"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Iran-contra scandal marred Reagan legacy


Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - Praised in death, Ronald Reagan was widely criticized as president for his role in one of the most riveting scandals in recent U.S. history - the Iran-contra affair.

The path to the scandal began on Dec. 1, 1981, when Reagan signed a three-paragraph secret document authorizing the CIA to conduct covert operations against the Marxist-leaning Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Eventually, it led to U.S. weapons sales to Iran, with the profits illegally funneled to CIA-backed anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as contras - so notorious for their human-rights abuses that Congress cut off their U.S. financing.

Whether Reagan knew all of the details of the illegal actions over the contras, whose secret resupply network maintained a base of operations in Miami, will never be known.

The scandal's chief prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, concluded in 1994 that no evidence was available to criminally charge Reagan. But Walsh also said that his investigation revealed that Reagan had fostered a climate that encouraged subordinates to break the law and that impeachment "certainly should have been considered."

Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive and co-author of the book "The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History," said he's convinced that Reagan knew about the arms sales to Iran and the illegal funds for the contras.

"Iran-contra was a scandal of abject criminality and the deliberate violation of the Constitution," Kornbluh said. "Whatever spin has been put on it after the fact, the ample declassified record shows that misconduct extended to the highest levels of the executive branch. We have declassified memorandum conversations with the president where he is told point-blank that these initiatives are illegal."

Former contra leaders, however, believe Reagan was not directly involved.

"His followers were the ones who interpreted his wishes," said Bosco Matamoros, who represented the contras in Washington. "Reagan was more like Zeus on Mount Olympus, while the minor deities implemented his desires."

Chief among the minor deities was Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a staffer at the White House National Security Council fired in 1986 after he was alleged to have diverted to the contras up to $30 million in profits from the arms sales to Iran.

North did not answer Miami Herald requests last week for comment, but in a statement last week he praised Reagan - without mentioning Iran-contra - saying he "sought the advice of his closest confidants, pressed them for recommendations and made tough, principled decisions rather than choosing more expedient courses of action."

The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for its coverage of the scandal, which erupted on Nov. 25, 1986, when Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese, announced that his investigators had discovered the diversion.

But to the contras, Meese's announcement came as a shock. They had never seen the millions Meese mentioned.

"The contras did not get a cent from Iran," said Matamoros.

Adolfo Calero, one of the top contra leaders, told The Miami Herald on Thursday that the only money he could possibly tie to the alleged diversion were transfers totaling $200,000 to an offshore account used by the contras.

But Calero and Matamoros said it was never clear to them precisely where the $200,000 came from. Investigators said it came from a company called Lake Resources, which North partially controlled.

In his final report, Walsh said the diversion amounted to far less than $30 million, perhaps even less than $5 million.

Some investigators, however, have concluded that North probably used the Iran arms-sales profits to finance a secret weapons airlift from a U.S.-controlled air base in El Salvador to contra fighters in Nicaragua.

It was the shoot-down of one of the airlift planes in October 1986 that began unraveling the scandal. The sole survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured and provided details that helped investigators link the resupply network to North.

But it was a little-known weekly in Lebanon, just weeks after the plane shoot-down, that actually broke the scandal, reporting that North and his ex-boss, former national security advisor Robert McFarlane, had secretly traveled to Tehran in May 1986.

Congressional hearings followed and eventually North and 13 other persons, about half of them government officials, were charged. North and 10 others were convicted, but his and one other conviction were reversed on appeal. One case was dismissed, and six persons, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were pardoned.

The contras continued fighting and their struggle eventually set the stage for democracy in Nicaragua.

Facing a war that was draining Nicaragua's economy and undermining the Sandinistas' popularity, the Sandinistas agreed to free and fair elections in 1990, which they lost. They surrendered power, and their presidential candidate has lost both elections since then.

"We did not win militarily, but the contras helped bring about free elections in Nicaragua," said Calero, now semi-retired in Nicaragua.

"We helped bring about freedom of expression, and preempted the establishment of a new Cuba. For that we are eternally grateful to President Reagan," he added.


© 2004, The Miami Herald.

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Milton Frihetsson, 01:14


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