Small World: An old tale retold

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht
BN Columnist
Last week, I attended a talk by Malcolm Byrne about his new book, Iran Contra. I offer a brief summary and a few observations for those who are rusty on the details of this near-forgotten tale of official deceit.
The scandal that rocked the Reagan Administration started with the confession of a survivor of a plane crash in Central American carrying arms to the Contras — guerrillas fighting to overthrow the left-wing government of Nicaragua. The man quickly admitted he was a contractor working for the CIA. Congress had never appropriated nor authorized such aid — thus, an illegal action.
That event was closely followed by a small Shia newspaper in Beirut publishing a story of America trading arms to Iran for help in freeing hostages held in Lebanon by Tehran’s friends, the Hezbollah. It didn’t take long for the full story to come out: Washington was selling missiles to Iran (which was fighting a bitter war with Iraq) and using the profits to fund arms for the Contras. Iran, of course, had been under heavy U.S. sanctions since the hostage crisis.
It also turned out eventually that Washington had solicited money from Saudi Arabia and others to help the Contras — illegal like the other deals, in part because Congress was not informed.
The third stage of the scandal was not long delayed: Crisis containment. President Reagan and his Attorney General, Ed Meese, met with reporters in the White House to admit that, yes, such activities had been going on but they were the work of the staff, whom Reagan unwisely trusted. They – Col. Ollie North and Adm. John Poindexter — were guilty and were being dismissed in disgrace. That was hardly the end of the affair, however. The White House operation became a shambles with leaks and conflicting statements; wiser heads were brought in for management stability; Congressional hearings got underway. Congressman — and pit bull — Dick Chaney headed up the Republican defense.
The big question throughout this process was whether Reagan was telling the truth and he was misled by staff or whether he was mentally incompetent to deal with the deal’s complexities — i.e., whether he was properly managing his office. In Byrne’s opinion, the president was sadly lacking when it came to mental equipment. He could charm people, but he couldn’t handle the hard work of the presidency. On the other hand, he was quite clear, firm and assertive on three principles: freeing the Americans held hostage in Lebanon, arms control with the Soviet Union and aiding the Contras (“freedom fighters”) to fight a Soviet-style regime in Central America.
Not surprisingly, the congressional hearings worked against the administration. Several key aides were indicted (later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush) and it seemed as though a case for Reagan’s impeachment might go forward. It didn’t.
In Byrne’s view, there were several strong reasons why Reagan got off whereas Nixon had not for a lesser offense. First of all, Nixon had a nasty personality; he wasn’t liked. People liked Reagan, an amiable, elderly gentleman always relaxed with a smile. How could he be guilty of a crime? Moreover, the public wasn’t terribly interested in the complex scandal — quite unlike the simpler shenanigans of Watergate.
In addition, by the time the hearings had come to a concluding phase, Reagan’s term was approaching its end. Why burden the country with an effort to expel him when he would be leaving anyway?
And finally, any effort to impeach Reagan would drive a great wedge between the parties not only in Washington, but also across the nation. Again, the contrast with an unpopular Nixon was plain. Reagan’s supporters would vigorously defend him. The country would certainly be badly sundered. (One has to ask, however, whether the deep division between left and right in politics today would have been even more profound with Reagan’s downfall.)
In writing his book, Byrne interviewed all the participants who would talk to him. He also made heavy use of the Freedom of Information Act. Under that statute a citizen can request a copy of any document he can (sometimes vaguely) identify. Only selected data (e.g., names) might be blacked out. While having to worry about that kind of exposure terribly complicates the work of a government official, it also inhibits the use of classification simply to prevent political embarrassment.
The public is better off that Malcolm Byrne dug deeply and diligently for his instructive material.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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