controversy.
Prior to world war i, the United States was governed by what Woodrow Wilson could label "congressional government" in his 1913 book of that title, which did not mean that Congress did not succumb to strong presidential leadership, such as abraham lincoln 's, in times of crisis. During and after world war ii, government in the United States became the eponymous "presidential dictatorship" of clinton rossiter's 1985 volume, with Congress usually subordinated to the will expressed by the President. Since the korean war, there has been a further realignment of power, again described by an astute critic's title, Arthur Schlesinger's The Imperial Presidency (1973), this time marking not a shift between Congress and the President but a development within the presidency of an unelected, politically irresponsible bureaucracy.
It may well be that a congressional investigation of alleged wrongdoing at the level of the White House serves its function when it is called to the public's attention, when the wrongdoing that has taken place is brought to an end, and when some of the principal responsible presidential subordinates are subjected to criminal processes in the United States courts or otherwise chastised. Clearly the intent of the Framers was to fix the responsibility on the President for the conduct of his office. But we live now in more perilous times. If the continued threat of serious malefaction is to be eliminated, the price of the impeachment process to determine whether the chief executive has erred is nevertheless too destabilizing in times of crisis for the nation to pay for such hearings. The national government was paralyzed for months in the Watergate crisis. Thus, the Iran-Contra affair may not have afforded as satisfying a resolution of the questions first raised by Senator Howard Baker: "What did the President know? And when did he know it?" But the Constitution's interests were served, and the nation's interests were protected.
The Iran-Contra hearings, however consequential in theory, were a contest for constitutional power between President and Congress, and were generally regarded by the American public as entertainment rather than enlightenment. It was as if some of Hollywood's second-rate script writers had concocted a "B" version of the Watergate hearings. Everyone was covering up for a generally beloved and pathetically inept President, who could not remember what had occurred in his meetings with his national security staff. There was a handsome Marine veteran wrapped in the flag and dedicated to the extermination of communists and communism by means in or out of the Constitution's limits. There was his beauteous secretary devoted to her boss, who helped destroy and remove secret documents. There were professional spies, cabinet officers locked out of the deliberations, national security chiefs, past and present. There were strange and sinister-looking Middle Eastern arms merchants. And there was a Rasputin figure, who, fortunately for the goals of the hearings, had died before his evidence could be secured. If the purpose of the Iran-Contra hearings were to prove that congressional hearings about the conduct of the presidential office can be a futile and useless check and balance of one branch of the government on the other, the hearings succeeded beyond a peradventure of doubt. They also proved what "every schoolboy knew," that the American government had been secretly negotiating with Iran for the release of American prisoners and that it was supplying weapons to the Contra forces in Nicaragua—the first, in contradiction of the Reagan administration's own frequently announced policy; the second, at least without and likely in contradiction of congressional mandate. This is not the way American government is supposed to work.
After the hearings, many of the witnesses were indicted and some pleaded guilty to various offenses while others were found guilty. None of the major figures received heavy sentences. Lt. Col. Oliver North, the popular hero of the tale, was sentenced to 1200 hours of community service and fined $150,000 on three felony counts of willfully obstructing the congressional investigation, but his conviction was reversed—ironically, on civil liberties grounds. Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser to the President, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of assisting in secret efforts illegally to aid the Contras. He received two years probation, a $20,000 fine and 200 hours of community service. Admiral John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser and North's superior, did get six months on five counts of conspiracy.
Philip B. Kurland
(see also: Constitutional History, 1980–1989.)
Cohen, Willian and Mitchell, George 1988 Men of Zeal. New York: Viking.
Joint Hearings on the Iran -C ontra Investigation. 1987–1988 Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Report of the Joint Congressional Committee Investigating the Iran -C ontra Affair 1988 Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
The Iran-Contra affair is a political scandal that occurred during the second term of Ronald Reagan’s (1911–2004) presidency. The scandal encompassed two secret programs coordinated by the National Security Council: (1) the sale of arms to Iran in contravention of U.S. policy and without congressional approval; and (2) the diversion of the proceeds from the weapons sales to support the activities of the anticommunist Contra rebels in Nicaragua, in violation of the 1982 Boland Amendment ban on military aid.
In October 1986 the government of Nicaragua shot down an American cargo plane carrying military supplies to Contra forces and captured an American employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. One month later, a Lebanese news magazine, Ash-Shiraa, revealed a secret program for the sale and transfer of military weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon. Iran, at war with Iraq for six years and in need of American-made military equipment, purchased weapons in exchange for securing the release of American hostages. In response to these reports, President Reagan denied on national television that any arms had been traded to Iran, but one week later he admitted the Iranian arms transfer occurred.
