The House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition. Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1987.)

Of the millions of Americans who watched some or all of the televised hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal during the summer of 1987, only a handful will slog through the 690 pages of fine print that make up the final report of the congressional investigating committees. That’s a shame, because the report succeeds in many areas where the hearings failed dismally.

Where the hearings wandered aimlessly and confused the public with their diffuse findings, the report has an admirably clear structure, narrative and conclusion. Clear lines of argument emerge in the majority and minority reports. No obnoxious Brendan Sullivan is on hand to disrupt the reader; no gap-toothed Oliver North stands at the reader’s side to make speeches or elicit false sympathy. The majority report, unlike so many committee members during the hearings, even refrains from calling the Nicaraguan rebels “freedom fighters.”

This massively documented tome paints a devastating picture of fraud, crime, cover-up, venality, duplicity and stupidity. Even those who have followed the scandal closely may be stunned by its detailed portrait of North trading not only arms and top-secret intelligence but the interests of entire nations (Kuwait, Iraq) in his quest to free a few American hostages; of Admiral John Poindexter and his crew lying not only to Congress but to nearly every senior member of the administration; of Attorney General Edwin Meese issuing off-the-cuff opinions to ratify blatant law-breaking by top officials; and of President Reagan shamelessly lying his way through press conferences in late 1986.

Voluminous as it is, however, the report withholds the full story. Some of the gaps stem from causes beyond the committees’ power: the death of CIA director William Casey, the hectic shredding of documents by Oliver North, the difficulty of retrieving the full contents of the NSC computer system, administration delays in turning over vital materials, and the impossibility of interviewing many foreign witnesses, especially Israelis.

Yet the report’s silence on several key issues was a matter of conscious choice, not ignorance, and says as much about congressional resistance to the truth as the report itself says of the administration’s willingness to lie. The neglected areas include what could be called “operational embarrassments,” the historical context of the Iran-Contra affair, the role of Israel, and the fundamental contradictions between covert operations and a democratic society.

The most glaring operational embarrassment neglected by the report is the role of drug trafficking in financing the Contras and the logistic operation that supplied them. The only mention of drugs comes in a staff memo, reprinted in a report appendix, that rejects “media-exploited allegations” of Contra drug trafficking as improbable and unverifiable. Yet other congressional investigators have condemned the memo as a fraudulent misrepresentation of the facts. [1] Ample and convincing evidence points to the existence of a “guns-for-drugs” network that brought cocaine and marijuana into the United States as the price of running arms down to Central America. [2] The joint committee itself heard testimony from three government witnesses that high-ranking Contra leaders trafficked in cocaine. Indeed, the committee introduced into evidence a letter from Rob Owen, North’s emissary to Central America, mentioning a Contra supply plane “used at one time to run drugs, and part of the crew had criminal records. Nice group the Boys [CIA] chose.” [3]

The report’s silence on the involvement of terrorists in North’s “Project Democracy” is no less deafening. One of the logistics agents employed in the Contra cause was the Cuban exile and career CIA officer Luis Posada. He came to Central America in 1985 after breaking out of a Venezuelan jail where he had been held for conspiring to bomb a civilian Cuban jet in 1976. That act, the worst terrorist crime ever committed in the Western hemisphere, killed all 73 passengers including Cuba’s national fencing team. Yet the report mentions Posada only in passing, and then by his operational code name “Ramon Medina.” [4]

The report similarly makes no mention of the background of another notorious terrorist who did business with North’s operatives, Manzer al-Kassar. A Syrian arms broker convicted in England of drug smuggling, al-Kassar reportedly supplied weapons from East bloc sources for at least three Contra arms shipments in 1985 and 1986. Ironically, North considered himself a sworn enemy of two Palestinian extremists apparently supplied by al-Kassar: Abu Nidal, mastermind of the December 1985 airport massacres in Rome and Vienna, and Abu Abbas, reputed organizer of the Achille Lauro hijacking. [5]

Even the central figures in North’s operation — retired Gen. Richard Secord, ex-CIA officer Thomas Clines, and Iranian-American arms dealer Albert Hakim — get only bland and cursory treatment. The report notes that one logistics officer in the White House network, Felix Rodriguez, complained to North about this group’s rapacious profiteering on arms sales to the Contras. [6] But it does not quote Rodriguez’s statement to North that the close business and personal connections of Secord, Clines and Hakim to convicted arms dealer Edwin Wilson were a scandal in themselves. “This could be bigger than Watergate and could destroy the president of the United States,” Rodriguez told North. “The reputation they had,” Rodriguez later testified, “would be a disaster if it was known by everybody.” [7] 255 pages after this expurgated account of the Rodriguez-North meeting, the text refers to Wilson only as “a former CIA officer who had become enormously successful in international business dealings.” The sharp reader must turn to the footnotes to discover that “The principal source of Wilson’s wealth turned out to be arms deals. During 1983, Wilson was convicted of conspiring to sell arms and explosives to Libya as well as conspiring to murder the federal prosecutor and six witnesses in his trial.” [8] Not even the footnotes disclose that Wilson and Clines tried to bail out Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 — a precursor of this group’s later aid to Somoza’s ex-National Guard cronies in the Contras. [9]

