The Iran-Contra Affair 30 Years Later: A Milestone in Post-Truth Politics

Washington, D.C., November 25, 2016 – Exactly thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan announced to the nation – after weeks of denials – that members of his White House staff had engaged in a web of covert intrigue linking illicit U.S. support for a guerrilla war in Central America with an illegal and politically explosive arms-for-hostages bargain with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The revelation quickly led to a new phrase – “Iran-Contra” – which became synonymous with political hubris, government incompetence, and dishonesty in the public sphere.

Over the years, the National Security Archive has published major document collections, books, and web postings about Iran-Contra that expand on all of these areas of inquiry (see links in left column). Today, the Archive posts a selection of materials that spotlight the last of the elements above – deceitfulness – whose relevance has sadly become more pronounced after a bruising political season marked by examples and allegations of widespread public contempt for facts, evidence and the truth.

Today’s focus also follows Oxford Dictionaries’ selection earlier this month of the term “post-truth” as its Word of the Year, a choice it traced indirectly to the Reagan-era scandal: “Post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.’” (See The Nation, January 6/13, 1992)

The historical record, including thousands of documents and hundreds of hours of testimony that are not possible to reproduce here, bears out the connection between the attitudes evident during the mid-1980s and what Americans have been witnessing in 2016.

The Iran-Contra affair inundated national news coverage starting a few weeks before the November 1986 press conference (as stories about the Contra and Iran operations leaked out) and lasting through Summer 1987. A galvanized media that had faced criticisms for its lax treatment of Reagan seemed eager to make up for it now that it finally had a story of Watergate proportions. Picking up on aspects of secret administration policy that only a few intrepid reporters had noticed before, TV and print outlets uncovered sometimes shocking new information about the lengths to which the Reagan administration had gone to press the Contra war in and around Nicaragua without authorization from Congress.

Similar disclosures came out about National Security Council staff-supervised contacts with Iranian intermediaries and Israeli counterparts, along with covert missile shipments from U.S. military stocks to Iran. Various committees in Congress hastily held hearings that produced more discoveries along the same lines.

Eventually, a joint congressional select committee was convened and an independent counsel appointed by the courts, both of which uncovered volumes of invaluable documentary evidence of what had transpired, including:

After being explicitly prohibited from aiding the Contras with military or intelligence support, the president and his top advisers had agreed to solicit financial and other material backing from a slew of foreign governments (Document 01), from Saudi Arabia, to China, to the Sultanate of Brunei, to apartheid South Africa. No effort was ever intended to notify Congress, which had constitutional authority over funding for those activities

When the approaches to foreign governments seemed not to be enough, National Security Council staffer Oliver North, the main foot soldier of the affair, with authorization from at least one of his superiors, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, diverted revenues from the illicit Iran missile sales to the Contras – the activity that garnered the most attention in the scandal

Reagan had authorized direct talks with Iran to bargain for American hostages being held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, in direct contradiction of his own black-letter policy, and disregarding statutory requirements to justify his decision in writing and notify Congress (Document 02)

When Reagan’s senior aides told him the Iran deals were illegal, he told them flatly that he was willing to face “charges of illegality” (Document 03)

After the covert Contra support operation was exposed with the shooting down of a U.S.-backed supply plane (in October 1986), State Department and CIA officials testified falsely to Congress about U.S. ignorance of the program. Their testimony eventually produced guilty pleas to criminal charges of misleading Congress.

After the Iran deals were leaked to a Lebanese news magazine, the White House recognized it would be much harder to hide their role in this instance. The president, vice president and other top aides rallied around to protect the president and the covert policy by explicitly promoting a cover story that departed in significant ways from the truth (Document 08)

Vice President George H. W. Bush was substantially aware of, and even participated in aspects of, the illicit operations even though he denied it vociferously at the time. Confirmation eventually came in the form of dictated notes which he had refused for years to turn over to the independent counsel (Document 06), as well as in the form of other documents about proscribed quid pro quo deals with the Honduran government.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, while standing out as one of the few officials (along with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger) to directly speak against the Iran deals to the president, also knew more than he admitted to Congress and the independent counsel – as did Weinberger. Some of the notes of his debriefings to State Department aides, handwritten by Charles Hill, are among the most explicit records available about the atmosphere of deceit – and self-deception – within the White House and the administration (Document 07)...


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