Bush, Reagan, Trump, Cheney, Nixon
Donald Trump in background. Superimposed left to right: George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Photo credit: Jim Mattis / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), White House / National Archives, US Government / Wikimedia and US National Archives / Flickr.

From Watergate to Iran-Contra to the present, official lies have justified public crimes. When exposed, crimes unpunished to protect deeper secrets create an alternate reality in which the propaganda of power secures impunity for the powerful.


This is the third 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 explained 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 re-impose their will on the world that has escaped their control.

— Russ Baker, Editor in Chief


Triumph of the Will


Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity. — Lord Acton

The secret dominates this world, first and foremost as the secret of domination. — Guy Debord


When the candidate states (hypothetically and hyperbolically, of course) that he could shoot somebody on the streets of Manhattan and nobody would care because he’s so popular, what’s to stop him now that he’s President?

When the candidate suggests we should “bomb everything” and “go after their families,” who will stop him from committing war crimes?

We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop. — David Addington

Less than two weeks into his term of office — why wait for the traditional 100-day mark? —  President Donald John Trump has issued a series of edicts that suggest an intention to rule by fiat:

•  Jeopardizing the fractious alliance battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, where US troops are again embroiled in street fighting, interrogations and dismantling a guerrilla infrastructure, he repeated a threat to seize the resources of those countries, a direct violation of international law, as payment for an invasion and 14-year long occupation that he himself has disclaimed as wrong-headed if not illegal.

•  In direct contradiction to allied signatories, he threatened to withdraw from the treaty under which Iran agreed to forsake development of nuclear weapons, imposed economic sanctions unilaterally in arguable breach of that treaty, issued threats of war (also illegal under international law) because Iran tested an intermediate (500-mile) range missile not covered by that treaty, and bombed rebels in Yemen supported by Iran for allegedly firing on a US naval vessel supporting the Saudi invasion of that country.

With little preparation of the enforcers in his Department of Homeland Security or for the consequences abroad, if not the outrage provoked at home, he effectively suspended immigration from seven countries that have little or no connection to terrorist acts in the United States, including employees of US companies and the US military, family members of US citizens who had already been granted visas, refugees granted asylum who had already submitted to severe vetting in extensive interviews over several months, and legal permanent residents with valid work permits who had left temporarily, as required by the law, to renew their visas.

•  He fired the acting Attorney General who refused to enforce his edict on grounds it was illegal, then resorted to Twitter to blast as a coddler of terrorists a “so-called” federal judge (appointed by George W. Bush and confirmed by Congress) who granted a temporary stay of his order so that its illegality might be reviewed by a higher court.

•  He issued a decree reshuffling the National Security Council’s Principals Committee (traditionally consisting of the President, Vice President, Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense and the Attorney General) so as to replace the Director of National intelligence and the Chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff with his own political strategist, Stephen Bannon, an advocate of overtly fascist ideology and war against a religion with over a billion adherents.

•  He ordered the agencies responsible for counter-terrorism including the FBI to remove domestic advocates of violence against the government and fellow citizens from their watch-lists in order to concentrate on suspected “radical islamists.”

•  He unilaterally revoked US compliance with terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, repeated threats to somehow force Mexico to pay for a 1,500-mile long wall, perhaps by imposing a tariff or restrictions on repatriation of earnings by Mexican residents in the US, and “joked” about sending troops across that border to deal with “bad hombres” if Mexico does not comply.

•  He has ordered a moratorium on enforcement of the environmental laws and regulations of pollutants and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that limits carbon emissions that induce global warming and the threat of human extinction.

•  In his first known military operation abroad, he took time out while dining with his children to sign a National Security Decision Directive authorizing a team of Navy Seals to attack a compound in Yemen where they missed the target, lost a $70 million Osprey vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) airplane, but managed to kill a still-unknown number of civilians including the 8-year old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen (born in Las Cruces NM) who was killed by a Predator drone along with his 16-year old son (born in Denver) in 2011.

•  His newly confirmed Director of Central Intelligence appointed as his top deputy for covert operations a known advocate and alleged participant in torture; indeed, having followed illegal orders to commit war crimes seems to be her main qualification.

Donald, what took you so long?

You would be well-advised to watch what we do, not what we say… This country’s going to go so far to the right you won’t recognize it. — John Mitchell

The pace has been relentless, the reaction fierce but how long it can be sustained is debatable. This flurry of executive orders and presidential memos, contradictory explanations and confusing if not incoherent tweets — all should have been expected. But these are only the known knowns. Unless revealed by some sudden disaster, what has been done in secret may take years to uncover, as the Watergate and Iran-Contra crises showed. Whatever else the Trump team is up to, they are playing by the rules laid out by Dick Cheney in the first term of George W. Bush as lessons learned from earlier adventures in the Imperial Presidency:

“We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.”1

Dick Cheney, George Bush

President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the White House Blue Room, December 15, 2006.
Photo credit: The US National Archives / Flickr

And as past events show, don’t expect Congress or the courts, those vaunted checks and balances of the Constitution, to stop him until it’s too late. Cheney, having offered his support and advice to Trump after the drubbing of Jeb Bush, may have quibbled with the excess of Trump’s immigration ban but he certainly must have recognized the logic behind it:

It was, after all, an exertion of political will — power that only respects greater power  — an expression of the doctrine of executive authority Cheney himself has championed since he first entered public service as an assistant to Richard Nixon 50 years ago, argued as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff in the wake of the Watergate scandal, refined and outlined most clearly during the Iran-Contra scandal 30 years ago, revived as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary Defense, and executed himself — with a vengeance as they say — as Vice President under George W. Bush.

We should have seen it coming. When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, his campaign manager, law partner, and nominee as Attorney General, John Mitchell, warned, “You would be well-advised to watch what we do, not what we say…2 This country’s going to go so far to the right you won’t recognize it.”3

It is no coincidence that Mitchell made the first of those remarks at a meeting with civil rights leaders dismayed by his decision not to endorse the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to slow the pace of court-ordered desegregation of public schools. Mitchell declared his Justice Department would be a law enforcement agency, not engaged in social work. He was Nixon’s wedge in dividing Democrats after the open appeal to segregationists by the Goldwater campaign in 1964 that led the Republican Party to embrace the “Southern Strategy” of abandoning black voters in the south in favor of former southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, strategists like Lee Atwater and later Trent Lott, and now, the Trump Administration’s nominee for Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. This was a well-modulated, lawyerly and courtly racism without openly espousing the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, a new rejection of Reconstruction like the electoral “Compromise of 1876” without the robes and hoods: The chief law enforcement agency would ignore the enforcement of the law.

Instead, Mitchell called for no-knock raids without warrants, warrantless wiretapping of suspects, stop-and-frisk searches without warrants, defying the constitutional limits of the 4th and 5th Amendments on police power while disclaiming any racial motive yet knowing the effects would be monstrously racist selective enforcement. But they over-reached, at least temporarily.

For criminals in power, every scandal is based on the leak of a secret, and the leak itself demonstrates that the leaker is considered a traitor and the reporter an accomplice to treason. Impunity for the criminal is the necessary solution to the problem of law.

As for the second quote, that was implied by the first: A secret plan revealed in action:

Mitchell had been a bond lawyer who worked closely with the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, to craft a new form of municipal bond that effectively removed the voters from decisions about public debt and put public finance in the hands of bankers and their lawyers, who not only knew better what was good and right for the rest of us but were bound by attorney-client privilege to keep their deliberations secret.4 This is now the standard operating procedure in the US and the model extended through US power to the world.

Like the bond lawyers who effectively ran foreign policy in the Eisenhower Administration, John Foster and Allen Dulles at the State Department and CIA, respectively, Nixon and Mitchell ran their administration like a secret intelligence operation compartmentalized top to bottom on a need-to-know basis. And that, too, has become the model for executive decision-making with rare exceptions that prove the rule.

Criminal conspiracies require secrecy, by definition; but to continue when secrecy is breached, a conspiracy requires impunity for the highly-placed authors of the crimes, not merely a grant of immunity from prosecution to the accomplices but forgiveness in the name of the State. The doctrine of executive privilege reinforces official secrecy:

All acts and communications of the chief executive are official secrets, unauthorized revelation of which is punishable as a crime even if the executive acts are illegal or evidence of illegality by others. But if the President does it in the name of national security, it’s not illegal because the chief executive decides what is or is not legal. And the corollary, what’s called the unitary executive doctrine, extends this principle of official lawlessness to any act authorized by the chief executive. Perversely, this makes secrecy an accomplice to a lie.

And paradoxically, the only check on secrecy is the unauthorized, potentially criminal revelation of the secret, the “leak.” Among the conspirators, however, the adroit if not judicious deployment of the leak confers great power to insulate oneself, to punish rivals or discipline slackers, confuse the enemy, especially when the press or a segment of the public itself is perceived as the enemy.

The Nixon Administration made this an art form in the pursuit of executive power, even to its own undoing. It’s not a far leap from an “enemies list” that includes political opponents and critics and reporters (Nixon’s henchmen even conceived of the kidnapping and possible killing of reporters) to a definition of the media as “the opposition party.” For criminals in power, every scandal is based on the leak of a secret, and the leak itself demonstrates that the leaker is considered a traitor and the reporter an accomplice to treason. Impunity for the criminal is the necessary solution to the problem of law.

Hubris is the usual source of tragedy: The domestic intelligence operation against opponents produced the burglary at the Democratic Party’s offices in the Watergate complex by an illegal secret police unit attempting to plant and retrieve illegal wiretaps on the telephones, a form of surveillance now accomplished by hacking computerized communications. Nixon was impeached, forced to resign, then pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, on the advice of his chief of staff, Dick Cheney, among others. Mitchell, the chief judicial officer in the land, had been convicted and imprisoned for obstructing justice.

The massive and illegal (warrantless), domestic surveillance operation at the heart of Watergate, involved the CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA, DIA and military intelligence operatives in a secret war against the American people.

Meet the Ench


“Let’s go see The Ench,” a friend said. It was my second encounter with the Big Enchilada, John Mitchell. After his release from prison Mitchell had divorced his blabbermouth wife Martha and was shacking up with my friend’s aunt in their family’s declasse’ mansion, a bastardized French chateau on a wooded hill in horse country overlooking a big bend of the Potomac. As we came through the big double-door of the portico, the former Attorney General of the United States was slowly shuffling down the staircase, his paunch barely covered by the aunt’s tattered mauve housecoat, nursing a three-day growth of stubble on his famous jowls and a hangover only marginally worse than my own.