In all of these instances, the committees went out of their way to disguise the ugly reality of covert actions. By ignoring the sordid operational details, the report focuses on policy makers who went bad rather than the fact that such operations by their very nature, even when sanctioned by Congress, violate basic democratic values.

The committee showed equal caution in failing to recount any meaningful historical background to the Iran-Contra affair. By portraying the scandal as a relatively brief phenomenon beginning in late 1984 and ending in 1986, the legislators could pin the blame on the likes of North and Poindexter without exploring deeper and more troubling issues.

One such issue is when the decision to farm out the Contra operation to private parties and third countries began. Unmentioned in the report is the fact that the 1981 presidential “finding” that authorized assistance to the fledgling resistance movement specifically directed the CIA to wage its covert war “primarily through non-Americans” and “with foreign governments as appropriate.” The first foreign government the White House turned to for help was the military dictatorship in Argentina, which lent veterans of its “dirty war” to train the Contras in the techniques of urban terrorism. [10] Congress knew and approved of this tactic and did nothing to stop it.

Similarly, Israel did not wait until late 1985 to become involved with the United States in covert operations; it began arming the contras as early as 1982. And Saudi Arabia may have begun funding CIA activities abroad around the same time in return for the 1981 AWACS sale. [11] The committee report denies the public an understanding that covert operations routinely draw on private individuals and foreign governments as “cut-outs” to cloak Washington’s involvement. As the Iran-Contra affair amply demonstrates, policy makers who choose that option risk losing control of the process they initiate.

Perhaps the most troubling historical omission concerns the 1980 election and its bearing on the Iran-Contra events of 1985-86. Readers would never know of serious allegations that several million dollars of money from wealthy Guatemalan business interests shored up the Reagan campaign and stiffened the candidate’s resolve to reverse President Carter’s human-rights policy in Central America.

Nor would readers know of the growing body of evidence that a campaign espionage operation led by William Casey himself sabotaged Carter’s efforts to win a pre-election release of the US embassy hostages in Tehran. Facts suggest at a minimum that the Reagan campaign intelligence staff leaked information to the press to undercut the Carter administration. In fact, the Reagan camp may have actually made its first arms-for-hostage deal with Iran in 1980. Confirmation of either charge would be an impeachable offense; one can only suppose that reticence by congressional Democrats to investigate the matter stemmed from a fear of finding skeletons in their own party’s closet. [12]

The report goes out of its way to smooth relations with foreign governments involved, referring to them in code as “Country 5” and the like. The committee took special pains, however, to mollify “Country 1” — Israel. [13] The majority report offers a mere five-paragraph assessment of Israel’s role in the Iran affair and essentially dismisses its contribution to the Contras. While acknowledging that Israeli interests did not always coincide with US interests, the report offers no details or criticism. And it accepts without question self-serving details from a secret Israeli chronology made available only to the committee.

The minority report, drafted by a group of committee Republicans, admits that “we have no way of knowing whether the Israeli chronology is accurate…. The Government of Israel made its chronology available to the Committees fairly late in our investigations, and consistently refused to let key Israeli participants give depositions to the Committees’ counsel.” (p. 440). Only the minority report considers the damning fact that the expatriate Iranian who opened and kept alive the arms-for-hostage negotiations — Manoucher Ghorbanifar — was almost certainly an Israeli agent recruited when the shah was still in power. [14] And only the minority report quotes Secretary of State George Shultz’s conclusion that “much if not all of the incentive on the Israeli side of the project may well have been an Israeli ‘sting’ operation. The Israelis used a number of justifications to draw us into the operation — intelligence gains, release of hostages, high strategic goals&hellip. Israel obviously sees it in its national interest to cultivate ties with Iran, including arms shipments. Any American identification with that effort serves Israeli ends, even if American objectives and policies are compromised” (pp. 527-528). [15]

