Iran / Contra Rehab
by David Corn
The Nation magazine, March 11, 2002
The Bush Administration is turning into one big rehab center
for the Iran/contra schemers of the Reagan/Bush White House. The
latest case involves retired Adm. John Poindexter, who's been
hired by the Pentagon to head a new agency, the Information Awareness
Office. Created after September I 1 by the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency, it is developing high-tech systems to provide
government officials immediate access to new surveillance and
information-analysis systems. Its focus, of course, includes terrorist
Poindexter certainly has extensive experience dealing with
terrorists. As Ronald Reagan's National Security Adviser, he was
a key mover in the Iran/contra scandal of the 1980s, when the
Reagan White House tried to pull off a secret arms-for-hostages
deal with the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran. Poindexter
also was one of the few Reagan officials who, according to the
available evidence, knew that proceeds from the arguably illicit
arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. He
later testified that he had deliberately withheld information
from Reagan on the diversion because "I wanted the President
to have some deniability so that he would be protected."
After the arms-for-hostages deal became public in late 1986,
Poindexter "repeatedly laid out a false version" in
order to distance Reagan from the most questionable weapons transactions,
according to Iran/contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Poindexter,
with his aide Oliver North, also attempted to shred and destroy
records regarding their Iran/contra activities.
Poindexter was tried and convicted of five felonies, including
obstructing official inquiries and Iying to Congress. He was sentenced
to six months in prison. But he walked. In a two-to-one decision
in 1991, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned
Poindexter's convictions on the ground that his trial had been
tainted by his immunized Congressional testimony. (North, convicted
of three counts, avoided jail for the same reason.) This was escape,
not vindication. Since leaving government service, Poindexter,
a physicist by training, has been active as a military technology
consultant. But the record remains: Poindexter admitted withholding
information from his boss, he destroyed government documents and
he misled official investigators. Does that sound like someone
to entrust with a new government agency?
No problemo for the Bushies. They have happily provided homes
to other Iran/contra reprobates. Elliott Abrams, who as Assistant
Secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan years supervised
contra policy, pleaded guilty to two charges of withholding information
from Congress. Today, the fellow who downplayed reports of military
massacres in Central America works for the National Security Council,
overseeing human rights and democracy issues. (Abrams was pardoned
by Bush I.)
Otto Reich ran a State Department office during the Iran/
contra affair that "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda,"
according to a government inquiry. Now he has Abrams's old job
at State. John Negroponte was US Ambassador to Honduras and facilitated
a clandestine quid pro quo deal, under which the Reagan Administration
sent aid to Honduras in return for Honduran assistance to the
contras, at a time when Congress had banned the Administration
from assisting the contras. Negroponte's embassy also suppressed
information about human rights abuses committed by the Honduran
military. Negroponte is currently our UN ambassador.
Perhaps the most significant Iran/contra rehabilitation concerns
the President's father: "41" was an Iran/contra ringleader
who lied about his role. After the scandal broke, Bush claimed
he had not been "in the loop." But according to documents
later released) he had attended high-level meetings on the Iran
initiative and had participated in the Administration's quid pro
quo with Honduras. It was only after Bush I was bounced out of
office that his personal diary notes-long sought by investigators-became
available. His entry for November 5, 1986 (two days after the
Iran initiative was revealed by a Lebanese weekly), reads, "I'm
one of the few people that know fully the details.... This is
one operation that has been held very, very tight, and I hope
it will not leak." That boastful note wins Bush the Elder
a top spot in the roster of Iran/contra prevaricators. Yet he
went on to become a rather important adviser to a high-ranking
member of the present Administration.
There has been one exception to the all-is-forgiven rule at
the Bush II White House. In October, Duane Clarridge, a CIA official
involved in the scandal who was indicted for Iying to Congress,
was set to become an assistant in the NSC's counterterrorism office.
But then the White House yanked the welcome mat. In speaking to
one reporter, a disappointed Clarridge cited Abrams, noting that,
unlike Abrams, he had not pleaded guilty. (Clarridge was pardoned
by Daddy Bush before his case could be tried.) Poor guy, he does
have a point. Why embrace Abrams-and Poindexter, Reich and Negroponte-but
not Clarridge? Was secretly mining Nicaragua's harbor, a Clarridge
initiative that earned a World Court ruling against the United
States, worse than shredding, or Iying to Congress, or covering
up human rights abuses?
So is there anyone left to be rehabilitated? Oliver North
has a good gig at Fox News, where he shares his expert opinions
on how to deal with terrorists. (Sell them missiles and bring
them a nice cake?) Richard Secord, the wheeling-dealing general-turned-arms-merchant
who managed North's secret contra supply operation, may well be
seeking business opportunities arising from the war on terrorism.
Perhaps retired Gen. John Singlaub could be assigned a mission.
Recently, at a conference of conservatives I bumped into Singlaub,
who ran the World Anti-Communist League in the 1 980s and plotted
with North to raise money covertly for the contras from foreign
countries. Are you active these days? I asked. "Yes,"
he said, adding no more. Same sort of stuff as always? "Yes,"
he replied and shifted his feet. Like what? I asked. He stalked
off. The man can still keep a secret-sign him up. By the way,
Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor as National Security
Adviser and a co-author of the Iran deal and the contra policy,
re-emerged in October as an adviser to an anti-Taliban Afghan
fighter who was ambushed and killed during a botched operation.
Maybe there's a spot available for him. When it comes to personnel,
Iran/contra is no stigma for the Bush clan. In most instances,
it seems to be a mark of honor.