“Hey, Ench, how’s it hanging?” my friend offered. Mitchell grunted something unintelligible — not well, judging from his gait — and padded off toward the kitchen in the aunt’s fuzzy slippers, one gout-afflicted hobble and shuffle after the next. My friend poured some orange juice, Mitchell gave him a baleful look, my friend poured a hefty glug of vodka into the glass. The Ench took a sip, gave my friend another skeptical look, another shot was administered; satisfied, Mitchell lifted a “who’s this?” brow towards me. We had met, actually, at my friend’s bachelor party at the old Jockey Club of the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row, just off Dupont Circle where my friends Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt had been blown up by terrorists hired by the Chilean military empowered by the Nixon administration. But I didn’t mention that operation, which came after Mitchell’s defenestration, when Ford, Kissinger, Cheney and CIA Director Bush were running the show. I wanted to know what only the Ench knew about what he called “the White House horrors” at his trial, and what that might portend for the current horrors now that so many of the unindicted co-conspirators were back in power in the Reagan administration. I wanted a peek in Pandora’s box of still-secret horrors inside the great head of the Sphinx.

John Mitchell, Richard Nixon

John Mitchell and President Nixon in January 1969. Photo credit: The White House / Wikimedia.

Instead of asking directly for secrets, I told him I only had two questions: Did he believe the rumor that his future brother-in-law, my friend’s father, a renowned raconteur of liberal pedigree was “Deep Throat”, the secret source who had revealed key details of the Watergate cover-up to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that ultimately brought down Nixon, the Ench himself and (almost) all the President’s men, based on a violation of whispered whiskied confidences exchanged over that same well-worn bar at the Jockey Club when the Ench was embroiled in Watergate but didn’t want to go home to that nagging wife of his?

“Fuck no!” he said, screwing up his face into a familiar snarling snort of disbelief. I had asked my friend’s father the same question and got the same response, only with a bemused bourbon-y smirk instead of spraying orange juice across that table. But they had both mulled it over, it was plausible, and hashed it out, suggesting other possibilities. Ok, then. Question #2: Casey?

The Ench pursed and puckered his lips, as if the OJ had soured, then nodded his head affirmatively. He had considered that, too. Then he uttered a Mitchellian harrumph of scoffing contempt. “Sneaky son of a bitch.” But no, Mitchell said. His old friend Bill Casey was a schemer capable of almost infinite deception and even greater betrayal, especially in defense of his own credibility, accumulated wealth, or the future field of action that money and reputation held open. But Casey, like the Ench, was a skilled bridge player. Bluffing was for poker, a simpler game. Casey would want to keep his options, and when the Watergate investigators turned from the burglars’ hush-money to the smell of cover-up in the Oval Office, peripheral players bolted for the exits. The Vesco case got Mitchell and Commerce Secretary Stans, another old intelligence operative, indicted. Casey had been an intermediary for the bagmen and launderers of illegal cash but had not purchased his own immunity with evidence of Mitchell’s complicity, of that the Ench was sure. Stans took the fall for that one. Casey had gone back to his tax-advice practice, then resurfaced as Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager and director of Central Intelligence, keeper of secrets, manager of the flow into the White House and out, too, in the form of leaks that concealed even more secret crimes.

Haig? Cheney? Rumsfeld? “I wouldn’t put it past any of ‘em. Self-important assholes but bit players back then. But nah, they were never in the loop.” He paused, took another swig of vodkated breakfast. “Not then, anyway. Not that part of the loop anyway. Bush-leaguers.” He meant baseball novices but I took the cue. My friend poured some more.

Ok, Bush, was he in the loop? No, as chairman [of the Republican National Committee] he was always sticking his nose in the tent but he wasn’t clued in. If he knew anything he knew better than to say so, and kept his mouth shut, biding his time, even at CIA. I think that was ol Pres’s influence. (Sen Prescott Bush, George H.W.’s father.) Like father, like son. Neither one knew when to strike.”

Inman, then? The CIA’s deputy director under Adm. Stansfield Turner in the Carter Administration had been chief of the the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) where Woodward had worked before becoming a reporter. “Too far afield,” said the Ench. “The CIA was so up to their ass in shit and wanted no part of what Hunt and Liddy were up to, that’s why we had to get Helms out of Dodge. Schlesinger [Helms’s successor as DCI for four months before replacing Melvin Laird at Defense] didn’t know squat — that’s why he had his boys round up the ‘Family Jewels’ —  and that boy scout Colby simply let it all out. But none of them were in the loop for Watergate.”

This requires some explanation (see Parts 1 and 2): Helms, Director of CIA from 1966 to 1973, was named Ambassador to the Court of the Shah of Iran as Watergate ensnared the Ench in 1973. The palace of the Peacock Throne and the massive Embassy became safe-houses for the man who “kept the secrets.”5 But Helms was brought back to testify about the long list of illegalities, the Family Jewels compiled on orders of interim DCI James Schlesinger. Helms brought himself down by his own lies to Congress about the secret war that deposed the elected government of Chile in 1973, details of which emerged because Colby released the Family Jewels to congressional committees and publication in their multi-volume reports, trapping his old colleague Helms in a perjury rap. The massive and illegal (warrantless), domestic surveillance operation at the heart of Watergate, involved the CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA, DIA and military intelligence operatives in a secret war against the American people.6

Mitchell was musing over possible suspects for Deep throat at CIA. Angleton, the counter-intelligence maven whose lines went out everywhere? “Now there was one weird son-of-a-bitch. Certainly capable of it. He actually thought the whole Sino-Soviet split was just a ruse, a “strategic deception” and everybody who told us the situation was ripe for exploitation must be a secret Soviet mole, even Kissinger, fer chrissakes! Everybody else figured Angleton‘s paranoia was paralyzing the Agency so maybe he was his own damn mole, hah!” He chewed it over.

“No, I always figured it was that fucking Mormon, Felt.”

No  shit? Mark Felt? Felt had risen to #2 in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and fully expected to be named director by Nixon when Hoover died in May 1972, much to the relief of everyone who had survived his 48-year reign-of-terror. Much to Felt’s disappointment, the job went to Mitchell’s guy, L. Patrick Gray. So, at minimum, Felt had a motive. By then, what Nixon had dismissed to the press as a “third-rate” burglary of the Watergate had already been botched, which begged the question of why two former CIA guys, (Howard Hunt, James McCord) an FBI man (G. Gordon Liddy) and five Cuban gunsels (Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis), their pockets stuffed with $100 bills and locksmith tools, were there in first place, that fateful June 17, 1972. Nixon’s inner circle pondered whether the CIA had set them up. They connived to keep their burglars’ mouths shut, the start of the cover-up, the leaks and the loud noises that ended the “quiet option” starting with McCord’s confessional letter to Judge John Sirica. That really bothered the Ench.

In July, Gray unleashed Felt to pursue radical opponents of the Vietnam War: “Hunt to exhaustion. No holds barred.”7 Officially, Hoover had banned those black-bag jobs for six years, fearing their exposure could loosen his hold on the Bureau. With Gray’s go-ahead, Felt and the head of the intelligence division, Edwin S. Miller, authorized special units to wiretap and surveill friends and relatives, even break into the homes and offices of suspected “terrorists” to “prevent violence and other subversive acts rather than to wait until the bomb has exploded.” A diversion? Concocted by Gray to keep Felt out of the Watergate loop or vice versa, there were more theories than facts but plenty of facts pointing in many directions. No, that was something the Ench had been trying to get Hoover to do since they came in.

Although I didn’t bring it up to Mitchell, I took a personal interest in this because I held Nixon and the Ench, his enforcer, responsible for trying to kill me at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen gunned down friends of mine. (Yes, it’s a reach, but I can’t lay out the somewhat attenuated chain of evidence here, even now.) There was something else nagging me then: Because I had once known people who had gone into the Weather Underground back in 1969 and 1970, I had always suspected that FBI agents dispatched by Felt and Miller were responsible for a series of break-ins of my own home and office throughout the 1970s, but I could never prove what the FBI and local cops denied.

Stories of the FBI break-ins broke in Los Angeles and Chicago the summer of 1976, while I was in law school. I wrote a series of articles, later gathered into book form, based on several thousand pages of documents I obtained and confirmed by interviews with an FBI operative, called “Burglar for the FBI.”

He had been recruited out of high school, continued in college, and showed pay stubs for seven years as a snitch for the FBI and the Denver Police Dept.’s Intelligence Bureau (DPD-IB), both of whom interceded now and then to get him released on second-story jobs and drug deals conducted on his own account. He also turned out to be a Nazi whose nightrider pals shotgunned a local bookstore, broke into another where my wife and other friends worked, and destroyed offices of a feminist newspaper in a night-ride with fellow Nazis and Klansmen. We also suspected them of blowing up 50 schoolbuses to protest a federal judge’s desegregation order. All these crimes went uninvestigated and unpunished despite the informant’s reporting them to his FBI handlers.

My profile of a long-term snitch and agent provocateur drew national attention (Garry Wills cited it in his nationally syndicated column, it was placed in the Congressional Record) — and additional unwanted attention from the FBI that lead to more stories. One showed how another FBI informant, a classmate at law school, not only spied on us but was also a Nazi who consorted with a group that, years later, gunned down a Jewish talk-show host on whose program I had appeared. Another series exposed a Boulder-based drug-dealer who worked with the DPD-IB to (unsuccessfully) use a fugitive heroin addict to entrap striking workers from the Coors brewery into making bombs. The FBI connection was an agent in San Francisco whose brother reported on the supposed terrorist connection for a Denver radio station.

Instigating such attacks by right-wing extremists on the left was part of a nationwide, even international pattern, culminating in the murder of five members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro NC, in 1979 by a group of Klansmen and Nazis that included local police and FBI informants who warned their bosses in advance.8

While we were trying to make sense of all this, a grand jury in Washington indicted Gray, Felt and Miller in April 1978 for five specific burglaries. (My own case and stories did not figure into this, so far as I know.) Felt’s declaration that he would do it all over again, if ordered, presaged the pre-emptive spirit of the future. He quoted Thomas Jefferson: “To lose our country by scrupulous adherence to the written law would be to lose the law itself.” This trope recurs whenever an official lawbreaker seeks to immunize himself by way of an ex ante pardon. “Just following orders” was the moral equivalent of “the devil made me do it.”

