Saturday, January 17, 2015

Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra

Despite its hyperbolic subtitle, Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) is a carefully constructed and highly detailed account of the Iran-Contra scandal, using both newly declassified documents (the author is Deputy Director at the National Security Archive) and interviews. It's not a fast read, but it's a very good one. The core contribution is to cement the answer to the classic Watergate question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The answer for Ronald Reagan was "A lot, and early on, then he lied about it."

The overriding factor was Reagan's fervent desire to free the hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and his utter disinterest in whether the actions--selling arms to the Iranians for their help, then using proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua--aimed at doing so were legal. It becomes clear that he never expressed doubt about legality. He pushed for action and wanted results, so everyone took that as permission, even though they even would write that it was all illegal. Byrne notes concerns about Reagan's mental state, but also shows how Reagan kept up with key details and kept pushing. Basically, if policy was intended to free hostages, then for Reagan by definition it was legal.

Others knew better, but didn't stop anything because the president wanted this done. Once it became clear the illegal activities would become public, they started lying and destroying documents like crazy. As John Poindexter described this destruction, "I decided that it would be politically embarrassing to the President at this point because it would substantiate what was being alleged...and so I decided to destroy it" (p. 269). When asked about his lying under oath to Congress, Oliver North said, "I knew it wasn't right not to tell the truth on those things but I didn't think it was unlawful" (pp. 314-315).

North took Reagan's desires and ran with them, usually amateurishly. Sadly, he was well liked and respected (at the hearings later, one staffer testified and even entered a poem into the record about how he was thankful Ollie North walked the earth!) so had wide latitude. North, meanwhile, was a born liar. As soon as he helped get the entire project off the ground, he lied to anyone and everyone about anything, large and small. He literally lied constantly.

George H.W. Bush (who as VP was present at many of the same meetings as Reagan) lied as well, and initially pretended he didn't have a diary, which had a lot of damaging information. Ironically, in his diary he criticized Secretary of State George Shultz for keeping a diary. Then on Christmas Eve 1992, very soon before he left office, he pardoned six key participants, which also had the convenient effect of preventing any more testimony from emerging that would incriminate him.

A notable point of the book is how little anyone knew about Nicaragua, or Central America generally. And they didn't care. When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started blocking Contra activity in his country, North wrote that "Boy needs to be straightened out by heavyweights" (p. 232). Iran-Contra is fundamentally about illegal actions in the executive branch, but it's also about U.S.-Latin American relations. The only reason North focused so much on Nicaragua was that Reagan (and all his aides) had a distorted, paternalistic, and simplistic view of what was happening there.

Byrne makes clear that only a small fraction of relevant documents have seen the light of day. This is a topic that will deservedly keep producing new analyses, and don't be surprised if they show even more how deeply President Reagan and many of his officials were aware and supportive of illegal activity.


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