Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump
President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Donald Trump at a White House reception in 1987.  Photo credit: White House / National Archives

Undeclared US wars fought against phantom or created enemies for profit; illegal and covert CIA interference in foreign countries — these familiar echos find their antecedents in a long and bloody history, going back to Iran-Contra, further back to Vietnam, and further back still. Will history repeat itself again?


This is the second of a five-part series exploring the Iran-Contra Affair and its consequences. Part 1 described the Reagan Administration’s secret wars and illegal arms deals exposed in the scandal. Part 2 explains how the constitutional crisis unfolded as a result of Congress’s failure to address the CIA’s power to wage secret wars in the name of avoiding a world-ending nuclear confrontation between the Superpowers. Part 3 exposes the roots of Iran-Contra in the Watergate scandal, but congressional abdication of responsibility and judicial deference backfired in the restoration of the Imperial Presidency, suppressing civil liberties and expanding wars justified as necessary to fighting the Cold War, even as the Cold War ended with collapse of the Soviet Union. Part 4 will survey the era of global insecurity we entered in the second Bush and Obama Administrations, while Part 5 examines the role key members of the incoming Trump team played in creating this permanent state of war by immunizing themselves from the consequences of past criminality.

The author, Doug Vaughan, spent years as an investigative reporter in Latin America covering the horrors of the 1970s and 80s. In this series, he connects the secret wars and warriors past and present to their most recent incarnation as architects of an aggressive approach to reimpose their will on the world that has escaped their control.

— Russ Baker, Editor in Chief


“The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.” — Marx

Thirty years ago, the Iran-Contra Scandal exposed and connected two of the many sets of secret actions of the Reagan years. The congressional, judicial and media responses to that crisis shaped a public narrative that set the stage for what was to come in wars, both overt and covert, in the subsequent administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and in a contradictory way, Barack Obama.

Iran-Contra also introduced us to many of the future players, neocons and neoliberals who framed the debates over policy for three decades. Now, some survivors of the wreckage have re-emerged from the paneled woodwork of corporate boardrooms and right-wing think-tanks to roam the corridors of the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies.

Like Watergate before that, a newly elected president has immersed himself in a shower of allegations and counter-allegations that pit the legitimacy of his election and the authority of his office against a splintered opposition, including prominent members of his own party, some of his own nominees to head the military and intelligence services, and those appointees against their predecessors and prospective employees.

The emerging fissures in the Intelligence Community’s putative “consensus” about supposed foreign interference in the election and the shaky factual structure undergirding it, already have set factions against each other in the FBI, the Bureau against its co-communicants, with the Director facing an internal investigation and calls for his head, while the new President accuses the CIA of acting like Nazis, yet declares he’s the Agency’s biggest fan. Erosion of the public trust in governing institutions has sunk to an all-time low, if polls can be believed.

If it seems like we’re stuck in a tape loop from the 1970s or 80s it’s because we are reliving a scripted Republican resurgence in a new round of crises for which they as players and we as spectators are unprepared. The suspense may soon be killing us. Pick your metaphor: zombies, vampires or werewolves, warrior-queens and troll-kings stalk the landscape. Is this an episode of Game of Thrones, a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or a rerun of Night of the Living Dead? Or are we watching something unprecedented, unpredictable?

Reality TV this is not: Donald Trump is no longer merely the blustering casino owner, real-estate and gambling mogul, or pitchman for Celebrity Apprentice yelling “you’re fired.” Sworn to uphold and defend a Constitution he does not understand, perhaps has never read, and to faithfully execute the laws he has flouted, now he is POTUS. Like Shiva, creator and destroyer of worlds.1

What could go wrong? When the Trumpees, echoing Dubya’s taunt to Iraqi insurgents who became Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then morphed into ISIS during Obama’s promised withdrawal, boldly dare the world to “Bring It On”, they’re looking in the rearview mirror at Iran-Contra.

But the past, the chronicler of our national sins told us, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”2 Marx went him one better: “History does indeed repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”3 But this? What strange beast is this slouching toward Washington? Better take a look over your shoulder. The most subversive thing in America, a troubadour sang, is a long memory.4

Resurrecting Ghosts

Who can watch an aging Oliver North retelling other people’s war stories on Fox, rhapsodizing about some heroic exploit in the age of knightly chivalry, or singing Homeric praise of some newfangled “arms and the man”, and not feel a faint nostalgia for the Reagan years?

Those were the days. Off-the-books, off-the-shelf operations. HAWKs and TOWs and PROFs. Boland I and Boland II. The Belly-Button account. The Courier and The Hammer. Ollie threatening to go mano-a-mano with Abu Nidal. Ollie pulling blank traveler’s checks from his office safe, proceeds of arms sales to the Ayatollah, and padding off on a patriotic mission to buy new snow tires for his wife’s station wagon and fresh underwear for his secretary.

Quaint, no? Now we have PayPal and chip-embedded credit cards that track every transaction and movement of the card-holder, as Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and other victims of self-inflicted kompromat should have known. But for those faded receipts, we might never have heard the testimony.

The alluring, mini-skirted Fawn Hall smuggling Ollie’s notes out of the White House in her pantyhose one thigh-high boot-step away from a subpoena. Ollie and Fawn’s little “shredding party” in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House with their brooding, bespectacled boss, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, National Security Adviser to the POTUS, lending a hand. Or Ollie’s old boss, Robert McFarlane, testifying to Congress that Ollie was a stone-cold liar, then under sneering assault from Dick Cheney, slouching home to attempt suicide.

Like any good contretemps, the tale was punctuated by the odd coincidence and the convenient premature death: CIA Director William Casey, a brain tumor the night before his scheduled testimony; Israeli adviser Amiram Nir, about to be subpoenaed, an airplane crash during an avocado-inspection visit (!) to Mexico.

Steady clawing by the press (yes, there once were newsrooms only recently invaded by computers, and printing presses clanging out lead type daily, circulation in the tens of millions) had stripped away the insulation of the Teflon-coated President. His credibility in tatters, the “Great Communicator” was reduced to feeble excuses, denying the obvious, blaming underlings, firing Poindexter and North, shedding more of the cover they provided. He appointed a commission, chaired by former Republican Senator from Texas, John Tower, to get to the bottom of what proved bottomless illegality.5 By January 1987, a federal court had appointed an Independent Counsel (sometimes called Special Prosecutor), Lawrence Walsh, to investigate the spreading pool of lies and corruption. Soon after, Congress opened public hearings.

Fawn Hall, Oliver North, Abu Nidal, Ronald Reagan, John Poindexter

Fawn Hall (left top), Oliver North (right top), Abu Nidal (right bottom) and President Reagan meeting in the oval office with staff (left to right) Admiral Crowe, Caspar Weinberger, George H.W. Bush, Don Regan, President and Admiral Poindexter in 1986.  Photo credit: C-SPAN, Unknown / Wikimedia, Israeli Army / Wikimedia, and White House / National Archives

The Reagan team’s gambit was what had been called in the Watergate scandal a “limited hangout” of the dirty laundry, giving up a little bit of operations already blown to save a lot that were even dirtier, bloodier, more disastrous. At the center of this narrow ambit of the binary Iran-Contra scandal, the connecting tissue, the hyphen itself, was money — money to make war when Congress had refused to authorize it.

In an effort to pre-empt Congress, Reagan, feigning ignorance — it came so easily — tasked the Tower Commission to “find out what happened” but not to identify or punish wrong-doers. The commissioners’ narrow purpose was to improve the performance of the agency at the center of the scandal, the National Security Council, not work up the ladder to the man in the Oval Office. Without taking any sworn testimony, the Commission interviewed 53 sitting, former and future officials, including Presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon; Vice Presidents Bush, Mondale; Secretaries of State Schultz, Haig, Vance, Kissinger, Rogers; Defense Secretaries Weinberger, Clifford, Laird, Schlesinger; Attorneys General Meese, Bell; National Security Advisers McFarlane (who had worked on Tower’s Senate staff), Allen, Brzezinski, Rostow; CIA Directors Turner, Colby, Helms. The staff interviewed many more subordinates and secured documents from relevant agencies. Two key participants, Poindexter and North, declined invitations to appear, invoking their right not to incriminate themselves.

It was a friendly chat amongst a veritable Who’s Who of the American establishment but their statements left most of the big questions unanswered. Not surprisingly, their Report released in February 1987 concluded that the President had been ill-advised and blamed Poindexter and North for “functioning largely outside the orbit of the US government.”6

This was a curious circumlocution: How could Reagan’s underlings be outside his orbit? Had they disobeyed his orders, usurped his authority to wage war? Or was the Commander-in-Chief the one who was out of the loop? Or was the ol’ Gipper just getting loopy? With talk of impeachment in the air, some of Reagan’s oldest friends thought it was time for him to throw in the monogrammed towel and cede power to his vice-president, George Herbert Walker Bush. Others counseled Reagan to hang tough.7

The Commission had been unable to trace the diversion of funds from the sale of weapons to Iran to finance the Contras, so it deferred the legality of those transactions to the Independent Counsel, Walsh. Predictably, their Report criticized the underlings for excesses and failure to implement policies through established interagency channels and procedures but absolved Reagan of responsibility on grounds he didn’t really know what those subordinates were doing. This further contradicted the President’s own testimony that he liked to set policy, hire the best people and let them do their jobs. Were they authorized or were they not?

In short, the Tower Commission was an evasion of the real issues of life or death for millions of people: War — who had the authority to wage it, and why? How should war be fought, by what rules? Who should pay for it? And the never-asked big one: Do the victims ever get a vote?

These were not idle philosophical questions or academic debates but moral issues with the gravest legal and constitutional implications for democratic self-government. The answers define who we are as a people, what we have become in the world to which we have held ourselves accountable. In a self-proclaimed republic presuming to act as a model for the rest of humanity, the electorate holds itself responsible for the the acts of its representatives and the consequences, seen or unforeseen. After all, within living memory the victors in World War II had tried and executed German and Japanese officials, political and military, for aggressive war, killing non-combatants, torture, genocide and other crimes against humanity. Punishment was intended as a deterrent to future crime. There was to be no more impunity for tyrants, especially for the ultimate crime of war.8

Nonetheless, undeclared wars had become ever more popular with presidents9 since World War II precisely because they do not require popular support: They are, in fact, proof that sufficient support is lacking to get a declaration of war from Congress, let alone the consent required by the United Nations Security Council before attacking another country: The only justification for war in international law is self-defense. So, reasons had to be given — or invented — excuses made, just as the Nazis and Japanese militarists had before.

The President could order criminal acts, then absolve the criminals of their crimes, then be pardoned himself by his successor; this was the essence of tyranny.

During the Vietnam War, the bloodiest, longest undeclared war in US history, Congress had gradually ceded the power to declare war to Presidents, then, alarmed at the ravages set loose, sought belatedly to protect its constitutional turf — the power to declare war and fund it. The war provoked public opposition and “whistleblowers” emerged to expose fresh outrages and reveal hidden motives, only to be denounced by their government as traitors giving aid and comfort to the enemy.10

A key event to unlocking access to the inner workings of the government was the release of the Pentagon Papers, a multi-year, multi-volume study of the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg’s colleagues at Rand Corp. The studies and the supporting documents from State, Defense, NSC and CIA included highly classified cable traffic between embassies and the NSC in which commanders on the ground and diplomats in the field contradicted their superiors about progress in their decades-long effort to impose their will on tiny Vietnam. This provoked a crisis on several levels, political, military and legal; as this structure shifted, like tectonic plates sliding over each other, they exposed other events below the surface.

First, word that the Papers had been removed from the Rand Corp. or the NSC provoked Nixon, already suspicious of the loyalties of his staff, and egged on by Kissinger, angered to near apoplexy at this embarrassing challenge to his mastery of the levers of power, to recruit their own secret police unit, “the plumbers,” to plug leaks and identify the leakers for prosecution, firing or harassment. The Plumbers illegally wiretapped phones and burglarized Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to gather derogatory information to discredit him. Some of Kissinger’s staff quit rather than be polygraphed.