Mark Felt, Watergate

Mark Felt over aerial view of the Watergate complex. Photo credit: US Government / Wikimedia and Indutiomarus / Wikimedia.

Felt and Miller, tried separately, were convicted despite testimony from Nixon himself that he had authorized the Huston Plan, which included “black-bag jobs… clearly illegal”  — except that his authorization in the name of national security made it legal: “All these concerns were greatly magnified….by the fact that in 1969, ‘70, ‘71, we were at war.” He invoked the specter of communist subversion. Terrorism overseas was a threat. “We are concerned it might happen here.” So, he testified, extreme measures were necessary and when he ordered them “what would otherwise be unlawful or illegal becomes legal.”

Alrighty, then. Problem solved. Thanks, Dick. And while we’re at it, quod erat demonstrandum. It proves itself.

On Nov. 6, the jury convicted Felt and Miller — oh, the irony — rejecting Nixon’s defense of the man who had secretly helped force his resignation six years earlier. The next day, Reagan was elected. Prosecutors dropped the case against Gray. The court gave Felt and Miller a suspended sentence, probation and a small fine, but in March 1981, Reagan pardoned them unconditionally, completely. Echoing Nixon on the witness stand, Reagan declared:

“Four years ago thousands of draft evaders and others who violated the Selective Service laws were unconditionally pardoned by my predecessor. America was generous to those who refused to serve their country in the Vietnam war. We can be no less generous to two men who acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation.”

Hearing that, I could only scream at the TV set. Generous? I refused to go to Vietnam. When Nixon unleashed his war on dissenters like me, he also unleashed the National Guard that shot at me for no other reason than shouting at them, wounding a dozen friends and killing four of them. Reagan, then Governor of California, had threatened as much a few weeks earlier: “If there’s going to be a bloodbath, let it be now.”9 From Reagan’s mouth to Nixon’s ear to Gov. James Rhodes running for reelection in Ohio, figure of speech took shape in uniform. The Guardsmen who ordered and fired that fusillade were never jailed.

Thousands of us had to leave the country to avoid prosecution. Others went to jail for up to five years. I served two years involuntary servitude at bare subsistence wage, $145 a month, no benefits, as a conscientious objector only to be threatened with five years in prison by none other than Donald Rumsfeld, then Nixon’s hatchet-man at the Office of Economic Opportunity, later Ford’s Chief of Staff for the Nixon pardon, special envoy of Reagan and Bush-1 who delivered word to Saddam Hussein that there would be no penalty for using nerve gas on rebellious Kurds, Bush-2’s Secretary of Defense for the contrived invasion of Iraq. My crime: declaring antiwar views and criticizing Nixon’s domestic policies in a newsletter published by our legal office for indigent clients. Now here, ten years later was Reagan again, pardoned arch-criminal Nixon applauding, encouraging criminals to go out and commit more crimes.

Sure enough, Reagan would launch another war on domestic dissent over his wars in Central America almost immediately upon taking office. It came in the form of an executive order, classified secret for reasons of national security, that authorized surveillance and intelligence-gathering by other undisclosed methods where “counter-intelligence” information against foreign spies or agents of a foreign power might be involved. And since anyone who opposed Reagan’s policies was acting in support of a government like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who were supported by Cuba, and Cuba allegedly was acting on behalf of the Soviet Union, ipso facto and presto chango, any such person might reasonably be suspected as an agent of a foreign power, perhaps even a supporter of a terrorist organization, such as the opponents of the Salvadoran regime. Suspicion was enough to make fact.

Res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself. Or reductio ad absurdum, take your pick. And consider that Trump’s mentor after his father died was Nixon’s ally in the McCarthy witch-hunts, the inveterate Red-baiter and slimeball, Roy Cohn.10

The domestic application of this principle showed in strange places, including the newsroom. My third informer-provocateur had reappeared as sympathetic landlord for antinuclear activists. He helpfully provided them with a phone line so he could report their conversations to his handlers, then spied on and tried to sabotage their legal defense when protesters were arrested for blocking the railroad tracks into the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant along with, among others, Daniel Ellsberg, the famous leaker of the Pentagon Papers. That led to a series about thefts of explosives from a missile silo and a series on secret plans to evacuate the city of Denver in event of nuclear war.11 I suppose that any of these stories might have brought me back to the attention of the Bureau even if I hadn’t blown their informer’s cover. (As a form of penance, I suppose, Sy the Velveteen Snitch as we called him, later became a source for other reporters on Colorado’s connections to the Iran-Contra scandal.)

It was about that time, coincidentally, that my editor at the Washington Post advised me that my services were no longer required, despite having contributed to the Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the attempted assassination of Reagan12, as well as a series on Nazis running amok and former CIA personnel working for Col. Qaddafi in Libya.13 She said she had heard — from sources she could not reveal! — that I was “a member of that organization that you’re writing about.” Huh? Had she simply accused me of being a radical, a leftist, even a communist,  I would have happily confessed. But this was a different litmus test. “Yes, we’ve heard that you’re part of the nuclear freeze movement. Aren’t you?” she demanded.

First, I explained, it’s a movement, not an organization so I’m not a member.  I personally support a freeze on nuclear weapons, I told her, but so does the President, according to the Post. He’s a recent convert, just a little late coming around to my way of thinking. That was my last paycheck from the Post. I shopped my wares to the Times instead. I always wondered whether that editor, an otherwise sensible person, had gotten a call from her supervisor, and whether her boss had gotten a call from the FBI, or…whatever: If the errant gumshoes, gullible editors or dour James Jesus Angleton and his acolytes, some of whom were sources and even friends of mine, thought I was a Soviet agent, they were stupider than I thought, and that was mighty stupid.

Censorship starts from the inside with a shared assumption based on ideological consensus about acceptable limits, then proceeds to self-censorship for fear of embarrassment long before there’s need for imposition of thought controls from outside by the government. Nixon, Reagan’s advisers, Cheney were masters at intimidation and getting the media to internalize the limits that were acceptable to their definition of acceptable. Now, somewhat heavy handedly, we’re seeing a similar effort from Trump’s minions, Bannon, KellyAnne Conway, Sean Spicer and the latest incarnation of the “great Republican noise machine” coupled to the alt-right trolliverse.

Fast backward thirty years this week to the Iran-Contra scandal:

As supposedly unrelated (dare we say, compartmentalized) hearings on the Iran-Contra dragged from days into weeks down the hall, the FBI’s executive assistant director was testifying to another hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Rep. Don Edwards (D.-CA) a former FBI agent, fierce critic of Hoover’s political espionage disguised as “counter-intelligence.” The man who succeeded W. Mark Felt in the job, Oliver “Buck” Revell, was in the hot seat. Asked what his vaunted Bureau knew about burglaries at offices of groups opposed to Reagan’s policies in Central America, nada, he said. But hadn’t the Bureau investigated this suspicious pattern of at least 58 break-ins documented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild since 1981? Zilch, said Revell. It was news to him. Not on his radar. Too busy chasing terrorists and such. Perhaps the FBI’s lack of investigative enthusiasm indicated the Bureau’s involvement in the crimes it chose not to investigate, we wondered.

Oh, no, that would be off-limits. That’s not legal under the FBI’s charter and the restrictions imposed after revelations of such dirty tricks a few years before. There was a catch: “The FBI is not involved in any burglaries or any other illegal activities as an institution,” Revell said. This nuance caught the skeptical ear of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO). Schroeder herself had been a target of earlier FBI break-ins during the Felt witch-hunts, in her first run for Congress as an anti-war critic. Her campaign manager and staff guy was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, prominently featured in my series on the informant who had broken into her home. “I don’t really think FBI agents are doing this,” she said, “but there might be a little privatization going on.”14

Revell denied that informants had been hired to do what agents weren’t doing. But “private contractors” drawn from the ranks of retired FBI guys, like Wackenhut or other companies? He demurred.

There was an even more sinister side: Salvadorans opposed to the US-supported war on their homeland could be deported, jailed, even tortured. The FBI recruited a U.S. citizen born in El Salvador, to infiltrate the Committees in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).  He later produced the evidence necessary to justify the infiltration, claiming CISPES was run by communists that might even be — gasp! — planning to assassinate the President. There was no basis for the claim but the FBI used it to expand the operations and justify collaboration with the Salvadoran death-squads.

Perhaps the greatest scandal of the Iran-Contra scandal is that these mass murders in El Salvador and more in Guatemala committed by US-paid, trained, supplied, advised, even commanded troops never were considered scandalous enough to merit official denunciation, investigation, or prosecution of the criminals and their accomplices.

Or Guatemalans: In 1975 I had travelled through Guatemala as part of research on my master’s thesis. Across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel, beneath a smoking volcano of the same name, nestled the idyllic little town of Santiago Atitlan, not yet emerged as a tourist destination because it was isolated at the end of a bumpy mud and rubble road around the lake. The family that took me in told me that I could use the spare room they kept in case their teenaged children came home from school in Antigua, the old colonial capital close to Guatemala City. I asked when they were expected. The father shrugged and turned away; the mother began to cry.

They would never come home because they had disappeared one day after school. Months passed, years of worry, loss of hope. Then came word that an old well had been found near the Honduran border. In the well were bones of victims of the police and military, the political archaeology of the country going down to 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected reformer Jacobo Arbenz and installed the dictatorship that still ruled. The old couple didn’t know yet whether their kids had been murdered, or whether, as the police dismissively told them and they secretly hoped, they had run away, perhaps to join the Poor People’s Army, the group the US called terrorists. If so, it was the US and its allies who made them that way not the Evil Empire of international communism and its well-meaning fellow-travelling dupes and useful idiots like me.