It was quickly discovered that the United States had begun negotiating with Iran in secret, while the country was allegedly neutral in the Iran-Iraq War and maintained a policy against trading for hostages. In early 1986 Reagan’s first national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, and his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, shipped weapons, including surface-to-air and antitank missiles, from Israel to Iran’s revolutionary government without congressional approval, diverting the proceeds from the sales to the Contras, who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, was directed to investigate the arms sales and requested the appointment of an independent counsel. In December 1986 Lawrence E. Walsh was appointed to investigate the weapon sales and the process by which the proceeds were diverted to the Contras.
In December 1986 President Reagan appointed former Republican senator John Tower (1925–1991) to investigate the Iran-Contra affair and issue a report on the actions of the National Security Council. The Tower Commission Report found Poindexter responsible for authorizing the illegal sale of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of the U.S. hostages, as well as for the diversion of the profits to support the Contras. The report also named Marine colonel Oliver North as the main negotiator. Both the sale of weapons to Iran and the funding of the Contras were found to be in violation of Congress, particularly the Boland Amendment and the 1976 Arms Export Control Act. The report faulted President Reagan for not properly supervising his subordinates and stated that ultimate responsibility for the events were the president’s alone.
Poindexter and North were found guilty of obstruction of Congress, while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (1917–2006) was indicted for withholding information from the independent council. The convictions of Poindexter and North were later overturned on appeal. In 1992, following his electoral defeat to William Jefferson Clinton, President George H. W. Bush, who had served as vice president during the Iran-Contra scandal, issued presidential pardons to all who had been indicted.
SEE ALSO Iran-Iraq War; Reagan, Ronald
Office of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters (Lawrence E. Walsh, independent counsel). 1993. Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters. 3 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
President’s Special Review Board (John Tower, chairman). 1987. Tower Commission Report: The Full Text of the President’s Special Review Board. New York: Bantam.
Reagan, Ronald. 1986. Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy, November 13. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1986/111386c.htm.
James E. Freeman
The Iran-Contra Affair was part of America's Cold War strategy to overturn communist or socialist regimes by encouraging coups d'état or by supporting paramilitary forces fighting those governments. This strategy raised constitutional questions about the president's warmaking powers. The affair had its origins in two secret operations of the U.S. government that took place during the early and mid-1980s under the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The first of these, which began in November 1985, involved the sale of weapons by the United States to Iran. The goal of these arms sales was to improve relations with "moderates" within the Iranian government and to gain their support for the release of several U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon. The second involved ongoing support by the U.S. government for the Contras, who opposed the left wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. These otherwise disparate operations became linked in early December 1985 when staff members of the National Security Council developed a plan for using surplus funds generated by the weapons sales to Iran to provide support to the Contras.
Both weapons sales to Iran and aid to the Contras were inconsistent with U.S. law and official foreign policy. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States had imposed an arms embargo against Iran's Islamist regime and sought international support for the military isolation of Iran in its war with Iraq. Moreover, throughout the 1980s President Reagan publicly repudiated any policy that involved trading arms for hostages, arguing that to make concessions to terrorists would only encourage further hostage-taking. Public support for U.S. efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government fluctuated, and Congress responded by restricting aid to the Contras. This culminated in enactment of the Boland Amendment in October 1984, which prohibited the use of appropriated U.S. funds to support military and paramilitary operations in Nicaragua. Supporters of the amendment, however, did not have enough votes to prohibit the use of unappropriated funds—a loophole that made the operation possible.
Reagan's national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, and his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, authorized a covert operation run by a member of their staff, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, in which funds from the arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Contras. These activities were concealed from Congress, as well as from
the American public. In October 1986, a plane carrying military and paramilitary supplies was shot down over Nicaragua and one of its crew members was taken prisoner by the Sandinista government. He was later discovered to have been part of the covert operation run by Oliver North. The next month Al-Shiraa, a Lebanese newspaper, reported the sale of arms to Iran. These sales were subsequently linked to attempts to gain the release of American hostages and to the diversion of funds to the Contras.
In January 1987, a Joint House-Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition was convened to hear testimony on events surrounding the Iran-Contra Affair. After weeks of public testimony, including testimony by and questioning of Poindexter, McFarlane, North, and other key officials involved in these operations, the committee was able to determine much of what had taken place during this period but it was unable to determine what role the president had played in authorizing the conduct of his advisers and staff since their roles were obscured, in large measure, by a practice known as plausible deniability, which meant that operatives within the National Security Council and intelligence communities sought to provide the president with a way to deny involvement in covert operations. Official chronologies of these events were rewritten to make them consistent with the president's public statements and key documents that might have been critical to the committee's investigation were shredded by North, Poindexter, and others. As a result, it remains unclear what President Reagan's role was in authorizing these activities and thus the precise nature of his responsibility for a scandal in which, in the words of the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, "fundamental processes of government were disregarded and the rule of law was subverted" (Inouye and Hamilton, p. 11). The Iran-Contra Affair was a major blow to the Reagan administration and to the president's popularity.
Cohen, William S. and Mitchell, George J. Men of Zeal: A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings. New York: Viking 1988.