At the political level, Nixon and Kissinger tried to suppress publication of the Papers, only to be rejected by the Supreme Court.  While the case was on appeal, Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) read the Papers into the Congressional Record, in a marathon session without benefit of the cameras of C-SPAN. This effectively placed the classified material in the public domain and preempted accusations that Ellsberg had violated state secrets.

Nixon also wanted Ellsberg and his alleged accomplices, including a future National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, tried for treason. They had to settle for a conspiracy to violate rules governing the release of classified information, for which the defendants were acquitted. The trials put the war itself on trial, and helped put Nixon himself in the dock.

At the deeper political and military level, the Papers showed how all the imperial Wise Men — Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara (against his own better judgment, he would later claim) and Clifford; Rusk and Vance at State, National Security Advisers Bundy and Rostow, DCIs McCone and Helms, the Joint Chiefs — told each other winning the war was not only possible but losing was unacceptable. They had escalated, invaded, occupied, bombed relentlessly with nothing but war crimes like My Lai to show for it.

The timing of the leak also suggested that influential figures within the military and intelligence apparatus had also turned against the war and were attacking Nixon’s strategy to force him to abandon the war or they would get rid of him. Here’s the context:

Faced with ever-growing dissent in the streets and his own party, Johnson had quit the race for reelection in March 1968 and suspended bombing to allow the hapless “Happy Warrior”, Hubert Humphrey, to run as a “peace” candidate, but millions of people didn’t buy it. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed. Humphrey won the nomination at the Chicago convention that turned into what a presidential commission called “a police riot’ against protestors. Mayor Richard Daley’s police and prosecutors charged eight antiwar leaders with conspiracy and incitement to riot. In this milieu of fear, confusion and division, Nixon narrowly won a three-way race with George Wallace taking votes from both major candidates.

Nixon squeaked through with a promise that he had a “secret plan” to end the war. The bigger secret was Nixon’s October Surprise promise to South Vietnam’s rump President Thieu, that he would get even more help if he backed out of negotiations. In effect, Nixon stole the election by treasonous sabotage of Johnson’s diplomatic effort to get a truce and negotiate an end to the war.

The steady escalation of war coincided with a crescendo of revelations that led to “Watergate” — the break-in at the offices where the Democratic Party was housed by a team of burglars composed of veterans of the CIA, unleashed by the Nixon White House to surveil, intercept communications and subvert the campaign of the antiwar candidate, George McGovern. Their capture in the act triggered efforts by the President to prevent the inquiry from reaching his own closest advisers and himself, destroying evidence, suborning perjury, paying bribes to cover-up even greater crimes. He dug the hole deeper until he buried himself.

And there was more: As companion to bombing the North, Defense Secretary Laird’s plan for “Vietnamization” of the South was an echo of Johnson’s anguished plea that American boys shouldn’t have to do what Vietnamese boys should be doing — fight a peasant war on the side of the landlords, a civil war on the side of the foreign imperialist. At home, a draft “lottery” replaced systematic conscription in hopes of tamping down protests. Troops started coming home. But in Vietnam, the puppet army could not recruit soldiers. The bombing intensified to hold the enemy at bay, morale was eroding to mutinous attacks by grunts on junior officers, heroin addiction was rampant, the US military weakened. By the time of his own reelection in 1972, the real secret was out: There was no plan beyond bombing the Vietnamese to force them to bargain. In short, small war, big war and in-between war had all disastrously failed.

Later it emerged that Nixon contemplated nuking Vietnam, risking nuclear war with the Soviets and possibly Chinese intervention as in Korea, but Kissinger talked him out of it. Instead, they played the China card against the Soviets by abandoning the Nationalist regime in Taiwan, a long-term strategic gamble that cost Nixon support on the right.  At the same time, the Armed Services committees learned from disgruntled GIs and officers that the military had conducted “secret” air and naval strikes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — even scrambled B-52s with nuclear bombs — under orders from the White House and National Security Adviser Kissinger, incredibly by-passing the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with the rest of the military chain-of-command.11

Nixon had set out to convince the Soviets that he maybe was a little crazy, unpredictable, to scare them and keep them off guard. But, as the Watergate investigations by a Special Prosecutor advanced on Nixon’s closest advisers — Attorney General Mitchell, former Commerce Secretary Stans, his chief of staff  Haldemann, and adviser Erlichman, counselor Colson — all the President’s men turning on him, the paranoia, rancor and lunacy seemed more than a ruse. The attempted cover-up led inexorably to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. His successor pardoned him for his crimes.12 The presidential power to pardon became a precedent for impunity, as we shall see: The President could order criminal acts, then absolve the criminals of their crimes, then be pardoned himself by his successor; this was the essence of tyranny.

If “war is the health of the state” as Randolph Bourne postulated after World War I, this State was on life support.

Rogue Elephant or Trained Herd?

Watergate dovetailed with investigations by special committees established by Congress13 into what they described as “abuses” by the CIA, FBI and military intelligence agencies at home and abroad, including assassinations of foreign leaders, illegal domestic spying, manipulation of the news media with propaganda (including what was later coined “spin” and “fake news”), use of agents provocateurs, to disrupt legal assemblies, the MK-ULTRA experiments with drugs and biological agents on unwitting victims, even lethal operations against civilian citizens.

Those historic antecedents were part of a list of crimes and failures compiled by the CIA at the request of a new CIA Director James Schlesinger14 and released by his successor, William Colby15; 683 pages long, this compendium of crime became known as the “family jewels.” By 1975, this glittering array of lethal plaster, glass and junk included over 900 major “projects” the most notorious of which, Phoenix in Vietnam, killed upwards of 40,000 people in order to dismantle the infrastructure of the communist-led insurgency.16 Saigon fell anyway, in April 1975, then Laos and Cambodia, but Phoenix became the model for similar programs to be applied elsewhere.17

Looking over the jewels, even Colby had been forced to admit that the CIA not only exceeded its legal authority, but its interference in elections — or when unsuccessful, the overthrow of elected governments — often fueled the insurgencies with revolutionary momentum. Efforts to suppress popular movements forced desperate people to take up armed self-defense, and that served as a trip-wire to escalations from covert to overt military intervention — all to keep copper coming from Chile and Congo, tin and titanium from Vietnam and Bolivia, oil flowing from Iran and Saudi Arabia, profits flowing to the big banks.

Many thought that, after the departure of Richard Helms, only Colby had the experience and stature within the Agency to fire James Angleton, the Counterintelligence chief who ran an imperium inside the imperium since its inception, wreaking havoc in his obsessive and paranoid search for a double-agent within its ranks.18

Helms and Angleton made convenient scapegoats for most of the Family Jewels, then Colby himself felt the axe on his neck, along with Schlesinger in what was called the Halloween Massacre. Colby was replaced by George H.W. Bush; Kissinger stayed as Secretary of State but relinquished his job as National Security Adviser to Brent Scowcroft; Ambassador to NATO Donald Rumsfeld took Schlesinger’s job at Defense; Richard Cheney as chief of Ford’s staff. In the coup de grace, Vice President Rockefeller opted out as Ford’s running mate for 1976. When the shuffling was done, Colby was left holding the bag for the Family Jewels.

Colby certainly bore a share of the blame, but the revolving doors were all part of the larger game: All this law-breaking mayhem had been unleashed by the enabling legislation that created CIA and gave it authority under presidential directive to gather intelligence by covert means and — here’s the catch-and-release — also “perform such other functions and duties relating to intelligence affecting the national security.”19 That was all it took: “perform other functions.”

The architects of the national security state were adept at the art of deliberately vague, ambiguous and deceptive language to hide their motives, even in the writing of laws, especially in the National Security Act of 1947 that created the institutions for fighting the Cold War. Post-Hiroshima, with the supposed life-or-death struggle against communism as justification for any means necessary, they argued that “instruments of statecraft” beyond diplomacy but short of total, nuclear war were still necessary but should be “carefully limited and controlled,” as one of its drafters, Clark Clifford, testified to the Church Committee. His old boss, President Truman, suspicious of the power of both the FBI and CIA, had disputed his own paternity of the Agency, saying it was never his intent to create the monster when he signed that law. He likened it to Hitler’s Gestapo. If he knew that honest-to-god SS and Gestapo thugs were working for the Agency20, he never revealed it publically.

Whether a species of macabre humor or more artful dodging, requests to kill people were screened by a “Health Alteration Committee”.

By 1953, when his successor, Eisenhower, had installed the Dulles brothers, John Foster at State and Allen at CIA, they had 53 covert “projects” underway, including the overthrow of the government of Guatemala, where a democratically elected government had proposed to buy (not seize) the untilled property of United Fruit Co., and Iran, where Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh had proposed legislation to nationalize British oil interests; both had been clients of the Dulleses’ law firm.21 As would become a pattern, both these great “successes” of covert action at the inception of the National Security State proved to be unmitigated and recurring disasters for the next 60 years and counting.

Based on recommendations of a presidential commission that the danger of communism required desperate, even illegal and immoral measures,22 Eisenhower unleashed the Dulles brothers to try to “roll back the Iron Curtain” with Nazis and collaborators as their shock troops in “stay-behind” networks, relying heavily on the former German military intelligence chief, Reinhard Gehlen.23 Buying elections, overthrowing governments to reverse elections that couldn’t be bought, assassinations of the uncooperative and recalcitrant — what legendary counter-intelligence officer William Harvey artfully called “executive action: … the last resort beyond a last resort and a confession of weakness” — all became commonplace, routine, standard operating procedure, gloves off, no holds barred. Whether a species of macabre humor or more artful dodging, requests to kill people were screened by a “Health Alteration Committee”.

And legal, thanks to sheer defiance of the law: Crimes committed abroad would have to be detected, tried, punished under the laws of the victims, who were powerless, thanks to the perpetrators. Good luck with that. And crimes committed in the US were effectively immunized by presidential authority and a simple exception, quietly worked out between the CIA’s top lawyer, Lawrence Houston, and the deputy attorney general, William P. Rogers (later to become Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of State). Congress passed a law24 that required all federal agencies to report to the Attorney General any possible illegal activities committed by their employees, but Rogers agreed to Houston’s suggestion that any matters related to national security would be reviewed by the CIA director before referral to the Justice Department.

Even the existence of this Memorandum of Understanding remained a secret for another 20 years, during which a total of 31 cases, mostly financial crimes like pilfering from the expense account, were reviewed; of the 14 referred to Justice for prosecution, only two were brought to trial with a single conviction. In the name of operational security, CIA was licensed to lie, steal, cheat, even kill with impunity.

Popular songs and a John Wayne movie drove home the message domestically that these guys were tough and cool and keeping little kids safe from evil terrorist Commies.

After the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Administration moved many of the CIA’s functions back to the Defense Department. Another huge bureaucracy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, rivalled CIA. The National Security Agency, even larger, combined the old signals gathering, cryptography and surveillance methods of the Army and Navy with ever-expanding electronic interception techniques and photographic capability by world-encompassing networks of aircraft and satellites managed by another new agency, the National Reconnaissance Office. DIA, NSA, NRO all answered to the Department of Defense and NSC, relegating CIA to a mere “consumer” of their “product”. These new toys arrived after the Cuban Missile Crisis forced both the US and USSR to step back from the brink of nuclear war.

But the first halting steps toward disarmament ended with Kennedy’s assassination. In the nuclear stalemate that ensued, the armed movements of the left in the impoverished Third World took up the slogan of “One, Two, Three Many Vietnams” while the political warfare experts met them tit-for-tat. Under Johnson, CIA compensated by expanding its covert action arm, the Directorate of Plans, later called Operations. CIA worked with JFK’s military overseers — Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Edward Lansdale, John Paul Vann — to combine “civic action” programs of rural development with “pacification” by teams of US Army Special Forces in their distinctive Green Berets, deployed to “hot-spots” of insurgency in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Popular songs and a John Wayne movie drove home the message domestically that these guys were tough and cool and keeping little kids safe from evil terrorist Commies.