A few years later, I returned to Guatemala and looked up that couple. The husband had hired out to seasonal work on the Pacific littoral, picking coffee and cotton for a big Japanese company. His wife worked from home, stitching garments on a loom for sale to tourists off the boat from Panajachel. When the boat pulled up, little kids with bloated bellies from malnutrition, hands outstretched, begged “take’pitch” for coins tossed by the camera-wielding visitors. Soldiers from far away had been posted at a local barracks “to keep the villagers safe from the terrorists,” their lieutenant told me. The army had burned whole villages in the mountains, killing thousands. Again.

Those kids and their parents were the people Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, called terrorists, who — Second Amendment be damned — had no right to defend themselves by force of arms against their tormentors. The contras in Nicaragua, on the other hand, were “freedom fighters” and the Sandinistas were guilty of exporting terrorism to Guatemala and El Salvador by sending what weapons they could spare from their own self-defense. Three times in his first year in office, Haig had called for Reagan to strike back at Cuba to fix the problem at its source, a replay of the Bay of Pigs that could lead to another Missile Crisis, perhaps nuclear war. Cooler heads prevailed, Haig was dumped in mid-1982, Kissinger was brought in to concoct a plan, and deadly military support for the brutal Salvadoran and Guatemalan regimes proceeded apace as “low-intensity warfare” — a crime known to the victims but not to the folks back home praising Reagan for standing up to the Evil Empire, blissfully ignorant of their own. My only crime, also called free speech, was the public advocacy of their right to self-defense by whatever means they chose for themselves as appropriate. Is that why my office on the second floor of a seedy hotel in Denver kept getting burglarized? Or was it my piddling financial support to a local church that offered sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation to the torture chambers or fleeing the search-and-destroy missions Felix Rodriguez and Ollie North were so proud to inflict on people who only wanted to be left with a patch for corn and beans?15

This was not a rhetorical question: In January 1982 both the New York Times and Washington Post, alerted by activists in El Salvador, independently confirmed discovery of a massacre of more than 700 villagers, many of them refugees from other such sites, by the Salvadoran army at El Mozote. Haig’s top deputy for Latin America, Thomas Enders, declared that an investigation by two Embassy staffers showed conclusively “there’s no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians.”

Congress accepted Enders’s word and dutifully approved $200 million in military and economic support for the Salvadoran government. In a campaign orchestrated by the Office of Public Diplomacy with help from compliant newspapers and ideologically suborned editors, Reagan worshippers accused the reporters for the two leading newspapers of being duped by rebels and their Communist sympathizers’ “Vietnam-style” propaganda. Coverage of the war receded and the State Department repeatedly certified progress in meeting human rights standards.

Twelve years and $6 billion later — and not coincidentally, the deaths of perhaps 50,000 and another 250,000 driven from their homes to become refugees — the initial lie was finally exposed: The Embassy staff had reported to Washington that the Army had refused to allow them anywhere near the site but the survivors had described the massacre in detail sufficient for them to conclude it was a fact. The staffers, Maj. John McKay and Todd Greentree, had reported the massacre as fact and the State Department pretended it didn’t happen, then sold this lie to continue the massacres with impunity.16

Perhaps the greatest scandal of the Iran-Contra scandal is that these mass murders in El Salvador and more in Guatemala committed by US-paid, trained, supplied, advised, even commanded troops never were considered scandalous enough to merit official denunciation, investigation, or prosecution of the criminals and their accomplices. Secrecy and lies bred acquiescence and complicity, guaranteed and reinforced by silence and impunity. Elliot Abrams, for example, repeatedly certified, gave his word, his personal guarantee that Gen. Elias Rios Montt was a devoted democrat forced by communist subversion to pacify the country so his successor Vicente Cerezo, a progressive reformer, deserved US assistance to establish a “model democracy” even though their own people, whom they murdered by the thousands, finally have put Rios Montt on trial for “acts of genocide” against the 440 Mayan indigenous communities he ravaged.17

Meanwhile, back at that House subcommittee hearing on illegal FBI surveillance of the new anti-war and sanctuary movement, a lawyer explained that in most of the suspicious, politically inspired break-ins, the burglars only took membership lists of the organizations that opposed Reagan’s policies. What did FBI do with these lists? Did they open investigations to spy on people? Did they break into their houses or workplaces? Did they send their names or share “intelligence” with foreign governments? Did they arrest and deport people to countries where they might be tortured?

Of course. But there were never answers, only silence and secrecy from the organs of the state.

Only after Felt broke his silence in 2005 did Woodward confirm that he was Deep Throat.18 By then, many of the players in Watergate were dead, too, including Nixon and his Big Enchilada, Mitchell. Nixon had been resurrected by the Reagan-Bush era, a trusted adviser even to Clinton. Forgive and forget. My own view was “better off dead’, the title of an epitaph in which I wrote about showing my daughter the memorials in our nation’s capital including that invisible one, the imagined Nixon Memorial, a wall that stretched from the White House to the Capitol dome as high as Washington’s monument, etched with the unknown names of the unnamed victims of the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.19

Those wars were behind us, Reagan said. “It’s morning again in America.” But I remembered what the Ench said: Watch what we do, not what we say. This country’s going to go so far right you won’t recognize it.

The televised, public Iran-Contra hearings consumed the better part of four months from May to August 1987. Perfectly staged for a telegenic soldier, they made gap-toothed Ollie North “hero” to the right, not for glory in battle but for traducing his oath to the constitution and the military code of justice. After ten months of investigation by hundreds of congressional staff and specially commissioned researchers, depositions and transcribed interviews of more than 500 witnesses, perused and cross-referenced and indexed over a million pages of documents, their Report declared limply, “Tragedies like the Iran-contra affair unite our people in their resolve to find answers, draw lessons, and avoid a repetition.” More tragic still, although the Report itself is a stupendously detailed account of a small aspect of a colossal criminal conspiracy, the Congress set the stage not only to repeat such “tragedies” but to perpetuate them. “The fact is that most if not all members are going to support the continuation of covert activities,” concluded Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine). Secret wars, overthrowing governments, assassinations.20

Well, no. Assassinations were still illegal. After revelations of the Family Jewels and the Church Committee, President Ford had issued an executive order in 1976 banning the CIA from participating in the murder of a foreign head of state or other political official.21 Carter had renewed and extended it in 1978.22 Reagan had repeated the ban in his own executive order on Dec. 4, 1981. Having been victim of an attempted assassination himself, Reagan declared “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” He added that “no agency of the intelligence community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this order.”23

Notwithstanding this direct order from the boss, Bill Casey’s CIA promptly hired a Vietnam veteran with experience in the Phoenix Project to write up a manual called “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare.” Dutifully if badly translated into a form of classroom Spanish virtually unintelligible to a peasant who had not been allowed to benefit from the Cuban-led literacy program of the Sandinistas, it counseled targeted killing — murder — of political officials down to the level of village leaders and supporters of the government:

It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges…police and state security officials, CDAS [community defense committee] chiefs, etc.

Exposed in 1984 by a disgusted Contra, none of this criminal conspiracy against a direct order of the President entered into the deliberations of Congress. No CIA officer or employee was prosecuted for ordering, writing, publishing, distributing, or teaching this suggested method of democratic persuasion, although a reprimand may have been issued to a half dozen.24

Needless to say, Congress did not investigate the administration for implementing exactly this Phoenix-style program systematically in El Salvador and Guatemala.  Nor did any court measure the legality of engaging proxies in attempting to kill Sheik Fadlallah in 1985 with dozens of dead as collateral damages in Beirut. Nor Qaddafi in air raids in 1986 because the attacks on his compound, which killed his adopted daughter among other non-combatants, were part of an authorized military operation. So, given the pattern of immunity and impunity, the Bush Administration allegedly plotted to kill Saddam Hussein during his trips between Baghdad, Basra and Kuwait in 1991. And the Clinton regime almost killed Somali Gen. Mohammad Farah Aideed in the famously failed Black Hawk Down raid. All were denied as assassination attempts but the denials were irrelevant public-relations gambits, anyway, since the military was not covered by the executive orders.25

Eventually, the only curative or preventive legislation by Congress was to tighten the law that required the President and intelligence agencies to “timely” report covert activities to the two Intelligence and Armed Services committees in each house. This only served to keep the “gang of eight” chairmen and ranking members, like David Boren (D-OK) and his chief of staff, George Tenet, Cohen and Rep. Dick Cheney, sworn to secrecy as partners in crime, insiders to the Loop of murder and mayhem.

Secret illegal campaign contributions to buy candidates and elections, up to and including the assassination of foreign heads of state, perhaps even the assassination of an American head of state? In short, if they knew the secrets within secrets, the people might find out that democracy itself was a fraud.

Cheney didn’t mind: He would soon be named Secretary of Defense to conduct the ever-larger small wars in Central America that culminated in the invasion of Panama on the pretext of capturing a drug kingpin, a “Just Cause” that belied the recapture of the former canal zone as a base for expanded operations in the region, and the high-intensity Gulf War dubbed Desert Shield to liberate Kuwait’s oil reserves from the clutches of Saddam Hussein. Nor did Cohen: He succeeded Cheney as Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and prosecuted the Balkan Wars that dismembered the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia and the expansion of US military bases into Eastern Europe and the Muslim periphery of the Soviet Union, just as Carter’s National Security Adviser had promised. Tenet would be elevated to Director of Central Intelligence under Clinton in 1997 and continue to serve the second Bush until 2004.

For all the secrecy and skullduggery of intelligence, the biggest facts, reality itself, escaped them all: None of them predicted the imminent withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, which consumed fully 70 percent of the CIA’s covert budget.26 They all proclaimed its success, the greatest victory that ended the Cold War, but the rival factions engaged in civil war that rages on, 28 years later, the past 15 of which make it the longest war in which the US has been continuously engaged, with only an ignominious defeat in sight. And no one predicted that Gorbachev, in a futile effort to save something resembling a social contract in Russia, would renounce the Brezhnev Doctrine that required the Soviet Union to protect any threatened ally. Refusing to play the role of enemy in the imperial Great Game, instead, he dissolved the USSR only to be removed by his own Russian Federation president, Boris Yeltsin, who opened the country to pillage of its resources by well-placed cronies and foreign investors.