Draper, Theodore. A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs. New York: Hill & Wang, 1991.
Inouye, Daniel K., and Hamilton, Lee H. Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987.
North, Oliver, with Novak, William. Under Fire: An American Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
President's Special Review Board. The Tower Commission Report: The Full Text of the President's Special Review Board. New York: Bantam, 1987.
David Bogen and
There were no official relations between the United States and Iran after the long U.S. embassy hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution from 1979 to 1981. Beginning in 1984, Shiʿite groups in Lebanon began kidnapping U.S. citizens and other Westerners. The hostage crisis involved the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when William Buckley, station chief in Beirut, was seized in March 1984. Out of concern for the release of Buckley, who could potentially reveal U.S. intelligence information, and in the belief that Iran had influence over the kidnappers, the U.S. administration launched an operation whereby missiles and military spare parts were sent to Iran via Israel. This shipment resulted in the release of one U.S. hostage, but not of Buckley, who was already dead. U.S. officials traveled to Iran to establish contacts, and further arms shipments were made.
At the same time and in a completely unrelated effort, the U.S. administration tried to figure out ways to bypass a congressional prohibition of U.S. assistance to the Contra rebels who were attempting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council devised a plan in which the proceeds from the Iranian sales would fund the Contras. This policy violated both the U.S. commitment not to negotiate with terrorists and the prohibition on aiding the Contra rebels (the two Boland Amendments).
In late 1986 a Beirut-based magazine reported that there were secret negotiations between U.S. officials and Iranians. This led to investigations in the United States and exposure of the operations. U.S. president Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission under the direction of former senator John Tower to investigate. Later, there was a joint congressional committee formed and a special prosecutor appointed. In the end, only some of those involved (North and the two successive National Security Advisers: Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter) were tried and even fewer convicted of any wrongdoing, but it was a political scandal that compromised U.S. credibility with its allies for having violated its pledge not to negotiate with terrorists, and for having sent arms to Iran and having violated a legal ban on providing assistance to the Contras. The actual involvement of President Reagan and of Vice President George H. W. Bush was never clearly established as far as illegal activities were concerned.
see also bush, george herbert walker; reagan, ronald.
Bill, James A. "The U.S. Overture to Iran, 1985–1986: An Analysis." In Neither East nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union, and the United States, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Mark J. Gasiorowski. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.
Woodward, Bob. Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981–1987. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
updated by oliver benjamin hemmerle
Iran-contra affair, in U.S. history, secret arrangement in the 1980s to provide funds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran. The Iran-contra affair was the product of two separate initiatives during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The first was a commitment to aid the contras who were conducting a guerrilla war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The second was to placate
within the Iranian government in order to secure the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon and to influence Iranian foreign policy in a pro-Western direction.
Despite the strong opposition of the Reagan administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted legislation, known as the Boland amendments, that prohibited the Defense Dept., the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or any other government agency from providing military aid to the contras from Dec., 1983, to Sept., 1985. The Reagan administration circumvented these limitations by using the National Security Council (NSC), which was not explicitly covered by the law, to supervise covert military aid to the contras. Under Robert McFarlane (1983–85) and John Poindexter (1985–86) the NSC raised private and foreign funds for the contras. This operation was directed by NSC staffer Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. McFarlane and North were also the central figures in the plan to secretly ship arms to Iran despite a U.S. trade and arms embargo.
In early Nov., 1986, the scandal broke when reports in Lebanese newspapers forced the Reagan administration to disclose the arms deals. Poindexter resigned before the end of the month; North was fired. Select congressional committees held joint hearings, and in Dec., 1986, Lawrence E. Walsh was named as special prosecutor to investigate the affair. Higher administration officials, particularly Reagan, Vice President Bush, and William J. Casey (former director of the CIA, who died in May, 1987), were implicated in some testimony, but the extent of their involvement remained unclear. North said he believed Reagan was largely aware of the secret arrangement, and the independent prosecutor's report (1994) said that Reagan and Bush had some knowledge of the affair or its coverup. Reagan and Bush both claimed to have been uninformed about the details of the affair, and no evidence was found to link them to any crime. A presidential commission was critical of the NSC, while congressional hearings uncovered a web of official deception, mismanagement, and illegality.
A number of criminal convictions resulted, including those of McFarlane, North, and Poindexter, but North's and Poindexter's were vacated on appeal because of immunity agreements with the Senate concerning their testimony. Former State Dept. and CIA officials pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information about the contra aid from Congress, and Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary under Reagan, was charged (1992) with the same offense. In 1992 then-president Bush pardoned Weinberger and other officials who had been indicted or convicted for withholding information on or obstructing investigation of the affair. The Iran-contra affair raised serious questions about the nature and scope of congressional oversight of foreign affairs and the limits of the executive branch.
See B. Woodward, Veil (1987); T. Draper, A Very Thin Line (1991).