Small units working with local collaborators, they were modeled on the counter-insurgency wars the US itself waged against Native Americans, then indigenous resistance in the Philippines, then Central America, and by the British Special Operations Command in Malaysia, and the French paratroopers in Algeria and Indochina against national uprisings. Their advisers, however, were often experts in paramilitary operations drawn from the military, trained by the CIA’s covert action arm, then sent back in civilian dress to manage the intelligence-gathering and psychological warfare components, which were primary, including torture and “simulated” terrorism blamed on the demonized enemy to confirm how evil they were.25

To the analysts back at Langley and the silk-stocking diplomatic corps, the paramilitaries were known as “knuckledraggers” but that didn’t inhibit the Company’s customers from using the “take” to formulate their estimates of the enemies’ capabilities and recommendations for combatting them, usually requiring more of the same.

The Johnson and Nixon Administrations escalated the small wars into bigger ones, especially in Vietnam, where “secret” wars spilled over borders in every direction,26 even provocative raids north of the 17th parallel (launched by Colby). Elsewhere, operations designed to create friendly regimes, no matter how dictatorial, morphed into efforts to prevent anything remotely hostile to the operations of transnational corporations.

From “Other Functions” to Mass Murder

The freshest blood was from some 3-4,000 victims of the overthrow of the democratically elected, socialist government of Chile by the military. In 1964, CIA had successfully thwarted the socialist candidate, Salvador Allende’s bid to replace the Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, preferred by Dean Rusk at the State Department and Cyrus Vance at Defense. Despite more money, propaganda, and provocations, including the assassination of the Army chief of staff, Allende won a narrow plurality in 1970. Track 1, manipulating elections, shifted to Track 2, economic and political warfare.

In retaliation for Chile’s congress expropriating the copper mines owned by Anaconda and Kennecott, the telephone network owned by ITT, and other US companies, as in Cuba, Nixon and Kissinger had ordered DCI Richard Helms, “to make the economy scream.” They imposed an embargo on exports of Chilean copper (also illegal since the US hadn’t formally declared war), vetoing loans and credits from international agencies, planting phony stories in local newspapers and radio stations, “supporting the private sector” by buying up scarce commodities and selling them on the black market to undercut the currency. They even orchestrated terror attacks to be blamed on the militant left, some of which I witnessed first-hand.

As a budding reporter I saw some of this sordid business unfold on an extended tour of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile in 1972-73. It started, believe it or not, as my honeymoon. (That’s my story and I stuck to it even after the divorce.) We trekked across Colombia by every means of conveyance from the coca-eating Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, just then becoming first hop on the trampoline north for drugs, through what the newspapers described as “guerrilla infested” mountains to the Ecuadorian border. There I was detained by DAS, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, a combined FBI-CIA-Mafia that, then as now, controlled the drug trade and managed a counter-insurgency war against Marxist guerrillas inspired by the Cuban example — a war that only last month has ended in a fragile truce.

The DAS stole my notebooks, camera and film at a border crossing, presumably to cull for incriminating material; luckily, I had changed names and places in code to make their task more difficult and less dangerous for my sources. Over the next week, my bride waited and worried in the usual fleabag accommodation on the Ecuadorian side while I smuggled myself in greasy car trunks and produce-laden trucks across the border to file a formal complaint against DAS with help from a local radio station.

First, I had to convince a magistrate to put stamps and seals on the papers. After cajoling a clerk, he led me to the judge hiding — from me or DAS, who could say? — in a broom closet, reading a Scrooge McDuck comic book. The episode ended with the regional chief, a colonel, and his scar-faced sicario kicking me out of a jeep into a ravine while firing a .50-caliber machine gun over my head. Merciful, considering the alternative of the corbata (neck tie, a gruesome act you’ll have to look up on your own) had I been a non-bribing gringo cokehead horning in on their racket or the guerrilla sympathizer I had become after talking to the victims of DAS and the army’s death squads.

Among the more casual stops, the price of travelling without documents was to join a busload of smugglers to Quito: Entire propane stoves disassembled and tucked into folds of petticoats and clanging skirts; a boy with huge flopping clown feet because he wore three pairs of shoes inside, each a couple sizes smaller, and expected to return barefoot; an old man wearing seven fedoras in hopes that only five would be confiscated as bribes by soldiers at checkpoints along the way, so he could sell one and wear one home in dignity; contraband Ritz crackers, cigarettes and bottles of Aqua Velva shaving lotion replaced stolen film and camera in my vest.

Don’t worry, the Indians said: “The soldiers won’t touch you because they’ll think you’re CIA.” On arrival at the famous market in Otavalo, we sold our stuff, got hammered on bootleg aguardiente and watched a double-feature from the balcony — no Indians allowed in the main seating: suave Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever followed by Planet of the Apes. We rooted for the horse-riding monkeys to off Charlton Heston. Magic realism is not all about the glamor.

After the promised visit to the ruins at Macchu Picchu, I packed my ailing wife home from Peru, and marched on. I spent a week touring cocaine-processing labs in fish-canning factories and watched the powder shipped off to Long Beach under the protection of the military. A side trip to Ayacucho with the son of a famous revolutionary introduced me to a philosophy professor soon to be founder of Sendero Luminoso, the Communist Party of Peru-Marxist-Leninist on the Shining Path of Carlos Mariategui.You take your lesser evils as you find them, or they find you.

Chile was my destination if not destiny: That June, I watched an armored detachment from the Tacna regiment roll tanks toward Santiago, only to be turned back by loyal troops and civilians in the streets. The coup plotter, Roberto Viaux, was arrested; he was working with a fascist paramilitary group called Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Liberty) with help from the CIA. But it was all a dress rehearsal, allowing the CIA and Chilean military intelligence to identify and eliminate officers loyal to the constitution and prepare the population for the terror to come.

Playing dumb, my specialty, got me invitations. A German glider pilot took me soaring over the Andes to visit friends in Argentina bedecked with Nazi paraphernalia. Some rich kids from the private school in Nido de Aguilas, where scions of the military and mine owners rubbed elbows and other body parts with children of the US Embassy, took me on a road trip to deliver black-market supplies they had hoarded, bought with funds from CIA, to “striking” truck drivers in Rancagua, paid not to mount their rigs by CIA.  On the way back, these posh brats pointed out where their fascist friends planned to bomb pylons to knock out power lines, courtesy of CIA.

Despite massive demonstrations in support of the government — I marched with at least a million people in Santiago chanting “the people united will never be defeated” — with the economy screaming, the Popular Unity coalition was oxymoronically wracked by confusion and division on how to proceed. Thanks to a telegram from my wife — “Come home STOP I’m pregnant STOP I love you STOP” — I was lucky to get out of Chile a few weeks before the coup, but friends like Charlie Horman and Frank Teruggi were determined to stay. My yet-to-be-first-born saved my life.

The military struck again on Sept. 11, 1973, killing President Allende, rounding up thousands of suspected resisters, torturing and “disappearing” victims — murdering and destroying the evidence — at least 4,000, including Charlie, Frank and other people I knew. This bloody “success” would inspire the like-minded dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile to extend their internal “dirty wars” against subversion up and down the hemisphere, the talons of Operation Condor reaching out to assassinate and bomb opponents in Paris, Rome, and Washington, D.C. even as the CIA was disclaiming any connection.

Kissinger was quoted as telling the NSC, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” That, by the way, was the first of 168 passages censored from a book written by a disgusted CIA veteran a year later.27

After Watergate, DCI Helms, manager of Kissinger’s massacre in Chile, superviser of the pogroms in Vietnam and Laos, had been dispatched as Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Peacock Throne of the Shah of Shah, Protector of the Aryan Race, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Brought back to testify to Congress, Helms’s lies were so preposterously grandiose, that Rep. Michael Harrington (D-MA) was censured by his colleagues for disclosing the contradictions of classified testimony, and correspondent Daniel Schorr of CBS was threatened with jail for releasing contents of the Pike Report to the Village Voice.

All this accelerated with impeachment proceedings, Nixon’s resignation in 1974, leaking of the Family Jewels and the domestic spying operations and political disruptions by the FBI, CIA, NSA and military. There was genuine fear of a coup d’etat that would install a military dictatorship like Chile. So alarmed were the congressional committees that they held a public hearing into the threat covert actions posed to the fabric of constitutional government, the separation of powers, the lives and liberties of American citizens and the provocations against peace, law and order in the world. Sen. Church likened the CIA to “a rogue elephant” crashing through the world’s jungles and humble villages. His committee considered banning all forms of covert action. In the end, though, it was all show: Congress accepted the premise of necessity, then tried to develop some way to regulate the elephant herd, as if it needed a better team of drivers in the seat.

The evidence demonstrated convincingly, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the US government itself, not surrogates or privateers, was at war with Nicaragua since 1981; it was (no pun necessary) incontrovertible.

Those exposés led Congress to pass the Hughes-Ryan Act, which prohibited the executive branch, military and intelligence agencies from using appropriated funds for covert operations unless and until the President issued an official “Finding” that each such operation was in the interest of national security. This procedure, they thought, would force the President and staff to consult with relevant departments to develop coherent policies, the very purpose of the NSC. They also required the President to submit these Findings to the appropriate congressional committees — six originally, then eight when the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence were established in 1980 — as part of the checks and balances on presidential power.28

The War Powers Act allowed the President to conduct war in an emergency for up to 30 days unfettered, then required the President to report to Congress and seek its specific authorization to use military force (AUMF) abroad for actions lasting more than 60 days. Ever since, Presidents had sought and relied upon such an authorization to continue undeclared wars beyond that 60-day limit — or so they said.29

The “Trust Us” Legacy

You’d think they might have learned something. In order to understand Iran-Contra and its consequences for war-making, the limitations of the Tower Commission, the congressional investigations and the report of the Special Prosecutor — and how ill they bode for the future — it is useful to reprise the historical context.

First, in order to win passage of the War Powers Act in numbers sufficient to override Nixon’s expected veto, Congress deliberately ignored the problem of “covert” wars waged by the intelligence agencies through surrogates — in other words, the bulk of such actions remained below the surface.

The “secret” (that is, unauthorized by Congress) bombing and invasion of Cambodia — a flagrant, in-your-face usurpation of the power to declare war coordinated by the National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger — was included in the original bill of impeachment brought against Nixon, but dropped in order to win support from “conservative” (mostly southern, military-supporting) Democrats and “moderate” or “liberal”  Republicans. (Remember them?)

The War Powers Resolution applied only to the “Armed Forces”, not to the CIA or any other bureaucratically distinct entity, like the NSC. The 60-day limit allowed the President to conduct short-term but intense military operations under guise of emergency threats to “national security.” The ink on the Resolution was barely dry in 1975 when President Ford, at the urging of his Secretary of State, Kissinger, doubling as National Security Adviser, sent troops to Cambodia in a contrived test of that power, allegedly to free the merchant ship Mayaguez that had been seized by the Cambodian government as a spy-ship.

Only in the case of CIA operations in Angola in 1974-75 did Congress belatedly pull the plug on an ongoing presidential directive to conduct undeclared war against another government, largely because of the exposures in the media and the denunciations of the CIA’s war in Angola by its “project manager”, John Stockwell.30

Badges? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!

Another series of revelatory headlines was generated by the report of yet another commission to study illegal CIA activities within the US, this time chaired by Ford’s Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, the former governor of New York whom Nixon had defeated for the Republican nomination in 1968 as Goldwater had in 1964. But long before becoming governor of what was still the most populous and financially powerful state in 1958, Rockefeller had worked closely with CIA and its predecessors. The State Dept. and OSS had virtually assigned all of Latin America to him as viceroy, so extensive were his family’s holdings — Esso’s (later Exxon) oil in Venezuela and Peru, coffee plantations in Ecuador, a chain of supermarkets in virtually all the cities, investments up and down the Andes and across the Amazon.

After World War II, Rockefeller worked in State’s Office of Policy Coordination, running covert ops in Latin America, a role that continued informally when CIA took in OPC. Nelson’s personal friend and family retainer Galo Plaza helped run the empire as head of the Organization of American States, a virtual ministry of neo-colonial affairs. (While in Ecuador in 1973, I tried to help the imprisoned journalist Jaime Galarza, arrested for exposing former president Galo Plaza’s role in collaborating with the oil companies’ use of the Peruvian military to seize a third of his country’s territory, then opening what was left to missionaries from the Rockefeller-supported Summer Institute for Linguistics to soften up the indigenous resisters so the oil companies could move in, creating the environmental disaster I chronicled on a trip in a dugout canoe down the Rio Napo, only to be turned away by the Peruvian military.)