Crime & Cover-up as Covert Action


In retrospect, the main utility of the hearings was to provide a record for comparison to prior and subsequent statements. For Walsh, however, the hearings were an insurmountable obstacle to establishing the burden of proof. From the outset, his hands were tied ideologically (he was himself a conservative Republican and former assistant attorney general) and legally: Neither the Boland Amendment nor the Arms Export Control Act contained any provision for enforcement. They are not criminal statutes, although private citizens, some of whom claimed to have operated on government authority, were prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail for precisely the same acts as the officially sanctioned privateers who openly flouted these laws. The biggest problem, however, was the missing link in the chain of evidence:

Reagan’s CIA Director, William Casey, was unavailable: After a seizure he had been carried from his office on a stretcher, diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and never recovered; he died May 6, 1987, the day after Congress opened televised hearings to the public. That made it all the more important for Walsh to work up the ladder of accountability through rungs of plausible deniability.

Walsh would focus not on fixing the political responsibility for the consequences, the ends of the arms-for-hostages policy, but on the legality of their means. He would necessarily focus on the smaller fry, the operational personnel who were just following orders. Besides, only Congress itself held the power to impeach those who issued them. Instead, Democrats decided they would take that argument out of Congress and the courts to the electorate in 1988, meanwhile milking the scandal for what they could use against their likely opponents whom they branded fools, incompetents and petty grifters, not criminals of state who committed high crimes.

In the spring of 1987, Carl R. “Spitz” Channell, a professional fundraiser, and Richard R. Miller, a public-relations flak, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the US by using a tax-exempt foundation to raise money for the illegal purchase of lethal materiel for the Contras. In effect, the conspiracy concocted by Casey and managed by North inside the NSC as a cut-out, involved money laundering to evade the limits Congress had set on war-making by proxy. As part of the bargain, Channell and Miller were sentenced to two years’ probation in return for testifying that North was their co-conspirator. 27

North’s boss, Robert C. McFarlane, National Security Adviser to the President from October 1983 to December 1985, attempted suicide after his congressional testimony. Fall on his sword to protect his king? Nothing so noble. McFarlane intended what samurai called seppuku, ritual atonement for the disgrace he had caused his family, his clan, his Marine Corps oath of semper fidelis (always faithful), and his commander-in-chief. But, rather than disembowel himself on his bayonet, he sipped a glass of wine, swallowed some pills, prayed for forgiveness — for taking his own life, not those of others — kissed his wife goodnight and curled up to die. Instead, he woke up even more remorseful at another failure and, still wound a little too tight, contacted not a priest, but the Special Prosecutor to spill his guts figuratively rather than literally.

One telling incident drew out McFarlane’s sense of morality and the limits of its inherent contradictions: David Kimche, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, floated the idea of assassinating Ayatollah Khomeini. Perhaps sensing the reaction of millions of Shi’a faithful to a political murder, no matter how desirable, McFarlane carefully demurred. McFarlane cited this anecdote as evidence of his rectitude in the face of temptation but that didn’t stop him from tagging along for Casey’s vendetta against Sheikh Fadlallah, nor did he waste tears or ink on the 83 victims of that bombing (see Part 2).

In March 1988, he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress by denying that North provided military advice and assistance to the Contras and that he and others had solicited funds from foreign governments, including $32 million from Saudi Arabia and $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei. In return for his testimony, McFarlane received two years’ probation, a $20,000 fine and 200 hours of community service.28

Although McFarlane served as Walsh’s Beatrice for the descent through Iran-Contra’s labyrinthine plot-lines and ethical conundra, many of his claims that higher-ups had approved of the machinations could not be corroborated until the discovery years later of contemporaneous notes kept by Weinberger, Shultz and their subordinates of key meetings with Reagan.29

Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Richard Secord

Robert McFarlane left), John Poindexter (right top) and Richard V. Secord (right bottom). Photo credit: White House / National Archives, White House / Wikimedia and US Air Force / Wikimedia

With McFarlane’s guilty plea and slippery memory, Walsh’s investigation stalled. On March 16, 1988, a grand jury returned a 23-count indictment against Poindexter, North, Secord and Hakim. Count One charged the four with conspiracy to defraud the US by supporting military operations against Nicaragua while they were prohibited by Congress; using the sales of US government property to Iran to raise funds to be spent at the direction of North rather than Congress; and overcharging Iran to generate profits for the Contras — what North thought was “a neat idea” to get the Ayatollah to pay the bill for Congress’ pusillanimity.

Then the Administration tried to get North of the hook, fearing that he would plea bargain and testify against his superiors. Justice Department filed an amicus curiae brief supporting North’s contention that the charge should be dismissed because his defense would require him to reveal classified information. Here was another historical twist:

Under the Classified Information Procedures Act (ClPA), Congress gave the Attorney General complete discretion to decide whether to declassify information necessary for trial, even in cases where an Independent Counsel is appointed because the attorney general has a conflict of interest. As Walsh lamented, “This discretion gives the attorney general the power to block almost any potentially embarrassing prosecution that requires the declassification of information.”30

Irony of ironies, CIPA was a product of Watergate and the Church Committee’s investigation. CIPA was Congress’s answer to the case of DCI Richard Helms, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of withholding information from Congress about the CIA’s role in overthrowing Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973 – not, mind you, for orchestrating assassinations, sabotage and instigating torture and mass murder by Pinochet’s death squads. The plea resulted from Helms’s threats to reveal classified information necessary for his defense if he were prosecuted.31

Congress could have decided to impeach Reagan, but the Democrats opted instead to try to wound and paralyze him through the televised hearings and allow voters to make a political judgment in the 1988 elections.

Designed to prevent “greymail” of the government by former intelligence operatives who threatened to spill secrets if prosecuted, CIPA prescribed a closed hearing in which defense and prosecutors were themselves sworn to secrecy. If the judge ruled that classified information was necessary to the defense, the government had to reveal it or choose not to prosecute. In practice, CIPA has been at best a charade; at worst, a mechanism for hiding selective prosecution under a national-security blanket. Like Watergate itself, it is a covert operation designed to find out what political rivals knew about earlier covert operations.

As Nixon himself explained in one of the secret tape-recordings he didn’t destroy, if the burglary weren’t covered up, and the burglars not bribed into silence, they might bring up “the Cuba thing” — Bay of Pigs? Secret illegal campaign contributions to buy candidates and elections, up to and including the assassination of foreign heads of state, perhaps even the assassination of an American head of state? In short, if they knew the secrets within secrets, the people might find out that democracy itself was a fraud.

US District Judge Gerhard Gesell, who had presided over trials in the Watergate scandal, upheld the conspiracy count against North, Poindexter et al, but it was dismissed later by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals because the Reagan Administration refused to declassify information North claimed was necessary to his defense, such as his conversations with the conveniently dead Casey. While Gesell’s ruling established that conspiracy to subvert civil laws like the Boland Amendment and the Arms Export Control Act is itself a criminal act, the dismissal effectively barred Walsh from bringing the higher-ups to account. Walsh blamed the ruling on Judge Silberman’s refusal to recuse himself from the decision, based on Silberman’s dislike for Gesell, the judge whose rulings had helped bring down Nixon.

The Recidivist’s Credo


“We didn’t do it, and we promise to never do it again.” On that, at least, Walsh had plenty to say in his Final Report, and it’s not pretty. He began and ended 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.” This was a direct challenge to the Church Committee’s verdict that the CIA was a “rogue elephant” that required congressional leashing.

Suffice to say that the War Powers Resolution has never been successfully invoked to stop a President from waging war, covertly or otherwise, once the President had been authorized by the National Security Act and its progeny with such vast power. In short, Congress hadn’t learned much from Vietnam and Watergate, the Church and Pike committees, or its own legislative history:

“Fundamentally, the Iran/Contra affair was the first known criminal assault on the post-Watergate rules governing the activities of national security officials. Reagan Administration officials rendered these rules ineffective by creating private [sic] operations, supported by privately generated funds that successfully evaded executive and legislative oversight and control. Congress was defrauded.” 32

Unfortunately, while condemning the abuses, Walsh perpetuated the myth — propagated by the public criminals themselves — that they were committed by individuals who were nominally “private.” The chief law-enforcement officers honored laws in the breach, if at all.

Walsh concluded:

“Evidence obtained by Independent Counsel establishes that the Iran/Contra affair was not an aberrational scheme carried out by a ‘cabal of zealots’ on the National Security Council staff, as the congressional Select Committees concluded in their majority report. Instead, it was the product of two foreign policy directives by President Reagan which skirted the law and which were executed by the NSC staff with the knowledge and support of high officials in the CIA, State and Defense departments.”33

One of those NSDDs, in fact, had been fabricated then backdated to provide retroactive cover for a patently illegal, unauthorized operation; yet, amazingly and incomprehensibly, Congress accepted this direct assault on its constitutional authority as a co-equal branch of government by refusing to impeach. In such discussions — but was it a legal war? — the human cost of war is often overlooked. Even as Walsh pursued indictments and prosecutions, Congress had reauthorized $100 million more for the war on Nicaragua and much more for the regional counter-insurgencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Congressional hypocrisy restored the foundation of the illegal war-makers’ defense.



Walsh would focus not on fixing the political responsibility for the ends of the policy — these were largely shared in the ‘bipartisan consensus” of empire-building, maintenance and control — but on the legality of their means. He would necessarily focus on the smaller fry, the operational personnel who were just following orders. Only Congress itself held the power to impeach those who issued them, and there was no clear consensus on that.

Like its predecessor scandals, with which it shared attributes and key personnel, what was ultimately at stake in Iran-Contra was the legitimacy of the government itself, the right to rule. Congress itself allowed North to play the martyr and scapegoat. The more be blabbed, the less useful his confessions. Because North, Poindexter, and Hakim had testified at congressional hearings under a grant of immunity (meaning that none of that witness’s testimony could be used against himself), Gesell severed their trials.

Congress could have decided to impeach Reagan, but the Democrats opted instead to try to wound and paralyze him through the televised hearings and allow voters to make a political judgment in the 1988 elections. George Bush became a target of the investigation, but claiming he was “out of the loop,” he was not indicted.