Neither report, however, mentions the several billion dollars in Israeli arms deals with Iran since 1979, the 3,600 tons of arms shipped by a single Danish freighter from the Israeli port of Eilat to Iran in the summer of 1986, or Israel’s connection to the April 1986 arrest of Israeli-connected arms dealers for conspiring to ship $2.5 billion in US-made arms to Iran. [16] Such facts would have forced the committee to consider whether the White House-approved sales were, as Shultz suspected, the green light Israel wanted for its own massive shipments. [17]

Ultimately, however, the report’s greatest weakness is its failure to go beyond pleas for better executive branch compliance with the law in the future. It missed the chance to take a more profound look at the unbearable tension between covert operations and democratic government. The one thrives on secrecy, the other on openness; the former on manipulation and law-breaking, the latter on following rules. As the report’s own evidence suggests, in the course of targeting the Third World with propaganda, deception and intimidation operations, the administration turned the same tactics on its opponents at home. Intelligence professionals call this phenomenon “blowback.”

Given the total breakdown of congressional oversight of the intelligence community during the Reagan years, the committees’ faith that scandals of the Iran-Contra variety can be avoided through good will is touching but unrealistic. The country assumed that with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, future Watergates would be impossible. Only seven years later, Ronald Reagan was launching a bold new program of covert operations and executive orders to frustrate post-Watergate reforms of the intelligence community as a prelude to the Iran-Contra affair. The committees overlooked that most important history lesson.



[1] Boston Globe, August 5,1987.
[2] Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era [hereafter ICC] (Boston: South End Press, 1987), chs. 3, 4 and 6; Leslie Cockburn, Out of Control (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), chs. 9, 10; Jonathan Kwitny, “Money, Drugs and the Contras,” Nation, August 29,1987.
[3] February 10,1986 memo from Owen to North. The witnesses who mentioned drugs were Robert Owen, Alan Fiers (head of the CIA task force overseeing the Contras) and Jose Fernandez (CIA station chief in Costa Rica).
[4] On Posada, see Jonathan Marshall, “Oliver’s Army,” City Paper (Washington, DC), July 17, 1987; cf. ICC, ch. 6. The report grants anonymity to Jose Bueso Rosa, a Honduran officer convicted of a drug-and-assassination plot, and Mousalreza Zadeh, an Iranian convicted of bank fraud.
[5] Jonathan Marshall, “Dark Quadrant: Plotting Ollie North’s Seamy Underworld of Drugs, Guns and Terrorism,” City Paper, November 11,1987; San Francisco Examiner, November 24,1987. The Report mentions Manzer al-Kassar only once, by his last name alone, in a footnote on page 377.
[6] Rodriguez himself was a CIA-employed saboteur — read terrorist — in the early 1960s and has been accused in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee of receiving Colombian cocaine money for the contras. See Jonathan Marshall, “Oliver’s Army,” op. cit.
[7] Testimony of May 28, 1987. Rodriguez referred to the most popular account of this coterie, Peter Maas’ Manhunt (NY: Random House, 1986).
[8] Compare pages 72 and 327-329.
[9] ICC, pp. 16, 30.
[10] ICC, pp. 10-11,130.
[11] ICC, pp. 13-14; ch. 5.
[12] ICC, pp. 21-22, 52-54 (Guatemala); ICC, pp. 162-66 (Iran “October Surprise”); Cockburn, op. cit., pp. 189-94; Barbara Honegger with Jim Naureckas, “Did Reagan Steal the 1980 Election?” In These Times, June 24, 1987; Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” Nation, July 20, 1987 (and subsequent columns); Richard Curtiss, “Did Iran Delay Hostages Release to Ensure Reagan’s Election?” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1987.
[13] The report affords the same courtesy even to private Israelis. The arms dealer Ya‘acov Nimrodi, who makes no secret of his long intelligence career in Iran under the Shah, is said only to have had a “government service background” (p. 164). The fact that committee chairman Daniel Inouye is a major recipient of Israel PAC money has been cited as an explanation of his willingness to take Israeli government explanations at face value.
[14] On this point, see also The Tower Commission Report (NY: Bantam Books, 1987), p. 83. That report further notes: “Israel had its own interests, some in direct conflict with those of the United States, in having the United States pursue the initiative…. It sought to do this by interventions with the NSC staff, the National Security Advisor and the President.”
[15] The minority properly points out, however, that the administration did not go into deals with its eyes closed and must be held accountable for its own mistakes.
[16] San Francisco Examiner, September 13, 1986 (Danish freighter); Chicago Tribune, August 3,1986; Newsday, August 21,1986 (Bar-Am plot).
[17] ICC, ch. 8.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Marshall "Cover-up and Blowback," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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