But Rockefeller’s brief was not to look to CIA’s crimes abroad, only those that it committed at home where it wasn’t supposed to operate at all. That included a Special Operations Group of 52 officers, a secret unit within the secret Counterintelligence Staff that secretly ran Operation CHAOS from 1967 to 1973, when it was shut down for fear of exposure in the Watergate mess. They used agents to compile some 13,000 files with documents containing the names of 300,000 persons and dozens of organizations, all entered into a computerized index. Their reports were shared with Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and through them with the Defense Intelligence Agency and services branches (Army’s Criminal Investigations Division, Navy’s CIS, Air Force Office of Security) to ferret out antiwar GIs at military bases around the world, even civilian coffeehouses and off-base bars.

They also shared and cross-referenced files with the FBI’s various Counterintelligence Programs (CoIntelPros) on the civil-rights movement, Black Militants, the New Left, and with local cops through the “private” network of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units (LEIUs) in every city and town, including a former CIA guy who ran the Red Squad that opened a file on me for the Intelligence Bureau of the Denver police department shortly after I arrived here in the wake of the shootings at Kent State, May 4, 1970. Back then, entries were made on 3-by-5 inch file cards and placed in a big Rolodex. Today, information is fed from satellites and social media through servers using searchable software made by vendors like Palantir and Geofeedia. (Before switching to the latter application last year, Denver’s software had a pull-down menu that offered “criminal activity” as the default option for placing people under surveillance, so peaceful protesters at public meetings were labelled criminals without ever committing a crime.)31

But one item stood out in the Rockefeller Commission’s report: The admission that crimes committed by the CIA’s employees and agents in the US had been effectively immunized since 1954. Means of collecting foreign intelligence up to and including torture and murder, no matter how horrific when committed abroad, were considered beyond the reach of US law even though they were illegal under treaties to which the US was a signatory; then they were reimported and legalized under the rationale that they might be useful in establishing an elusive, frequently asserted but never-proved foreign connection to domestic dissent against those government policies and practices that had provoked the conscience of millions and inspired constitutionally protected dissent.

When DCI William Colby finally told the acting Attorney General, Lawrence Silberman about the 1954 MoU in 1974, wondering whether it would apply to the case of Richard Helms, Silberman said “there’s no way in the world the CIA is going to be given the extra legal privilege of deciding which of its employees should be prosecuted and which shouldn’t.” But Silberman never mentioned it to the Criminal Division, which is responsible for prosecutions. Nor did he bother to check to see whether the statute of limitations had run out on any of those unreferred cases.32

We can only assume from subsequent behavior that at least one of Rockefeller’s fellow commissioners was paying attention to the report that bore their signatures: Gov. Ronald Reagan of California was preparing to challenge Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. He lost but continued to rally Republicans against the Carter Administration as “soft on communism” and weak on domestic protest. As evidence, Reagan and his surrogates pointed repeatedly to Vice President Mondale, who had served on the Church committee and criticized the Nixon-Ford wars abroad and repression at home. Another present danger was Sen. Gary Hart (D.-CO), a victim of Nixon’s dirty tricks as McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972, earnest member of the Church Committee, and persistent critic of domestic spying on antiwar advocates like himself.

The post-Watergate reforms lasted about two years — one electoral cycle. By 1977, with a Democratic president in office, the heavily Democratic Congress was again in a more permissive mood regarding presidential prerogatives in foreign policy. While legislation to tighten restrictions on the intelligence agencies and NSC languished in Congress, Carter’s CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner and his deputy, Adm. Bobby Inman emphasized analysis of signals intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency, streamlined the Company, shut down some operations, developed guidelines for covert action (mainly to keep them deniable), and purged, at least nominally, hundreds of covert operators, many of whom became contractors in the operations that continued.

In the White House, however, the National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, went ga-ga over the idea of a “Green Belt” of militant Islam that would cinch the “soft underbelly of the Russian Bear” and protect the Persian Gulf oilfields and sea lanes from the old tsarist dream of warm-water ports.33 Covert war using local proxies against the government of Afghanistan provoked a coup d’etat in which a more moderate faction took power, then invited neighborly “fraternal” Soviet assistance against local bandits, terrorists, warlords and foreign mercenaries. Like the US in Vietnam, advisers and Spetznaz special forces were not enough. The counterinsurgency campaign by which the Soviets sought to prop-up that teetering government (similar to the US approach of search-and-destroy, pacification plus Phoenix) steadily escalated to invasion, occupation and international condemnation.34

And to the extent that many voters (and citizens too disgusted or apathetic to vote) found all this “just politics,” North was right: Not enough people gave “a rat’s patootie”, then or now.

Bleeding the Soviets seemed to be a winning strategy but only served to illustrate the alleged weakness of the Brzezinski approach to halt Soviet “aggression” and reinforced the notion of inherent “Communist expansionism.” Counter-escalating the response to what it had provoked, the CIA even helped to set up madrassa religious schools to teach jihad to the newly converted.35 These Afghan mujaheddin found ready patrons in Pakistan, where Gen. Zia ul-Haq had seized power from the elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged Bhutto, declared an Islamic state under sharia law, and embarked on the quest for a “Green Bomb” with Kissinger and his acolytes cheering him on.36 Eager allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, even China were happy to send money and “volunteers.” The butchery of teachers, nurses, artists and heretics in the name of a religion of peace was necessary and desirable if it brought down the baited bear.

Among the many ironies of the Afghan Project, the CIA’s largest ever after Vietnam, was that its inception coincided with the perception of US powerlessness after Vietnam, for which smaller wars were proposed as an antidote. Never again, so the mantra went, would the US get “bogged down in the quagmire” of a major conventional war and occupation on the landmass of Asia. The Trilateral Commission had been formed by luminaries like David Rockefeller precisely to address this problem, even as his brother Nelson had served as Ford’s consigliere and Vice President, investigating the Family Jewels in the same way as Tower did Iran-Contra, “to improve the performance” of the intelligence agencies alongside his own former policy adviser, Kissinger. The biggest bosses of finance and oil and military-industrial capital seemed to have all their bases covered, but there were many more ironies yet to unfold.

The sponsorship of an Afghan insurgency also met the challenge presented by neighboring Iran’s Islamic Revolution — or seemed to — a policy failure derived from the previous 25 years of the CIA’s greatest covert “success” of installing and protecting the Shah. Domestic pressures and regional ambitions had prompted the Shah to join the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and even join Arab rivals in raising prices in response to US support for Israel in the 1973 war — and even more, to Nixon’s double-devaluation of the dollar and abandonment of the gold standard to boost US exports in 1974 (a policy orchestrated in large part by his Treasury Secretary, George Shultz, who would take up key positions in the Reagan-Bush administration). The Shah used these increased revenues for self-aggrandizing projects that employed Schultz’s big construction and engineering company, Bechtel Corp., and to buy weapons, especially fighter jets for his Air Force, assisted by Secord. Not much trickled down to the masses, however, and communist-led workers struck the oil fields. Street demonstrations and open rebellion finally drove the Shah into exile.

When he was granted asylum in the US, at the urging of Kissinger and Helms, the people of Iran rightly feared another attempt at his restoration, so they seized the US embassy on November 4, 1979, and held the employees, many of whom were CIA officers under diplomatic cover. Then, to reassure Iran that the US was not so belligerently inclined, Carter dispatched the Shah to Panama, at the invitation of Gen. Omar Torrijos, with whom Carter had negotiated a treaty to return the canal and zone to Panamanian sovereignty. Rather than appease, this only hardened the attitude of the Iranian mullahs. (I later questioned the President’s adviser, Lloyd Cutler, whether they had foreseen this possibility, in the offices of the Aspen Foundation, where he was busily helping the Shah’s widow produce her husband’s memoirs after they generously contributed to that erstwhile philanthropy. He said there was no quid pro quo for this humanitarian gesture, nor in his post-retirement employment.)

All these diplomatic moves invited nothing but contempt and derision from Republicans, especially the presumptive front-runner for their nomination, Ronald Reagan, and many right-wing, pro-Israeli, anti-Soviet Democrats, led by Sen. Henry Jackson, whose aides included neo-conservatives like Richard Perle, who became a leading figure in future Republican administrations, and Al From, who founded the Democratic Leadership Council, the neo-liberal alternative that bred candidates like Bill Clinton and Gore.

Perversely, both Iran and Afghanistan reinforced the presumed need for covert action and the complicity of Congress in ceding power to the Presidency. The Carter-Brzezinski National Security Council recurred to Secord for the shipment of weapons and supplies to Afghanistan, with the assistance of Egypt after the Camp David Accords as cover. Then they tapped Secord, who knew Iran because he had coordinated arms shipments to the Shah from 1975-78, to supervise Operation Eagle Claw, the hostage-rescue mission by the combined Delta Force, assisted by a young major, Oliver North. Secord’s partner Albert Hakim recruited Iranian agents for support in Tehran but the helicopters crashed in the desert, aborting the operation. Meanwhile, the price of gasoline kept going up, long lines formed at gas stations, the US economy was gripped by “stagflation” and the hostages were held for 365 days, which ABC’s special Nightline turned into a nightly countdown of American paralysis.

In retrospect, Reagan’s victory on Day #365 of America Held Hostage seems inevitable. The oscillation between “containment” and “rollback” that characterized the Cold War swung irreversibly into the great crusade against “the Evil Empire” under Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, a protege of Kissinger to whom the National Security Advisers, the ineffectual William Clark and the neutral mediator Richard V. Allen, deferred. Reagan’s NSC agreed to a massive effort to aid Afghan rebels (again, freedom fighters or terrorists depending on whose water buffalo or cousin was getting gored).

That lofty and legal bipartisan effort dwarfed the unauthorized little Contra war, contracted out by Bush, Shackley & Co. to their “private” network of retirees and subcontractors in blood, treasure, and payoff — for a time — so much so that Brzezinski fans and Kissinger clones have been disputing paternity of the Lilliputians who brought down the Soviet giant ever since. Once that geopolitical fantasy came to fruition and the proverbial chickens came home to roost in the rubble of the World Trade Center, one would think the Democrats would have learned the old adage, equally applicable to marital infidelity, business, politics and war: What they can do for you, they can do to you. But that was now, this is then.

With success, the ends always justify the means. Never mind that killing another human being, except in self-defense, is murder, and war, except in self-defense is simply mass murder. Belatedly, Congress passed the Intelligence Oversight Act in 1980; it required the President to personally authorize each and every significant covert operation, then consult with the congressional intelligence “oversight” panels in a “timely fashion,” whatever that meant. In effect, what Senator Church called the “dark arts of secret intervention” and “a semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies — whatever is deemed useful in bending other countries to our will” — all would be legal so long as the President approved them and told Congress about them — someday — and all in secret. Congress had not only relinquished its power to declare war, it had made itself complicit in the lesser included crimes, as well as the cover-ups and the lies.

The very same institutional apparatus of paramilitary operations, including many of the same personnel weaned on counterinsurgency doctrine in Southeast Asia, was pressed into service when Ronald Reagan took power in 1981, the very day the hostages in Iran flew home.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance in the White House, August 1977.  Photo credit: White House / Wikimedia


Whether Reagan was himself the beneficiary of a secret pre-election deal to ship arms to Iran in return for the mullahs keeping the hostages until he took office — the “October Surprise” scenario37 — remains one of the great unresolved questions of our time but only because the evidence, which is convincing, was never presented in a court to convict the participants who stole an election, illegally sold weapons, subverted foreign policy and usurped the authority of the President to conduct it.38 That Congress was unable to develop “clear and convincing evidence” of such a plot says more about its investigative acumen — or the will to pursue it — than about the evidence.