Throughout the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis pointedly avoided the scandal. Although he had criticized the Contra war, it was his party, after all, that fashioned a compromise that allowed that war to continue to protect other bigger, ongoing wars and kept the capacity to wage them out of sight of the public in the future. Bush could rightly claim credit for a policy that forced the Sandinistas to negotiate. Dukakis’s inept alternative to Bush’s war-hero image was to don a silly cap and tool around in a tank. He was derided as Snoopy and looked the part. For Dukakis, the issue was “competence.” Had Ollie and friends been any more competent, there would have been a lot more innocents dead in the abattoir of Central America, the charnel house of Lebanon and the swamps of Basra. On Afghanistan, there was a telling bipartisan silence.

The Price of Crime


North was indicted on sixteen felony counts; four were dismissed before trial. On May 4, 1989, a jury convicted him of three charges: accepting an illegal gratuity, aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and destruction of documents (by his secretary, Fawn Hall, on his instructions) to obstruct justice. The illegal gratuity count, a bribe, was a doozy: North claimed he needed a security fence at his house in suburban Virginia because secret sources warned him that Abu Nidal, a dangerous Palestinian terrorist34  was coming after his family. To show the seriousness, North then publically challenged Nidal to “duke it out.” (Luckily, his opponent was already dead, killed by an Israeli air-strike.)

Judge Gesell sentenced North on July 5, 1989, to a three-year suspended prison term, two years’ probation, $150,000 in fines, and 120 hours community service. The conviction was reversed on appeal in July 1990 on the grounds that his trial had been tainted by witnesses whose testimony was influenced by North’s own immunized testimony before Congress.  Cheney had carefully threaded the needle in coordination with North’s defense counsel. In effect, Congress had given North a platform to spout his position that he was just following presidential orders, then immunized him from self-incrimination. 35 

Oliver North

Oliver North during a book signing Nov. 9, 2013. Photo credit: US Air Force

Walsh was unable to convince the court that untainted testimony could be secured; the charges were dismissed in September 1991. His military pension and benefits restored, North went into business with his old CIA buddy Joe Fernandez, selling bullet-proof vests and “expert” commentary for a new cable channel launched by Rupert Murdoch and former Nixon aide Roger Ailes to compete with liberal, Carter patron, husband of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, Ted Turner’s CNN. The overt politicization of the media replaced the pretense of objectivity that masked a covert bipartisan consensus on what was pertinent to discuss in polite company. Claiming vindication, North campaigned for the Republican nomination for the US Senate from Virginia in 1994 but was defeated by Democratic incumbent Charles Robb, a Vietnam-era fighter pilot and LBJ’s son-in-law. North became a fixture on military shows and the conservative speaking circuit.

Adm. John M. Poindexter, McFarlane’s successor, was indicted on seven felonies; two were dismissed. He was convicted in April 1990 of the remaining five counts of conspiracy, false statements, destruction and removal of records, and obstruction of Congress. He was sentenced to six months in prison on each count, to be served concurrently, but released on bond pending appeal. His conviction was reversed in November 1991 on the same grounds as North’s; the Supreme Court declined to review the case.36

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he (or rather Rumsfeld and Cheney) tapped Poindexter to develop a surveillance program called Total Information Awareness to combine data collection and analysis amongst federal agencies and the military. Inter-service and bureaucratic rivalries and privacy concerns combined to scrap the ominous idea, but only temporarily.

Within a few months of announcing TIA had been shelved, Cheney and his top staff, David Addington and I. Lewis Libby prevailed upon the National Security Agency to implement a massive data-collection program that secretly collected every type of electronic information not only on foreigners abroad but on US citizens in the US without a warrant in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They kept it secret from the FISA court, Congress and the public for years until a rebellion in the Justice Department, led by then acting Attorney General James Comey and FBI director Robert Mueller, threatened to resign.37 Parts of the program were revised to satisfy their objections but the ‘drift net” “special program” remained secret until pieces were exposed by the press.  Effectively, renamed and handed off to NSA, TIA’s techniques for collection, storage and analysis have been applied in a series of programs as revealed by whistleblowers, William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden and others.

Richard V. Secord testified under oath to Congress, without immunity. He was charged on six felony counts in the original indictment; after the main conspiracy counts were dismissed, a second indictment in April 1989 added nine felony counts of obstructing those same committees of Congress through false testimony. Five days before trial on the 12 felonies, he pleaded guilty in November 1989 to a single felony of making false statements to Congress when he denied that North personally benefited from the “Enterprise” in the form of a $200,000 “insurance” fund and a $16,000 security system for North’s house to protect him from “terrorists” in the Virginia suburbs. Secord got two years’ probation; he was still fighting to recover $2 million stashed in Swiss accounts in 1994.38

After the collapse of the USSR, Secord found work again as a private contractor to the military and intelligence “community” in support for allies in Turkey, the intervention in the former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and other newly independent countries on the Russian periphery.

Albert Hakim, an Iranian expatriate and Secord’s business partner, was originally charged with five felonies. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of supplementing North’s salary through the infamous “Button” (bellybutton) account. One of Hakim’s companies, Lake Resources, also pleaded guilty to a corporate felony-theft of government property for diverting $16.2 million from the arms-sales proceeds, of which Hakim personally had received more than $2.5 million. His plea allowed him to keep another $1.7 million but he had to waive claim to $9 million more still languishing in Swiss accounts.39

Thomas G. Clines, retired CIA officer and assistant to Shackley, who provided logistics and contacts for the Secord-Hakim arms deals, was convicted of four felonies for failing to report all income from the deals on his taxes, largely based on testimony of Secord and his Swiss lawyer, Willard Zucker; he was sentenced to 16 months in prison and a $40,000 fine.40 As he had in the Wilson cases [see Part 1], Shackley denied any involvement in the money-laundering deals that funded the Contras.41 (His successor as station chief in Saigon when he offloaded the Phoenix Program and its “intelligence gathering” torturers in the PRUs to MACV-SOG, Tom Polgar, was put in charge of investigating Iran-Contra by Congress.)

CIA denying plausibility


Walsh turned his attention to the CIA. Joseph F. Fernandez, alias Tomas Castillo, former station chief in Costa Rica, was originally indicted in June 1988 on five counts of conspiracy to defraud the US, obstructing the inquiry of the Tower Commission, and making false statements, mainly about his role in coordinating construction of an airstrip in Costa Rica for the North-Secord network’s use; the case was dismissed and refiled as a four-count indictment in April 1989. That too was dismissed when Attorney General Richard Thornburgh refused to invoke CIPA to declassify information needed for his defense, 42 much of which was already public as a result of the Costa Rican government’s denunciation of the Santa Elena strip as a violation of its sovereignty. (The airstrip later figured in another case of high-level corruption in Costa Rica, having been used in numerous drug-smuggling flights.)43

Alan D. Fiers, Jr., a/k/a “Cliff” to the Contras, was chief of CIA’s Central American Task Force from October 1984 until his retirement in 1988. As manager of the covert war exposed in the shoot-down of a resupply plane (see Part 1), Fiers was the key to cracking the conspiracy of silence. ln 1991, he pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress, specifically that North told him about the diversion and he in turn told his superiors, and that he was familiar with North’s role in coordinating the illegal resupply operation. 44

Alan Fiers

Alan D. Fiers, Jr. testifying about Iran-Contra during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Robert Gates for the position of director of Central Intelligence. Photo credit: Watch the video on C-SPAN.

Fiers’s cooperation led to the indictment of his boss, Clair E. George, CIA’s Deputy Director for Operations from July 1984 through December 1987, on ten felonies for perjury, false statements and obstruction of congressional and grand jury investigations in September 1991. The three obstruction counts were dismissed after the Poindexter decision; two were restored by a supplemental indictment in May 1992. In August, a mistrial was declared when the jury could not reach a verdict. Walsh dropped the two obstruction counts and narrowed the rest. At the second trial, George was acquitted on five counts, convicted on two: that he lied when he denied to the House committee any knowledge of Felix Rodriguez’s role in the resupply scheme, and that he lied to the Senate when he denied knowing about North’s and Secord’s activities. Before he could be sentenced, Bush pardoned him.45

Fiers’s flamboyant predecessor Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, was indicted on seven counts of perjury and false statements about the shipment of HAWK missiles to Iran but not for his role in the Contra war. He faced a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count but was pardoned before trial by Bush.46 Walsh investigated but did not charge other CIA officers, including the unidentified station chief in Honduras who facilitated weapons shipments for the Contras and Jim Adkins, the Contras’ main CIA adviser from 1984 to 1987.47

Those who helped prepare Casey’s false testimony before Congress in 1986 also escaped prosecution, as did Donald Gregg, a career CIA officer who worked at NSC in the first two years of Reagan’s term, then became Bush’s national security adviser. Gregg had repeatedly denied to congressional investigators that anyone in Vice President Bush’s office knew North was involved in illegal support of the Contras or that they themselves were directing the effort through Gregg’s longtime friend, Felix Rodriguez. Gregg was questioned again when Bush nominated him in 1989 as Ambassador to South Korea. A key question was whether Rodriguez briefed Gregg and Bush’s military aide, Adm. Sam Watson, about “resupply of the Contras” as indicated by Watson’s agenda for May 1, 1986. Gregg and Watson insisted this meant “resupply of the choppers” to El Salvador, and the Senate confirmed him.

October Surprise Revisited


In May 1990, however, Gregg returned to the US to testify against Richard Brenneke, a self-styled arms dealer and informant for the Customs Service who had been charged with making false statements to a Denver judge about the Reagan-Bush campaign’s “October Surprise” hostage-retention scheme, including a claim that Gregg had been present at meetings in Paris with Iranians in October 1980.

Gregg testified that he had been playing on the beach in Delaware on the weekend in question, and produced snapshots of his wife and daughter supposedly taken at the time. But the jury chose instead to believe a local weatherman who said the weather was different that weekend from the sunny day depicted in Gregg’s photos. Brenneke was acquitted.48

In the summer of 1990, Walsh asked Gregg to submit to a polygraph — an offer Gregg had made to the FBI back in December 1986 when questioned about Iran-Contra.49 An FBI examiner concluded that Gregg’s responses indicated deception when he denied being involved in an October Surprise deal in 1980, when he denied knowing that Rodriguez was working with North and the Contras prior to August 1986, when he denied ever having told Bush about covert military aid to the Contras before October 1986, and when he denied lying to Congress.50 Gregg was given a second test and flunked again. Nevertheless, Walsh decided the evidence was insufficient to charge Gregg or Watson.