Walsh’s “Final Report”39 was of little help, either, and by congressional design. Because he was directed to investigate “the direct or indirect sale, shipment, or transfer since in or about 1984” of weapons to Iran and the Contras, any earlier sales, directly to Iran or through Israel — and there were many such deals — were off-limits.40 Secord, for example, had been put in charge of Operation Tipped Kettle, by which arms seized from the Palestine Liberation Organization during the invasion of Lebanon in 1981 were diverted to the Contras. The larger but equally savage counter-insurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador were also off-limits, confirming the cynics’ view that the exceptions dwarfed the rule.

Congressional supporters of the Contras and their “authoritarian” allies in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, neighboring Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala weren’t alone in trying to keep the lid on their own complicity. Given the composition of the D.C. Circuit Court (Laurence Silberman again, implicated in the October Surprise before his appointment by Reagan, was one of the judges), the order restricting Walsh’s investigatory authority can be interpreted as the first of many self-protective efforts by Republican stalwarts to tie his hands.

With publication of Walsh’s Final report and a book in which he elaborated on these restrictions, the investigative circle was effectively closed on that October Surprise, but an historical ellipsis remained for a few tenacious reporters to attempt to fill.

No matter. The theme of Watergate and the investigations it spawned — especially the congressional probes of the CIA41 that gave rise to the system of congressional “oversight” (unlucky choice of malapropism, that double entendre) — was “Trust us: We didn’t do it and we promise never to do it again.” Unless, of course, the boss tells us to.

On that, at least, Walsh had plenty to say, and it’s not pretty. He ended as he began with the observation and warning that “problems presented by Iran/Contra are not those of rogue operations, but rather those of Executive Branch efforts to evade congressional oversight…”42

Ronald Reagan, oath

President Reagan being sworn in on Inaugural Day,  US Capitol, 1981.  Photo credit: White House / National Archives

Reagan came to office on a vow to reverse the “Vietnam syndrome” of which the War Powers Act and Hughes-Ryan restrictions on covert operations were seen as symptomatic — the squeamishness of Congress in the face of popular opposition to US military intervention abroad. Following a procedure established by Congress in the 1947 National Security Act, Reagan immediately launched a series of executive decrees called National Security Decision Directives, each of which required a presidential “finding” that the directed activity was necessary to protect national security. These NSDDs directed the diplomatic, military, and intelligence agencies to conduct secret operations and assist surrogates in making war to subvert or overthrow foreign governments without a formal declaration of war by Congress.

Early on, I tried to ask Kissinger about this when his old deputy Haig and Reagan appointed him to head another commission to solve the problems of the region. “Dr. Kissinger,” I yelled at a press conference with former Presidents Ford, D’estaing of France, Schroeder of West Germany, “How do you win a peasant war on the side of the landlords?” He muttered gutturally, “Who are you? Who are you with?” I waved from the back of the room, “How many peasants will you have to kill this time around?” He was already walking out the door.43 By the time he was through, the UN and OAS estimated at least 100,000 died over the next decade; human-rights groups said many more but it took years of forensic pathology to make the case for genocide.

As the first successful revolution in the hemisphere since Cuba 20 years earlier, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas topped the list and provoked the ire of most Republicans, a few Democrats and the supporters of the overthrown dictator, Anastasio Somoza.44

This early commitment by the Reagan-Bush administration and its retainers, acolytes, and proxies to a war of sabotage, torture and assassination was revealed in news accounts of atrocities committed by Contras.45 As evidence of government support for the Contras mounted, popular opposition increased. Congress rejected a bill that would have barred all funding of the Contras. Then, by a vote of 411-0, Congress in December 1982 passed the first Boland Amendment. It prohibited the CIA from providing military assistance to the Contras ”for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.”46 The remaining array of purposes constituted a loophole big enough to drive a Pentagon through.

And soon enough, the Defense Department’s Special Operations Division and Intelligence Support Activity — born of the failure of the Iran hostage-rescue mission — leapt into the breach in operations dubbed Yellow Fruit and Elephant Herd.47 Veterans of these operations, including Richard Secord and his deputies, Richard Gadd and Robert Dutton, soon figured in the ostensibly “private” network with retired Generals Singlaub and Aderholdt, their former chiefs in Vietnam (see Part 1). At the same time, not wanting to be stingy with Reagan’s little war, lest they be accused of insufficient patriotism, Congress gave the CIA money for the Contras so long as they stuck to the original lie — that their goal was merely to interdict the flow of arms from Nicaragua to Salvadoran guerrillas.48

Using the rationale of interdiction and deploying personnel for existing Military Assistance Programs, Reagan’s National Security Council, with assistance from the old coalition that was Operation Condor and its retinue of Cuban exiles: like-minded dependents in military-dictated and Nazi-coddling Argentina under Videla (with help from old and new fascists recruited from Italy’s Operation Gladio), Brazil under Geisel and Stroessner of Paraguay (both of whom gave refuge to Dr. Josef Mengele of Auschwitz), Bolivia under Banzer and the “cocodrilos” of Roberto Suarez and Guzman (with help from the fugitive Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo’s Butcher of Lyon), Chile under Pinochet (with help from Nazi SS Col. Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas-chambers used by Gehlen’s Abwehr and the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front in World War II).

With such expert allies, merely “authoritarian” according to the taxonomy of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the MAPs stepped up support for the murderous, racist regime of Gen. Rios Montt in Guatemala (now on trial for war crimes), Gen. Alvarez’s Battalion 3-16 in Honduras, the death-squads of Col. D’Aubuisson in Salvador. Even Costa Rica received unwanted attention (there was no standing army since 1946) when its national police force somehow found an incubus implanted in vitro, a surveillance unit and aspiring hit-team a la Phoenix known as “los Bebes” because they were secretly and illegally funded, trained and advised by a CIA agent, John Dimitrios Papas.49

All were in close contact with Israeli export-import agents, arms dealers like Pesach Ben-Or in Guatemala, a huge “Arms Supermarket” in Tegucigalpa run by the former US military adviser to Somoza, and in Panama, Mike Harari, chief of an Israeli assassination team who retired in disgrace when his unit killed an innocent Palestinian waiter in Lillehammer, Norway during the 1976 Olympics, then found his way into the inner sanctum of Panama’s Defense Forces as adviser to Manuel Antonio Noriega, himself on the CIA and military intelligence payrolls since 1958.

I first encountered the sinister Noriega in 1975, when I was in graduate school and invited to Panama to study negotiations for the recovery of the canal and the zone that split the country in half since 1903, when it was invented by the Morgan banking interests represented by Sullivan & Cromwell, the same law firm that employed the Dulles brothers.50 At one meeting in the hotel, I watched Noriega slither into the room, just conspicuous enough to be noticed, look around as if taking inventory of every face, then wordlessly slip away. My Panamanian host whispered to me, “Keep an eye on him, too, because that’s the spook who’s going to take over if something happens to Gen. Torrijos.” And it did: Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981. I would cross paths with Noriega literally and figuratively until his trial and conviction drug-smuggling charges, the least of his crimes, years later.

Noriega’s relationship with CIA was never a one-way street. More like the traffic in Panama City, there were no lanes but all vehicles started and ended at one of Tony’s hideaways. He played amenable but never trustworthy in allowing the US to establish a string of bases for so-called “low-intensity” counter-insurgency wars in which the doctrine of national security was simultaneously inflated to absorb the internal security of the imperial dependencies and conflated to make their security dependent and coterminous with the definitions and decisions of Washington. Blustering he had Bush “by the balls”, Noriega had been indicted for taking bribes from drug-traffickers, allowing them to use Panama as a processing lab and transshipment pad, and laundry for their profits at convenient branches of BCCI and other banks; also conveniently, these drug shippers were competitors of those who had helped the Contras but Noriega had placed a price on his head.51

But back to that bump in the road, that blip on the screen in uncooperative, recalcitrant, Cuban-inspired Nicaragua and their allies next door in the Salvadoran FMLN: In April 1983, asked if he was doing anything to overthrow the pesky Nicaraguan government, Reagan said, “No, because that would be violating the law.” Pressed on the point after reports the US had mined Nicaraguan harbors, he explained, “We are complying with the law, the Boland Amendment, which is the law.”52

It was a lie whether Reagan believed it or not, even in a Congress divided between the gullible who wanted to believe and the cynical who knew better but claimed otherwise. A month later, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence demanded a new presidential “finding” that spelled out the national-security interest before it would authorize more aid to the Contras. The House analogue barred aid to the Contras but, taking the Administration at its word, authorized funds to stop the flow of arms to any rebel groups in the region.

The Administration responded by pumping up the propaganda to justify its proxy armies in the region, by shaping news abroad with the intent to influence the public and Congress at home. To get the word out, Reagan’s team established an Office of Public Diplomacy in the State Department with another Cuban exile, Otto Reich, at the helm, but coordinated by a former CIA psychological warfare specialist, Walter Raymond, assigned to the NSC, to muster public support through taxpayer-financed propaganda — later declared illegal by the Comptroller General.53

Even here, there was a twisted history below the surface: The National Security Act’s deceptive clause allowing the CIA to “perform other functions” had effectively empowered the President to wage psychological warfare abroad. The composer and conductor of what he dubbed his “Mighty Wurlitzer” was Frank Wisner, who had run OSS operations in Romania during World War II, then against the Soviets from quarters in the State Department’s Office of Policy Coordination before joining CIA as chief covert operator under Allen Dulles. Wisner supervised Radio Free Europe and Voice of America to transmit a CIA-approved version of reality — what they called the truth about events in “denied territory” behind the “Iron Curtain” — as well as publication of books, sponsorship of artists, writers and intellectuals through foundations and groups like the Congress of Cultural Freedom.54 He also developed Operation Mockingbird, which recruited agents among reporters and editors to run stories in friendly outlets in Europe, often used to embed coded instructions to agents, including armed “stay-behind” groups in areas liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army. Even within the CIA, but especially at the State Dept. and Pentagon, people worried that calls for armed rebellion could provoke a Soviet response that would escalate to confrontation, and possibly nuclear war, as it almost had in Germany, Poland and fatally, in Hungary in 1956.

Some of this information, misinformation and disinformation bounced back to be replayed in the US media, the original form of “blowback” — propaganda that had been planted abroad came back as “news” here, with potentially disastrous unintended effects — ratcheting up the demand for war in Congress or in the streets, or otherwise influencing the decisions and pre-empting the options of policy-makers. Another lucky accident, perhaps, to increase funding for the CIA, FBI and the military, but the practice was illegal under section 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 55 because most members of Congress and the public didn’t want to pay for government-produced “fake news” that they might believe enough to shape their views on important issues. This smacked too much of Goebbels in Germany or the portrayal of Soviet methods for comfort. Smith-Mundt prohibited the CIA from disseminating within the United States any ‘information about the United States, its people, and its policies’ prepared for dissemination abroad.”

Also, RFE and VoA were exposed in stunts where its “reporters,” recruited from emigre’ groups, some of whom had been collaborators with the Nazis, incited rebellion and riot in direct contradiction of official policy, jeopardizing other diplomatic efforts to counter the influence of the Soviets and develop better relations with countries on the periphery and the Third World. Later, they closed RFE and rolled VoA out of CIA into a new, ostensibly autonomous and “independent” US Information Agency.

The military had always been parsimonious with information that might aid the enemy, but the revelations by Daniel Ellsberg and other military “whistleblowers” showed the Pentagon had engaged in a massive campaign of censorship and deception about its casualties, the enemy’s, and atrocities like the My Lai massacre. In 1972, alarmed at efforts by the White House, under communications director Patrick Buchanan, to control information from the executive branch, including the military and USIA, about Vietnam, Congress attached the Zorinsky Amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1972. The Zorinsky Amendment added a new prohibition: ‘no funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States.”

Now, in 1986, here was Buchanan, uninhibited by Smith-Mundt and unrepentant for his defense of his lying boss in the Watergate scandal, back as communications director for Reagan. Working closely with Elliott Abrams at State, Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, and CIA officers as necessary, OPD shaped the Administration’s image of its policy in order to shape policy in that image.The target of this psych-war was the American populace and especially critics of US policy. The weapons were a battery of right-wing foundations, think-tanks, sponsored publications, subsidized writers, hired “media critics” and volunteer “truth squads” who toured the country spreading the gospel according to Reagan and attacking as subversive anyone who disputed them. Some in the “mainstream” were already true believers, like contra-defender Cliff May, editorial writer at the Rocky Mountain News, later editorial director for its parent Scripps-Howard chain, and after 9-11, chief of communications for the Republican Party.

Despite the scandal and closure of OPD’s most egregious operations, Reich moved up in the State Dept. under George H.W. Bush. His successor at OPD, Robert Kagan, escaped the Iran-Contra trap but served as Abrams’s deputy on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff for 1984-88, helping implement the Contra War and its propaganda-driven diplomacy. When the investigations closed the shop, Kagan landed at American University where he wrote a massive tome justifying his own handiwork and declaring it a smashing success “despite the embarrassment accruing from Iran-Contra.”56

Embarrassment. Let that sink in. The real purpose of vindication (note the publication date, 1996 — a presidential campaign year in which small wars were flaring larger in the former Yugoslavia, Central Africa, and the ex-Soviet periphery) was to repeat the mistakes, blunders and crimes on a grander scale, with more firepower to guarantee “success” — and greater secrecy to keep the embarrassing details from the public.

But, again, back to the future of those means and ends in Nicaragua: In anticipation of a cut-off, the Pentagon agreed to transfer equipment cost-free to the CIA for the Contras — until that, too, was deemed illegal. After big “joint exercises” in Honduras, huge stockpiles were declared “surplus” and donated to the Contras. Even friendly governors were asked to donate their National Guard stocks with promise the Pentagon would replace them with new, better equipment.

Biding for time, a new Finding was drafted in September 1983 to rationalize aid to the Contras — get this — as a means to force Nicaragua to negotiate a treaty pledging non-interference in the affairs of its neighbors. Reagan’s people were nothing if not brazen in their hypocrisy, yet the Senate Intelligence Committee bought this lie, too. The House voted to cut off all aid. A “compromise” allowed another $4 million to the CIA for the Contras. The CIA stepped up its war, mining harbors, bombing airfields and ports, sending Contras off to raid villages, burned down clinics, kill volunteers like hydrologist Ben Linder. (He was armed in self-defense, so deserved to be shot, according to Contras.) Even Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Reagan’s best friend on the Senate Intelligence Committee, realized he had been lied to. He complained that it was hard to defend their policy “if we don’t know what the hell is going on.”57

Even in that confession there was a lie: Anyone who wanted to could easily know exactly what was going on. Finally, Congress passed and Reagan signed Boland II which extended the ban to the Pentagon and any “intelligence agency.” 58


Defiant and contemptuous, CIA Director William Casey shambled uneasily through the slightly tightened loophole of Boland 2 and, Congress be damned, handed the baton to a Marine lieutenant colonel seconded to the staff of the National Security Council as his agent and operational point-man for continuing the Administration’s covert policy. Oliver North dubbed the fundraising and contra-resupply program “Project Democracy”. He got plenty of help from other members of the Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) of sub-cabinet officials like Undersecretary of State Abrams.

A tiny Grenada, a Caribbean spice-island whose principal export was cinnamon, showed the way. The administration had been plotting to get rid of the island’s governing New Jewel Movement, led by the charismatic Maurice Bishop59, since the Reagan transition team in 1980, working with the hardline Council on lnter·American Security, issued its “Santa Fe” documents on proposed policy in Latin America. (Besides the Sandinistas, identified targets included Panama’s Omar Torrijos, who died in a plane crash in July 1981 and was succeeded eventually by the double and triple-dealing Manuel Noriega.) Among Bishop’s sins: he had invited Cuban construction workers to build an extended runway for jets that might be for tourists but also could serve Soviet bombers — a far-fetched idea that recurred to incite the fever-dreams of the counterinsurgency strategists on the Potomac who imagined Soviet tanks rumbling up the Pan-American highway from their base in Nicaragua, then made their hallucinations real as posters distributed by Reich, Raymond and Kagan’s lapidarian OPD.

Point Salines International Airport, Grenada.

Point Salines International Airport, Grenada.  Photo credit: US Army / Wikimedia

More realistically, Bishop had granted a passport to the CIA’s most wanted man, and George H.W. Bush’s bete noire, renegade CIA whistleblower Philip Agee.60 The NSC tasked the RIG Cowboys in the OEOB basement to come up with a plan. They got their chance in early October 1984, when a faction of the New Jewel Movement seized power, arrested and shot Prime Minister Bishop on spurious grounds that he had been playing footsie with the US, a charge that may have been fabricated, similar to that planted in El Salvador against poet Roque Dalton, who was summarily tried and executed by his own comrades in the ERP, or Ana Maria Montes of the FPS, or perhaps even the Cuban military’s alleged coup against the Castro brothers in 1989.

False stories soon appeared that claimed the rebels had taken a few American tourists and medical students hostage, or that they might be planning to, how many was unknown. The Marines landed and within a few days declared the “hostages freed.” There were none but no matter to jarheads like McFarlane and North, it was a cheap PR victory to take the spotlight off the smoking rubble of the barracks in Beirut. By then the more likely target of the invasion, Agee, had fled Grenada for Cuba, where he resided until his death in 2008. Like Edward Snowden a few years later, Agee’s asylum was twisted by his tormentors into proof that he had always been a traitorous agent of the only country that would give him refuge from the persecution of his former employers. Now, however, “denied targets” beyond the reach of law in enemy territory are susceptible to surveillance and summary execution by drone.

From October 1984 to October 1986, when Congress re-authorized “humanitarian” assistance to the Contras, Reagan and his senior advisers sought by hook (soliciting “donations” from private citizens and foreign governments, in return for favorable treatment) or crook (illegal diversion of appropriated funds from other sources) to field their Contra army. National Security Adviser McFarlane, assigned the task of “keeping the Contras together body and soul,” delegated the job — bagman in conventional parlance — to his ambitious younger colleague, North.61

Rich people like Joseph Coors, the beer baron,62 and Ellen Garwood, an heiress with spare change, asked Casey what they could do to help. Routinely, Casey sent such donors to North for a tour of the White House and a sales pitch that ended with a handshake and photo with the President himself. The money was donated to nonprofit shell organizations illegally claiming tax exemptions for the donors; some of the shell operators had formerly worked for the Office of Public Diplomacy and the US Information Agency.63 It was then laundered through a network of Panamanian companies and Swiss bank accounts to buy guns and ammo, even planes and helicopters — all illegal. When exposed, Abrams told Congress — between lies about his own lack of knowledge or involvement — that he found it degrading for a great power to walk around rattling a “tin cup.”64

Untangling this web of contractors, intermediaries, cut-outs, fronts, and diversionary schemes,65 some launched only to be shut down as a distraction from the main channel, was the first step of demystification of the fundamental lie and first lesson to be drawn from Iran-Contra: The evidence demonstrated convincingly, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the US government itself, not surrogates or privateers, was at war with Nicaragua since 1981; it was (no pun necessary) incontrovertible. The International Court of Justice, established to peacefully resolve disputes between member-states of the United Nations, found the US guilty of waging a war of aggression against its tiny neighbor. The US arrogantly — that is, officially and formally — refused to acknowledge the UN’s or the Court’s jurisdiction — in effect, admitting that Nicaragua’s charges were true even as it lied to its own people about what the government was up to in their name. So much for international law, so useful for beating up on the likes of Qaddafi or Saddam. So much for democracy.

Given how far we have sunk since, it’s a useful reminder that international conventions, treaties (including that governing UN members) and related covenants are, of course, part of our domestic “law of the land” but the courts are loathe to intervene in disputes between President and Congress over the conduct of foreign policy, including especially that extension of politics by other means, war. While the constitutionality of the War Powers Act has been upheld, accepting the clear language that the President’s power to wage war is constrained by the congressional requisite of a declaration of war, no federal court has ever dared stop a war.

Bookending the period of North’s ascendancy, two years before Hasenfus’s plane crash, a helicopter had been shot down over Nicaragua, killing two US citizens who were blithely dismissed as “volunteers” by the Embassy in Managua. That incident led to a very public trial in Miami where pro-Contra mercenaries, a group ambiguously called Civilian Military Assistance led by an Alabama-based Vietnam vet named Tom Posey, were prosecuted for violating the Neutrality Act. The court absolved the mercenaries by ruling that even absent a formal declaration of war, the US was certainly not “at peace” with Nicaragua. In fact, the prosecution of that case nearly blew the lid off Iran-Contra a year early, in 1985, as the White House exerted pressure on the US attorney’s office in Miami to delay the case.66

The Iranian Triangle: Israel, Saudi Arabia and Uncle Sam

By 1985, the NSC also was engaged in secret negotiations with Iran’s government to win release of prisoners held by resistance fighters in Lebanon. That the hostages were taken prisoner in retaliation for US intervention in August 1982 on the side of Israel and the fascist Phalange of Bashir and Amin Gemayel is seldom mentioned in characterizations of the US mission in Lebanon as “peace-keeping.” Again, had Congress invoked the War Powers Act, the state-sponsored terrorism of the battleship USS New Jersey, which launched dozens of car-size bombs from its 16-inch guns into the Shiite slums “to protect Americans” might not have produced the seizure of hostages by Hezbollah or the suicidal car-bombs that killed 241 Marines and 48 French paratroopers, a point raised to me after his release by Tom Sutherland, who spent 2353 days in captivity with Anglican churchman Terry Waite, pawns on the Grand Chessboard while North played knight. Instead, Congress winked at the involvement of Israel, which captured weapons from the PLO and shipped them to the Contras as part of a joint “strategic initiative” called Operation Tipped Kettle, managed by Secord.

Casey’s main concern was William Buckley, his station chief in Beirut, who earlier had worked in Pakistan to build up that barbaric insult to Islam, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, and the heroin-dealing Afghan faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose greatest military success was bombarding his former allies in Kabul, the capital, before they drove him into exile. In 1983, in retaliation for Buckley’s kidnapping, Casey even hired local Phalangist hit-men (through Saudi cut-outs, but the Israeli hand was suspected) to blow up Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual adviser to Hezbollah. The car bomb exploded as worshippers left Friday prayers at the mosque, killing dozens who don’t count in any congressional or judicial proceeding to date, except perhaps as the loved ones of future martyrs to holy war against the Great Satan.

Ronald Reagan, William Casey, William Buckley, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq

William Casey, attorney, historian, and spy, did not answer for his career as terrorist, war criminal, and murderer. Ultimately, four shipments of missiles would be sent to Iran via SAT in exchange for hostages; profits were diverted to buy yet more weapons for the Contras. The arms sales to Iran contravened Reagan’s promise never to bargain for hostages, let alone trade arms for them. It also violated the law, specifically, the Arms Export Control Act. Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger all claimed to have advised against it, but acquiesced even as they worried that impeachable offenses had been committed. Since no Finding had been issued by the president to make the first missile sale legal, his aides phonied one up and backdated it when the deal was exposed. Once exposed, they defended it as “retroactive,” covered it up and lied some more.

The diversion — what North called the “secret within the secret” — violated not only the congressional restriction on lethal aid, but also the fundamental constitutional authority of Congress to appropriate funds. North portrayed this crime as an act of heroism — of presidential courage, hence derivative courage on his part, since he was just following orders — but the blunders proved otherwise: North gets Ross Perot to put up ransom money for a couple of DEA agents to pay a snitch to locate the hostages; the snitch disappears with the money. North leaks word that he’s using Anglican church official Terry Waite as a go-between; Waite disappears into captivity. North coordinates air-drops to the Contras; the goods miss their mark and eventually the Sandinistas shoot down an old plane. Only incompetence exposed the mayhem of the operations, but that served to dismiss them as the work of incompetents.