At the State Department, Walsh focused on the testimony of Secretary of State George Shultz and his Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, Elliott Abrams.51 Shultz had testified to Congress that he opposed the arms-for-hostages deal, warned that they might be impeachable offenses, and knew nothing of the diversion. In 1990 and 1991, however, Walsh’s staff came across new evidence in the form of handwritten notes by Shultz’s executive secretary, M. Charles Hill, and his successor, Nicholas Platt. Shultz even described Hill’s notes as “a remorselessly precise record and a vivid picture” after using them to write his memoirs.52 The problem was that Hill’s notes were not consistent with Shultz’s testimony. In an interview with Walsh in February 1992, Shultz denied the errors were deliberate.

The Hill and Platt notes provided snapshots of the extent of high-level complicity and unvarnished character sketches of the participants:

Shultz after hearing Bush’s denials that arms were sold to Iran, “Bush on TV saying it (is] ridiculous to even consider selling arms to Iran. VP was part of it. .. Getting drawn into web of lies. Blows his integrity. He’s finished then. Shd. be v. careful how he plays the loyal lieutenant role now.”53

On Weinberger: “He’s either stupid or dishonest, one or the other.”54 On Reagan’s first National Security Adviser: “Bill Clark has no substance. An influence peddler.” 55

On North: “Ollie told Iranians that as part of Night Owl deal – They should give up t’ism [terrorism]- install moderate govt -win war with IQ [Iraq] (!) – ha ha Ollie is laughable.”56

Walsh chose not to prosecute Shultz because he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt his testimony to Congress was willfully false. That decision let Hill off the hook, despite Walsh’s conclusion that he had deliberately withheld the notes when they were subpoenaed; the evidence against Platt was deemed “inconclusive.” 57

George Shultz, Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Ed Meese, Don Regan, Elliott Abrams, John Whitehead

George Shultz (left), President Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese and Don Regan discussing the President’s remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, oval office, November 25, 1986 (right top) and President Reagan Meeting with Elliott Abrams and John Whitehead about trip to Central America in oval office, March 24, 1986 (right bottom). Photo credit: White House / National Archives, White House / National Archives and White House / National Archives

Elliott Abrams was another story. North had testified that Abrams was aware of his “full service operation” to the Contras, but it was not until 1990 and 1991 that Hill and Platt’s notes corroborated North’s assertions and contradicted Abrams, as did notes produced by Edwin Corr, the Ambassador to El Salvador in 1985. Before seeking a multi-count felony indictment, Walsh invited Abrams to consider a guilty plea. On October 7, 1991, he pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress about North’s resupply operation and another for denying his participation in soliciting $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei. 58

Thanks to a pardon by George H. W. Bush, Abrams resumed a key post in the George W. Bush administration. As a signatory to the program of the Project for a New American Century, Abrams implemented PNAC’s strategy of aggressive regime change directed at Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, the “axis of evil.” He developed policy for economic and military to isolate and attack those countries on the imperial hit-list. Like his predecessors, and blessed with a grant of impunity, Abrams was confident of his own rectitude and the moral supremacy of his position. That applied to lesser evils, too. Abrams was involved in planning a military coup d’etat against the elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in 2002, alongside the US Ambassador, Otto Reich, former director of OPD exposed in the Iran-Contra investigation. Paul Wolfowitz, Weinburger’s deputy at Defense, returned as deputy to Donald Rumsfeld. And now comes word that Trump, despite his claim that he “opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning,” has signed Abrams to another tour of duty as Undersecretary of State under Exxon chairman Rex Tillerson. What could possibly go wrong?



Walsh turned to the Defense Department, where the discovery of notes and diaries put the lies in the liars’ own words. Such documents had been repeatedly requested throughout the years, but one of the Hill notes quoted Schultz: “Cap takes notes but never referred to them (to Congress] so never had to cough them up.”59

Weinberger was subpoenaed in August 1990, but insisted he had turned over all relevant material to Congress three years earlier. In November 1991, OIC investigators found thousands of pages of notes and diaries at the Library of Congress, which had not segregated them with classified materials when Weinberger left office. The notes showed that “Contrary to his sworn testimony, Weinberger knew in advance that US arms were to be shipped to Iran through Israel in November 1985 without congressional notification … [and) he knew that Saudi Arabia was secretly providing $25 million … to the Contras during the ban on US aid.”60

Weinberger quickly produced instead a polygraph that concluded he had not intentionally concealed the notes, an affidavit from Gen. Colin Powell attesting to his honesty (Powell had succeeded Poindexter as National Security Adviser, then jumped over many senior officers to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Bush-1), and a letter from Senators Inouye and Rudman — gullible, credulous or cynical, who knows? — expressing their disbelief that Weinberger would ever have lied to them.61  Nonetheless, a grand jury indicted him on four counts of perjury and false statements. He was pardoned before trial by Bush, along with Clarridge, George, Fiers, Abrams and McFarlane.



By then, Reagan and Bush had become targets of the criminal investigation. Like Congress, however, Walsh “found no credible evidence that the President [Reagan personally] authorized [as he should have, by law] or was aware of the diversion of profits from the Iran arms sales to assist the Contras [as he should have been, if the National Security Council functioned according to laws that the Chief Executive was constitutionally sworn to “take care” to uphold], or that [Chief of Staff Donald] Regan, [Vice President] Bush or [Attorney General] Meese was aware of the diversion.”62

…but the Soviet Union fell, and tiny Nicaragua was bludgeoned into submission, an object lesson for all who dare imagine something better than living and dying at Washington’s and Wall Street’s whim. You can’t argue with success.

McFarlane, Poindexter and North all claimed Reagan had authorized their illegal activities on behalf of the Contras, but Walsh found, “The President’s own activities … were not on the face of it … forbidden by criminal law.”63 Walsh found no evidence to prove Reagan committed perjury or intentionally lied in his many demonstrably false statements to the Tower Commission, to the public, or in answers to written interrogatories by Walsh’s office. 64 The remedy, Walsh decided, was impeachment, for which the time had long passed.

Don Regan and Ed Meese also escaped prosecution, although Walsh found evidence in the notes and diaries that they had participated in the cover-up, spearheaded by Meese, to protect Reagan and each other by presenting a false version of the Iran-Contra scheme to Congress and the Tower Commission. Walsh described Regan as forthright and truthful when his own notes were finally subpoenaed in 1992.65 Meese, on the other hand, was engaged in “damage control” — not quite the criminal obstruction of justice attributed to Mitchell in Watergate — rather than vigorous enforcement of the law as Attorney General.”66

When the congressional hearings closed, one of the first and most enthusiastic congratulations to Reagan came from his old friend and mentor, Richard Nixon, who advised to stonewall the prosecutors: “Have instructions issued to all White House staffers…that they must never answer any question about that issue in the future.”67  This advice was neither surprising nor necessary but it was consistent with Nixon’s own refusal to give up the 1,000 hours of tape-recordings — Public Records Act be damned — that he had taken from the White House in August 4, 1973, and guarded until his death in 1994. Reagan finally agreed to talk to Walsh anyway, in 1992, but by then his memory had failed completely.

Bush, however, was a sitting president campaigning for re-election when he came under renewed scrutiny in 1992, thanks to the notes and diaries of Hill, Platt and Weinberger. Negotiations became a delaying tactic, and Walsh was reluctant to confront Bush in an election year. Bush stonewalled repeated requests for his own diaries. After Bush’s defeat, he revealed to Walsh the existence of a diary that had been withheld since 1986.68 Walsh decided not to subpoena the diary because a criminal prosecution was unlikely: “(T)he statute of limitations had passed on most of the relevant acts and statements of Bush.”69

On the street, we’d say Bush skated.



Much of Walsh’s Report and an explanatory book he wrote as an autopsy on his still-born investigation were necessarily an apology for lack of results. Walsh got a jury to convict North, only to have an appeals court reverse the verdict on what “conservatives” (a term, which in the US, includes fascists) are wont to call a “technicality” when applied to others — that is, a constitutional principle against self-incrimination so important that, in order to uphold that higher law, known criminals are let loose on the street. That conviction would have disqualified North’s political ambitions, but dismissed on constitutional grounds, self-incrimination became his parody of a medal of honor for self-sacrifice to his chief, the unindicted and unimpeachable Reagan. North was defeated in his run for the Senate in 1994 but emerged a martyr to the cause of secret war because congressional Democrats preferred to grandstand by giving him immunity for his testimony.

Yet, to this day, Democrats point to Iran-Contra, as to Watergate, and declare, “The system works.”


The greater tragedy is that, by and large, the Reagan-Bush policies accomplished their goals: A devil’s bargain between the Ayatollah’s minions and the Great Satan left all sides bankrupt and bleeding, but the Soviet Union fell, and tiny Nicaragua was bludgeoned into submission, an object lesson for all who dare imagine something better than living and dying at Washington’s and Wall Street’s whim. You can’t argue with success. Walsh tried and the conclusions he reached about a slew of individuals are devastating:

“They skirted the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the president’s willful activities. What protection do the people of the United States [less so the targets] have against such a concerted action by such powerful officers? The disrespect for Congress by a popular and powerful president and his appointees was obscured when Congress accepted the tendered concept of a runaway conspiracy of subordinate officers and avoided the unpleasant confrontation with a powerful president and his Cabinet. In haste to display and conclude its investigation of this unwelcome issue, Congress destroyed the most effective lines of [criminal] inquiry by giving immunity to Oliver L North and John M. Poindexter so that they could exculpate and eliminate the need for testimony of President Reagan and Vice President Bush ….”

“The Iran/Contra investigation did not end the kind of abuse of power that it addressed any more than the Watergate [and Church-Pike Committees] investigation did. The criminality in both affairs did not arise out of ordinary venality or greed, although some of those charged were driven by both …. When a president, even with good motive and intent, chooses to skirt the laws or to circumvent them, it is incumbent upon his subordinates to resist, not join in. Their oath and their fealty are to the Constitution and the rule of law, not to the man temporarily occupying the Oval Office. Congress has the duty and the power under our system of checks and balances to ensure that the President and his Cabinet officers are faithful to their oaths.”70

So, in the end, Walsh reaffirmed his faith in the system which has produced scandals and constitutional abuses with tedious regularity. When his Report was finally released in censored form by the court, the absurdity of the doctrine of national security as a rationale for state secrets was further exposed by CIA’s bizarre request to see the secret section to find out if it contained anything it didn’t already know about itself.71

In 1994, I wrote, “When the next round comes, it is unlikely that Walsh’s admonitions will do much to deter those who regard democracy as much more than an ideological soapbox on which to stand while they plot any secret scheme they deem necessary to get their way.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our present state of affairs: Rendition, torture, wars of aggression founded on lies — is anyone surprised that these are openly discussed?