The Democratic majority in Congress had no quarrel with the fueling of the Iraq-Iran War that killed hundreds of thousands, nor with the arming of murderous mujaheddin to bleed Afghanistan in the name of Cold War, or the repulsive massacres of Central America but, after three years of creeping revulsion, vacillation, and posturing, had cut off military aid to the Contras. The issue was framed as a constitutional struggle pitting the war-declaring and money-raising power of Congress against the war-making and foreign-policy authority of the president as Commander-in-Chief. At stake was the definition of representative government and the limits of executive power.

No Honor Among Thieves

What distinguished lran-Contra was precisely that it never was a secret, no matter how highly classified the operational details. It was simply too big for that, and the much-publicized investigations by Congress and the courts never got much beyond who lied most brazenly about what everybody knew all along. Or, as a friend put it, paraphrasing Sen. Howard Baker’s portentous question about Nixon’s culpability in Watergate, “What did the president know, and when did he forget to know it?”

Baker needn’t have asked: He was brought out of retirement to replace Donald Regan, suspected in the cover-up, as Reagan’s chief of staff. After fruitlessly trying to debrief the boss, Baker isolated him in the cloisters for walks with his wife in the Rose Garden or sent him off to clear brush on his ranch outside Santa Barbara, the better to shut off investigations that could lead to the President in his increasingly addled maunderings. Except for carefully staged public events by his old image-managers, Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger and Ed Rollins, functionally, Reagan’s presidency ended two years before his term was up. The vacuum was filled by his Vice-President, who continued the covert wars another six years.

Washington’s war-making was never a secret to its victims but in US calculus, victims don’t matter; voters do, sometimes. Therefore, marketing — how a policy is packaged and sold — means more than the function or substance of the policy, who benefits and who suffers. The public scandal was not the policy itself, which ravaged much of Central America, postponed any hope of peace in the Middle East, and helped the regimes of Iran and Iraq butcher a million or more of each other’s people. Rather, as in Watergate, the official indignation was that of a criminal who finds he’s been bamboozled by a sneakier co-conspirator: “How could you?” And to the extent that many voters (and citizens too disgusted or apathetic to vote) found all this “just politics,” North was right: Not enough people gave “a rat’s patootie”, then or now.

The exposure of the “secret” policies laid bare a political marriage of convenience whose bastard offspring were the Contras. As in any marriage, the partners had different perceptions of who was doing what to — and with — whom; that is, they brought with them different baggage, expectations, levels of deception and self-deception: Generally, Democrats deceive themselves, while Republicans deceive the rest of us. That’s why the Democrats expressed such shock and outrage as the truth about flirtations with Iran’s regime in peddling arms for hostages unfolded, and that’s why the Republicans cried foul at having been caught with their collective patootie exposed.

The Continuing Cover-up of History, the Creation of an Alternative Reality

The congressional hearings in the summer of 1987 did not get at the truth so much as inspire another level of the cover-up. Perversely, they became a forum for Republicans, through North, to accuse Democrats of abandoning those brave Contras in the field, to ridicule the second-guessing of presidential power in foreign policy, to berate the hypocrisy of those who denied this vital aid, then switched back — the very month that the scandal exploded — to authorize $100 million that exceeded the combined total of $47 million that flowed through “Enterprise” accounts from the “private aid” network and the arms-sales diversions. Democrats like Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate proceedings, defended their support of the Contras. The Contras continued their lethal work, legally, constitutionally, and with predictably deadly results.

The defense of the Reagan Administration was led by an ultra-conservative congressman from the Cowboy State, a representative of mining corporations and their royalty-collecting ranchers. Richard “Dick” Cheney was not just another cowboy. He graduated from Yale but ducked Vietnam by serving in the Nixon Administration where he befriended Donald Rumsfeld. Tapped by Al Haig to help run the White House after Nixon’s henchmen were indicted in Watergate, Cheney and Rumsfeld felt the humiliation of Nixon in their own bones: Hounded by the press, pressured by years of protest in the streets, until Nixon himself huddled behind barricades in the White House during the national student strike on more than 1000 campuses in the wake of the Kent State massacre (to which I was a reluctant eyewitness and nearly a victim), they vowed never to let it happen again on their watch. Yet here it was: Cheney’s work as a clean-up man after a botched crime prepared him for the role of coordinator of the defense of Reagan, who was to be protected at all costs.

Obscure until his televised role, Cheney turned his performance as devil’s advocate into a cross-examination of the witnesses as Grand Inquisitor, demanding an auto-da-fe of culpability for having betrayed their beloved President. The forceful, aggressive presentation of these opinions by Cheney not only established his reputation but elevated him to positions in the next administrations. They might have drawn a rebuke from Democrats, or at least a refutation as what logicians call the rhetorical fallacy of “proof by vigorous assertion.” Instead, cowed by Cheney impugning them as weak and timid, they proved his assertion that they lacked the strength of will required in a dangerous world.

The Democrats’ majority report argued that Reagan had licensed his overzealous aides to abuse the powers of office he had delegated, but exculpated him of bad intentions. Sen. George Mitchell, a former judge, went from prosecutor to defendant of himself and his party. Joined by a Republican colleague, also from Maine, William Cohen, they co-wrote their own analysis titled, fittingly, Men of Zeal, and deferred to a Special Prosecutor to pursue the abuses in court.67

Dick Cheney, Iran Contra

Congressman Dick Cheney questioning Donald Regan during Iran-Contra hearing July 30, 1987. Photo credit: C-SPAN

Cheney kept his snarl and the worldview it expressed in subsequent incarnations as Bush-1’s Secretary of Defense and Bush-2’s Vice-President. When asked 20 years later, in the wake of the disaster of 9-11 that he had done nothing to prevent and everything to use as rationalization for declaring and executing a global “War on Terror”, Cheney explained that it was Iran-Contra that had shaped his determination of the necessity, even the desirability of going over to the Dark Side that he personified:

“Judgments about the Iran-Contra Affair ultimately must rest upon one’s views about the proper roles of Congress and the President in foreign policy. … [T]hroughout the Nation’s history, Congress has accepted substantial exercises of Presidential power — in the conduct of diplomacy, the use of force and covert action — which had no basis in statute and only a general basis in the Constitution itself. … [M]uch of what President Reagan did in his actions toward Nicaragua and Iran were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers. … [T]he power of the purse … is not and was never intended to be a license for Congress to usurp Presidential powers and functions.68

The companion or evil twin to this view was what came to be known as the “unitary executive”: Based on an argument by Alexander Hamilton against a parliamentary system, the president as chief executive also had exclusive authority over all limbs and extensions of the Executive Branch, with Congress’s only constitutional role being to advise and consent to presidential appointments and levy the taxes to provide the revenues necessary for their functions.

In effect, Cheney had begun outlining a doctrine of the Imperial Presidency that Congress had forced Nixon and Johnson to abandon a decade earlier — unlimited authority in peace and war and therefore in covert action. In his first public address as President, Cheney watching from the wings off the Oval Office, Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for his crimes, and announced with relief, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Cheney knew better: Even after being driven ignominiously from office, Nixon was unrepentant. He went so far as to state, “If the President does it, it’s not illegal” — in effect, his word was law.69 Once installed as Vice President and arguably superior to his own boss in intellect, experience and influence, Cheney would implement that principle in the extreme. And now, despite the mutual contempt in which he is held by his opponents and the general public, it is Cheney’s vision and Cheney’s party that has prevailed, whatever Donald Trump does in the White House. Our long national nightmare is not over, it is not even past.

Click here to go to Part 3.


1. I’ve borrowed from Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bomb, who borrowed it from The Upanishads to describe the awesome power, newly concentrated in the commander-in-chief, unleashed by the first explosion of the weapon that would annihilate a half-million people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

2. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Viking, 1950). Barack Obama borrowed the phrase for a poignant speech on the lingering effects of racism during the 2008 campaign for the Presidency.

3. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first published 1852 in Die Revolution, New York, was an essay on the coup d’etat that brought what later analysts called fascism to power in France.

4. The phrase belongs to the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

5. The other members of the Special Review Board were former senator and Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie and Brent Scowcroft, a former aide to Kissinger who became George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser in 1988.

6. Tower et al, Report of the President’s Special Review Board, published as The Tower Commission Report, (New York: Bantam/Times Books, 1987). See also, a dissection of the Tower and congressional reports by Theodore Draper, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs, (New York: Hill & Wang/Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991.

7. Bob Woodward, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

8. While this argument is drawn from my own unpublished Masters thesis in the joint J.D./M.A. program in International Law at the University of Denver [now Sturm] College of Law and [Korbel] Graduate School of International Studies, 1977, a useful recent collection is Roy Gutman and David Rieff, eds., with Kenneth Anderson, legal ed., Crimes of War: What the Public Needs to Know, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).

9. John Prados, President’s Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II (New York: Morrow, 1986); John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1987); William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions Since World War II (updated edition, 2014); Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s only Superpower (Common Courage Press, 2005; London: Zed Books, 2006) ISBN: 9781567513745; The CIA: A forgotten history, (London: Zed Books, 1986).

10. Gravel edition (4 Vols.), The Pentagon Papers, (Boston: Beacon, 1971), New York Times edition (NY: Quadrangle, 1971); Daniel Ellsberg, Papers on the War (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972), Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, (NY: Viking/Penguin, 2002; Len Ackland, Credibility Gap: A Digest of the Pentagon Papers, (Phila.: AFSC, 1972); Peter Schrag, A Test of loyalty, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1974); Tom Wells, Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg, (NY: Palgrave, 2001); Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War, (New York: New Press, 1985, 1994); Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, (New York: Pantheon/Random House, 1969); Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology: Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. 2 (Boston: South End Press, 1979); Paul Joseph: Cracks in the Empire: State Politics in the Vietnam War (Boston: South End Press, 1981); Peter Dale Scott, The War Conspiracy (NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970); Robert W. Chandler, War of Ideas: The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, (Boulder: Westview, 1981).

11. Two of the Air Force whistleblowers were friends of mine; they also told Seymour Hersh, who mentions the incident in his takedown of Kissinger, The Price of Power, (NY: Summit, 1983).

12. J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (New York: Viking, 1976); J. Fred Emery, The corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon, (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1994); Stanley J. Cutler, Abuse of Power (NY: Free Press, 1997); Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (NY: Random House, 1984).

13. “Hearings before the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to lntelligence Agencies,” Vol.1-13; and “Recommendations for the Final Report of the House Select Committee on Intelligence,” H.R. No. 94-833, 94th Congress 2nd Session, February II, 1976, more commonly known as the Church and Pike Committees after their respective chairs, Sen. Frank Church (D·Idaho) and Rep. Otis Pike (D·NY). The lead Senate staffer, Loch K. Johnson, wrote a summary, A Season of Inquiry (U. Kentucky Press, 1985); America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society, (New York, Oxford, 1989) considers the Committee’s work in the context of the Iran-Contra scandal, as does a colleague, Gregory F. Treverton, Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World (NY: Basic Books, 1987).

14. A Harvard-trained economist and Republican, Schlesinger had been director of strategic studies of the RAND (Research and Development) Corp., a think-tank funded by the CIA and DoD; served only briefly as DCI (Feb.-July 1973) after Helms had been shipped off to Iran, then replaced Laird as Secretary of Defense (1973-75), only to be fired for defying Kissinger and Ford’s order to bomb Cambodia in the Mayaguez operation.

15. Colby, like Bill Casey, was a “Jedburgh” in the OSS; his 12 years in Vietnam included management of the Phoenix Program as station chief. He served as DCI from July 1973 to December 1975, when he was shoved aside as collateral damage for George H.W. Bush. Colby with Peter Forbath, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978); Randall B. Woods, Shadow Warrior (New York: Basic Books/Perseus, 2013). Prados, The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy and Presidential Power (Austin: U. Texas, 2013).

16. Valentine, op. cit., Daniel Ellsberg,and others come up with a range of numbers, all of which pale compared to the deaths of non-combatants from bombing, napalm, Agent Orange defoliant and other “conventional” methods.

17. Valentine, The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World, (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2017).

18. Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); Edward J. Epstein, Deception (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1989); David C. Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors (NY: Harper & Row, 1980); David Wise, Molehunt (NY: Random House, 1992).