Each and every example of imperial malefaction is defined as an exception to the Exceptional, a scandal, not emblematic or illustrative of the governing system’s continuity but a personal failure of imperfect operators, fallible humans, not a fatal flaw in the Infernal but Perfect Machinery. Solution: more controls, checks, regulations, technical fixes of technical glitches, work-arounds. But in the end, all they accomplished was to legalize what had been illegal. It can only get worse under Trump.



1. Statement attributed to Cheney’s legal adviser, David Addington, by Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 330.

2. [unsigned editorial],”Watch What We Do,” Washington Post, July 7, 1969, p. A22.


4. Joseph Mysak and George Marlin, Fiscal Administration: Analysis and Applications for the Public Sector. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks, 1991); William P. Kittredge and David W. Kreutzer, “We Only Pay the Bills: The Ongoing Effort to Disfranchise Virginia’s Voters” (2001)..

5. Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA, (New York: Knopf, 1979).

6. Seymour Hersh’s expose’ of Operation CHAOS, the Huston Plan (the “Plumbers’ unit) and link to Watergate appeared in a series including  “Underground for the CIA in New York: An Ex-Agent Tells of Spying on Students, New York Times, Dec. 29, 1974, p.1; “Hunt Tells of Early Work for a CIA Domestic Unit,” Dec. 31, 1974, p. 1.

7. Gray’s note to Felt quoted in Woodward, The Secret Man, op. cit.

8. Five Klansmen charged with murder were acquitted by an all-white jury but the shooters and the city lost a civil liability case brought by the victims. Paul Bermanzohn [a wounded survivor] and Sally Avery. Through Survivors’ Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003). ISBN 0-8265-1439-1.

9. quoted in the Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1970; shortly thereafter, Reagan said: “I certainly don’t think there should be a bloodbath on campus or anywhere else. It was just a figure of speech.” as quoted by United Press International.

10. Nicholas Von Hoffman, Citizen Cohn; Wayne Barrett, Trump: The Deals & the Downfall, 1992.

11. Vaughan, “Death and MegaDeath” Westword (Denver) May 12, 1978. Stories about the informant appeared later in the Aurora Sentinel, “What do you do with a load of explosives?”, March 28, 1979;  “Kid ‘comandos’ tell of raid on Titan arsenal” and “‘75 explosives theft raises defense security questions,” March 29, 1979. see also Colorado Business (weekly) “Flats slump foreseen”, July 20, 1981, “Nuclear evacuation plans revealed” and “War evacuation plans readied” Nov. 1981.

12. Ron Schaffer and Neil Henry, “Suspected gunman: An Aimless Drifter,”  March 31, 1981; Neil Henry and chip Brown, “An Aimless Road to a Place in History,” April 5, 1981. My name (misspelled) appears in a contributor’s box at the end of each story, the first I worked on for the Post. Few people noticed in the aftermath that John Hinckley had been expelled from a Nazi group in Texas because they suspected he was an FBI informer, or the odd coincidence that his older brother had dinner with the Vice President’s son Neil and the CIA director’s son a few days before the shooting. This became the stuff of unresolved speculation.

13. See sources cited in notes to Part 1.

14. Schroeder was quoted by John Bennett, “FBI denies informants used in burglaries,” Scripps-Howard News Service, Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 21, 1987.

15. Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The US Central American Peace Movement (Chicago: U. Chicago, 1996).

16. Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador, (New York: Times Books, 1984), Mark Danner, “El Mozote”, The New Yorker, Nov. 28-Dec.5, 1993.

17. Susanne Jonas, Guatemala: Keeping the Lid on,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Sepy-Oct. 1988, pp. 7-8.

18. Woodward, The Secret Man, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) but Felt scooped him with “I’m the Guy They Called Deep Throat” Vanity Fair,May 31, 2005.

19. Vaughan, “Better Off Dead: An Epitaph for Richard Nixon,” Aurarian Dissent, (Denver: August 1994).

20. ABC News Nightline, July 14, 1987, quoted at Kornbluh, “The Iran-Contra Scandal: A Post-Mortem”, World Policy Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1987-88, p. 130.

21. Executive Order 11905, published at 41 Federal Register 7733.

22. Executive Order 12036 , published at 43 Federal Register 3687.

23. Sections 2.11 and 2.12, Executive Order 12333, published at 43 Federal Register 59952.

24. Congressional Quality Almanac, 1984, p. 91.

25. Lewis Fisher, Presidential War Power, (Lawrence: U. Kansas, 1995), p. 171.

26. Best guess extrapolation from the work of John Pike, “CIA Spending for Covert Operations”, Covert Action, Number 51, Winter 1994-95. See also [Washington Post],“‘Dr. Dirty’ [Gus Avrokotos] ran CIA’s covert arming of Afghan rebels in 80s,” Denver Post, Dec. 26, 2005, p. 6B.

27. Miller’s indictment and plea agreement are found at Vol. II, p. 5; Channell, p. 11.

28. McFarlane, Special Trust (Cadell & Davies, 1994). For a sympathetic but critical review, see also Doug Vaughan, “Special Trust Betrayed,” Covert Action Quarterly, No. 51 (Winter 1994-95), pp.61-62,

29. On McFarlane’s claims and confirmations, see Vol. I, Ch. l, pp. 79·104; Vol. II, pp. 17·30; Vol. III, pp. 397-400.

30. Walsh, Vol. I, pp. xii, 565.

31. See Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA (New York: Knopf, 1979).

32. Walsh, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 563. The rules Include the requirement that the President make a ”Finding” that a given operation is necessary to “national security” and report any such operation “in a timely fashion” to the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence that must approve funding for these operations.

33. Walsh, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 562. The report to which Walsh refers is: “Report of the Congressional Committees lnvestigating the lran-Contra Affair,” US House of Representatives, Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, and US Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, November 17, 1987, p. 22.

34. And possibly an Israeli double-agent, see Patrick Seale, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, (New York: Random House, 1991).

35. Walsh described his cases against North in Final Report Vo1. I, Ch. 2, pp. 105·22: the indictments and pleadings are found at Vol. II, pp. 195·242. See also, Ben Bradlee, Jr. Guts & Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North (Dutton, 1988)

36. I, pp. 123-36; Vol. II, pp. 243-78; Poindexter’s Response to Walsh’s Report at Vol. IU, pp. 587-90.

37. Gellman, op cit.

38. Secord see Ch. 9 and Vol. l, pp. 173-78; Vol. II, pp. 133· 72; Vol. Ill, pp. 797-808. For the defense, Richard Secord and Jay Wurts, Honored and Betrayed: Irangate, Covert Affairs, and the Secret War in Laos, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992) ISBN 9780471573289.

39. Hakim see Vol. I, pp. 179-80; Vol.II, pp. 189-94; Vol. III, pp. 323-62.

40. Clines, Vol. I, pp. 181-84.

41. See also Shackley and Richard A. Finney, Spymaster: my life in the CIA. (Washington: Potomac Books, 1992) ISBN 1-57488-915-X.

42. Fernandez, Vol. I, pp. 283-93

43. Martha Honey, Hostile Acts; Gary Webb, Dark Alliance, based in part on the reporting of myself and Georg Hodel

44. Fiers, Vol. I, pp. 263-81.

45. George, Vol. I, pp 233-43.

46. Clarridge, Vol. I, pp. 247-62.

47. Cases are discussed In Vol. I, pp. 293·324, and in the Classified Appendix.

48. Author’s notes of trials,  US v. Rupp (a bank fraud case),  US District Court, Denver;  US v. Brenneke, Portland, Oregon. Brenneke also claimed to have been involved in the Israeli shipments from Lebanon to the Contras, Operation Tipped Kettle, and Panama, Operation Black Eagle.

49. Gregg, Vol. I, p. 501.

50. , p. 501. Walsh said, n. 146, that this was reported to the Justice Dept. in 1990 and the House “October Surprise” Task Force in 1992.

51. Abrams, Vol. I, pp. 325-73.

52. George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph (New York: Scribner’s, 1993), p. xiii.

53. Re: Bush, Hill Note, November 9,1986, ANS 000174$. cited at Vol. I, p. 353, n. 223.

54. Re: Weinberger, Hill Note, July 16, 1986, ANS 0000705, at ibid.

55. Re: Clark, Hill Note, December 19, 1986, ANS 0002078, at ibid.

56.Re: North, Hill Note, December 6, 1985, ANS 00001238, quoted at Vot.l, p. 435.

57. Walsh on Schultz, Vol. I, p. 372.

58. I, pp. 375-92. Abrams provided a number to a Swiss bank account; it proved to be the “wrong” account in that it didn’t get to the Contras; instead, it was held by an intelligence operative named Bruce Rappaport, who contested Walsh’s attempts to recover the $10 million. What he had done to earn the money was another secret.

59. Hill Note, August 7, 1987, AL W 0056370, quoted at Vol. I, p. 412, n. 84.

60. I, p. 413.

61. II, pp.1012-19, 1107 (Powell), 1010-11 (Inouye and Rudman) respectively.

62. l, p. 443.

63. Vol 1, p. 452.

64. 1, p. 472.

65. I, pp. 505-23.

66. I, pp. 525-53.

67. Woodward, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 154-55.

68. Dan Morgan and David S. Broder. “President to Disclose ‘Everything’; White House Disputes Walsh’s Charges of Cover-up,” Washington Post. December 26, 1992, p. A1.

69. Vol, 1, p. 474.

70. Walsh, pp. 561-66.

71. Walter Pincus. “CIA Seeks to Review Classified Walsh Report On Iran-Contra Affair,” Washington Post, February 12, 1994, p. A4.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump and (National Museum of the US Navy / Flickr ) and Ronald Reagan (White House / Wikimedia).


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