19. National Security Act of 1947 established both the eponymous Council chaired by the President (61 Stat.496, 50 USC 402), as amended 1949 (63 Stat.579, 50 USC 401 et seq), and the CIA (61 Stat. 497, 50 USC 403) which reported to NSC. For the Agency’s formation and early exploits, see Burton Hersh, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, (New York: Scribner’s, 1992; Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men (New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1995); Arthur B. Darling,
The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government to 1950 (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State Univ.,1990). See also, generally, John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA,(New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1987).

20. Christopher Simpson, Blowback (New York: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1988); Richard Breitman, et al, U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005) provides updated documentation released pursuant to the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998.

21. David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard (NY: HarperCollins, 2015); Stephen Kinzer & Stephen Schlesinger, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the Coup in Guatemala; All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror; Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books/Henry Holt & CO. 2006).

22. Doolittle Commission Report, 1954, Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, KS.

23. See n. 17 above and Reinhard Gehlen, The Service (original German edition, Mainz: Haes & Koehler Verlag, 1971; 1st English, New York: Times Mirror, 1972) not surprisingly (translation by Holocaust denier David Irving) whitewashes his complicity in war crimes; better but limited are Heinz Hohne and Hermann Zolling, The General was a Spy, (1st Am. ed., New York: Coward, McCann, Geoghegan, 1972); E. H. Cookridge, Gehlen: Spy of the Century, (New York: Random House, 1971).

24. 28 USC 535, August 1954.

25. Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Project (NY: Author’s Guild, 1999); See also, Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann in Vietnam (NY: Random House, 1988); David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 1964.

26. Roger Warner, Backfire: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Richard H. Schultz, Jr., The Secret War Against Hanoi (NY: HarperCollins, 1995).

27. Victor Marchetti and John Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1974), quoting Kissinger at the meeting of the NSC’s 40 Committee, June 27, 1970.

28. Hughes-Ryan Act, P.L. 93-559, 88 Stat. 1795, 22 U.S.C. ch. 32 § 2151. Rep. Leo Ryan (D-CA) was murdered when he attempted to visit the Jonestown compound in Guyana.

29. A cogent analysis of the origin and failures of congressional “oversight” is found at Harold Hongju
Koh, The National Security Constitution: Sharing Power after the Iran Contra Affair (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). See also, Louis Henkin, Foreign Affairs and the Constitution (St. Paul: The Foundation Press, 1972). An astute scholar, Charles Howard McIlwain, explored the history of legislative efforts to restrain despotic power of the executive, Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1947), as the National Security Act sailed through Congress during the Red Scare.

30. Stockwell, In Search of Enemies (NY: Norton, 1978); The Praetorian Guard (Boston: South End, 1991); Ellen Ray et al, Dirty Work 2:The CIA in Africa (Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1980).

31. Denver “Spy Files” cases, files in possession of the author.

32. Dorothy J. Samuels & James A. Goodman, “How Justice Shielded the CIA,” Inquiry, Oct. 16, 1978, pp. 10-11.

33. His intentions were laid out in Zbigniew Brzezinski, Game Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the US-Soviet Contest (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986) ISBN 978-0-87113-084-6; the explanations and excuses in Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977·1981 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983); the enduring argument with Kissinger in Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century (Collier Books. 1993) ISBN 978-0-684-82636-3; the post-Soviet framework in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (Basic Books, 1997) ISBN 0-465-02725-3.

34. Few Afghan and Russian sources exist in English translation from the early phase of the war. See [Editorial office of the newspaper] Haqiqat Enqelab Sawer, “The True Face of the Afghan Counter-Revolution” (Kabul ,1982); Harry S. Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, (Durham NC, Duke Univ., 1985); J. Bruce Amstutz, Afghanistan: The First five Years of Occupation, (Washington DC: National defense Univ., 1986); Antyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (NY: Atlantic, 1990).

35. Robert Baer, See No Evil (NY: Crown, 2002), Milt Bearden & James Risen, The Main Enemy (NY: Random House, 2003); Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (NY: Penguin, 2004), Edward Giradet, Killing the Cranes, (White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green Press, 2011).

36. Hersh, The Price of Power, op. cit.; Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, (London: Verso, 2001); author’s interviews with Archie Blood, author of “The Blood Telegram”, cables that warned the State Dept. of the massacre of civilians by Zia’s troops, in Bangladesh, and prompted his firing by Kissinger.

37. Robert Parry, Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery (New York: Sheridan Square Press 1993); and Gary Sick, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (New York: Random House,1991).

38. See ‘”Joint Report of the Task Force to Investigate Certain Allegations Concerning the Holding of American Hostages in Iran,” Report No. 102-1102, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session. January 3, 1993; “Report of the Special
Counsel to the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs,” Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session. November 19, 1992. (The former probe was led by a special counsel E. Lawrence Barcella, federal prosecutor who had been involved in investigation of ex-CIA operatives Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil, with whom some of the key players In Iran-Contra — notably Shackley, Secord, Clines and Rafael Quintero — had been associated, causing them to be dumped from official positions by DCI Turner. The Iatter effort was led by Reid Weingarten, also on Walsh’s staff.)

39. Submitted August 5, 1993, as required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1982 (28 USC §595) to the special division of the US Court of Appeals for D.C. that appoints independent counsels under legislation passed as a result of the Watergate scandal. The report was dated December 3, 1993, when the court ordered its release subject to certain changes, but was not released until January 18, 1994. It includes three main volumes. Vol. I, 566 pages, describes the 14 cases that were prosecuted and the investigations of 17 others, and concludes with Walsh’s observations; Vol. 11, 787 pages, compiles the indictments, plea agreements, and four interim reports to Congress; a 54-page Classified Appendix, including briefs on the Classified Information Procedures Act, was withheld from the public on grounds of national security. A companion Volume III, the largest at 1,150 pages, contains the responses of the defendants and other subjects of investigation, including Reagan, to Walsh’s report. Their motions, filed on December3, 1993, demanding that the Final Report remain sealed or censored, were released by the court February 8, 1994; among them was a motion by North seeking to suppress the Report — with North’s own name blacked out at his request by court officers. (See AP, “North purges name from files,” Rocky Mountain News, February 9, 1994.) Other materials from the investigation that are not contained in the Final Report, some still classified, have been deposited in the National Archives; others are held, some under seal, in the US District Courts of D.C., Maryland and Eastern Virginia (Alexandria), and the Courts of Appeals for D.C. and the Fourth Circuit.

40. See “Order of the Special Division of the US Court of Appeals for the Circuit of the District of Columbia, December 19, 1986, quoted at Walsh, Vol. I, p. xlv.

41. Pike and Church Committees, op. cit.

42. Walsh, Vol. I, p. xiii.

43. Doug Vaughan, “Roughing it with Dr. K,” Westword, (Denver) Sept. 7, 1983, pp. 13-14.

44. Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1988): Jay Peterzell, Reagan’s Secret War (Washington, D.C.: Center for National Security Studies, 1984), and Bob Woodward, Veil: Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

45. Notably, Christopher Dickey, whose reports in the Washington Post led to a book, With the Contras (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985); similarly, Sam Dillon of the Miami Herald, Comandos (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1991) and Brian Barger and Robert Parry, then with Associated Press. Glenn Garvin, Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA & the Contras, (McLean VA: Brassey’s, 1992) defends them.

46. Public Law 97·377, Defense Appropriations Act for FY 1983, Sec. 793. The amendment was named for its author, Rep. Edward Boland (D-Mass.). Congress rejected a bill that would have barred all covert action funding. See lran-Contra Report, Ch. 26.

47. See Steven Emerson, Secret Warriors: lnside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era (New York: Putnam, 1988).

48. This claim was buttressed by a State Department White Paper, debunked by Philip Agee in Warner Poelchau, ed., White Paper? Whitewash!: Interviews With Philip Agee on the CIA and El Salvador (New York: Deep Cover Books, 1981). See also, Stewart Klepper, “The United States in El Salvador,” Covert Action, April 1981, pp. 5·11. David MacMichael, a contract analyst for CIA, also criticized the State Dept’s paper.

49. Author’s interviews with Costa Rican investigators and prosecutors, 1988-90. See also Martha Honey, Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica (Gainesville, Univ Florida, 1994).

50. Nancy Lisagor and Frank Lipsius, A Law Unto Itself: The Law Firm of Sullivan & Cromwell (NY: Wm. Morrow, 1988).

51. Vaughan, Details; Panama Deception Denver Post.

52. Public Papers of the President, Ronald Reagan, Vol. I, pp. 539, 541 (April 14, 1983); this position was reiterated in an address to Congress, April 27, 1983, pp. 603-4.

53. Iran Contra Report, p. 34.

54. Author’s interviews with Thomas Braden, former director of International Organizations Division, and other retired CIA officers, 1977-95; Carl Bernstein, “CIA and the Media, Rolling Stone, Oct. 20, 1977; Hugh Wilford,The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008 ISBN 978-0-674-02681-0). See also Hersh, Prados, Ranelagh,Talbot, op. cit.

55. United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, as amended–P.L. 80-402.

56. Kagan, A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (New York: Free Press, 1996), borrowed the phrase from JFK, see, William D. Rogers, The Twilight Struggle: The Alliance for Progress and the Politics of Development in Latin America (New York, Random House, 1967), which laid out the liberal alternative that the neocons wanted undone.

57. The mining of Nicaraguan harbors was confirmed by Karen Tumulty, “House Denounces Mining,” Los Angeles Times, April 13.1984. p.I. Goldwater’s complaint and Casey’s apology” are found at S. Rep.. 98-665, pp. 8-10.

58. Originally added to an omnibus appropriations bill signed by Reagan October 12, 1984, similar provisions were added to the Defense and Intelligence Authorization bills for fiscal year 1985, also signed by Reagan.

59. Not to be confused with the pseudonym of CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, a key figure in operations going back to the Guatemala coup in 1954, the operations against Cuba, and Shackley’s predecessor as head of Western Hemisphere operations, founder of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

60. Agee, On the Run, (Lyle Stuart, 1987) ISBN 0-8184-0419-1. He fled the US invasion and resided in Cuba until his death in 2008.

61. McFarlane Testimony, Hearings, pp. 100-02, May 11. 1987, pp. 5, 20-21.

62. See Bellant, op. cit.

63. Richard Miller and Frank Gomez, among others.

64. Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, op. cit, p.189.

65. Scott Anderson and Jon Lee Anderson, lnside the League (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986); Russ Bellant, The Coors Connection (Cambridge, Mass.: Political Research Associates, 1986); and Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Wars in the Reagan Era, (Boston: South End Press, 1987); Leslie Cockburn, Andrew Cockburn, Morgan Entrekin, Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration’s Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Pipeline, and the Contra Drug Connection (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1987).

66. US v. Terrell, US v. Posey, et al. In a rare act of adversarial consensus, both prosecution and defense agreed that the ruling, by US District Judge Norman Roettger would be determinative and they would not appeal. Both Congress and Walsh investigated indications that Attorney General Meese intervened in the case, obstructing justice, by ordering the US Attorney in Miami, Leon Kellner, to go slow to avoid compromising the Contra resupply op. Kellner and staff denied they were pressured. Walsh found no convincing evidence to the contrary. Vol. 1, pp.550-551. See also Jack Terrell with Ron Martz, Disposable Patriot: Revelations of a Soldier in America’s Secret Wars, (Bethesda MD: National Press Books, 1992) and author’s interviews with participants and their lawyers, 1986-90.

67. Cohen and Mitchell, Men of Zeal (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1988). Cohen became Secretary of Defense in the second Clinton Administration while Mitchell served as Democrats leader in the Senate. After retirement, both joined Clinton’s Secretary of State Albright in a consulting and lobbying firm that served as a rest-home for opponents of the second Bush’s foreign policy and employment agency for Obama’s national security team.

68. Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (NY: Penguin, 2008); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side; (NY: Doubleday, 2008); Ron Suskind, The One-Percent Doctrine (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007.)

69. Reiterated to David Frost in his televised post-resignation swan song, May 19, 1977, excerpted

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ronald Reagan (White House / National Archives), William Casey (White House / National Archives) and Oliver North (Unknown / Wikimedia).


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