Congress’ Iran-Contra Report Criticizes Reagan Administration
The Reagan Administration was dealing with several complicated foreign policy situations in the mid-1980s, among them: the holding of six U.S. hostages by the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah; tense relations with Iran; and support for the Contra rebels who were trying to overthrow the Sandinistas socialist government in Nicaragua. There were several foreign policies and laws limiting the Administration from achieving its aims, including: a long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages; another policy of not trading arms for hostages; a law implementing an arms embargo against Iran; and another law (the Boland Amendment) prohibiting funding of the Contras, who had been accused of brutal human rights abuses by several independent and international organizations.
Faced with this situation, officials in the Reagan Administration decided to ignore the policies and laws and initiated a surprising, suspect, and probably illegal (although this point remains controversial) operation: they sold arms to Iran to free the hostages in Lebanon and diverted proceeds from these weapons sales to fund the Contras. These activities, which began Aug. 20, 1985, and carried on until March 4, 1987, became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. After an 11-month investigation, Congress issued its 690-page report on Nov. 18, 1987, concluding that President Reagan bore “the ultimate responsibility” for the Iran-Contra affair. The report stated: “Fundamental processes of governance were disregarded, and the rule of law was subverted…If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”
Although the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-Contra Affair were bipartisan, the end result was not. All six Republican representatives on the House panel and two of the five Republican senators on the Senate panel refused to sign the report, instead issuing their own minority report admitting there were misjudgments on the part of the Reagan Administration, but no illegal activity. (The leading Republican senator on the Senate panel, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, called his fellow Republicans’ minority report “pathetic” at a news conference the day the congressional report was released.)
Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh attempted prosecutions for the Iran-Contra Affair, and 14 members of the Reagan Administration were indicted, including such high-ranking officials as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Walsh succeeded in obtaining 11 convictions, but many were thrown out on appeal—and on the final day of his presidency, George H.W. Bush (who had been vice-president during the Iran-Contra Affair) pardoned those whose convictions had been upheld.
The following two newspaper articles cover the Iran-Contra Affair. The first article focuses on the majority opinion in the congressional report that placed blame on President Reagan; the second article focuses more on the dissenting Republicans’ view in the minority report.
This copyrighted article about the release of the final congressional report on the Iran-Contra Affair was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on the front page of its Nov. 19, 1987, issue:
The Iran-Contra Report
Here is a summary of the report of the House-Senate committees on the Iran-Contra affair and related developments:
• President Reagan is ultimately responsible.
• Reagan let a “cabal of the zealots” control policy and bypass laws.
• There is no evidence that Reagan knowingly tried to cover up the scandal, but things he did helped the deception.
• Some U.S. arms meant for Iranian “moderates” went to Revolutionary Guards instead.
• U.S. officials knew that one Iranian “moderate” arranged the kidnapping of CIA agent William Buckley.
• Lt. Col. Oliver L. North planned the diversion of funds for the Contras as early as 1985.
• A requirement that Congress be notified of approval of a covert operation within 48 hours.
• A requirement that all presidential decisions to initiate a covert operation be in writing and personally signed by the president in advance.
• A requirement that all covert operations be dismantled after one year unless the president certifies to Congress that continuing them is in the national interest.
• Eight of 11 Republican members refused to sign the report, calling it partisan. They deny that the Reagan administration subverted the law, Constitution or democracy, and their minority report dismisses the Iran-Contra affair as mere mistakes in judgment.
White House Reaction
• Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the report contained “nothing new” and that its conclusions were subjective and “predictably partisan.”
Committees Condemn Dishonesty
Although Little New Evidence Is Bared, the 690-Page Volume Pulls Together the Details into a Comprehensive Report
By David E. Rosenbaum, New York Times News Service
Washington—The Congressional committees on the Iran-Contra affair blamed President Reagan in their final report Wednesday for failing to live up to his constitutional mandate to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and said he bore “the ultimate responsibility” for wrongdoing by his aides.
“Fundamental processes of governance were disregarded, and the rule of law was subverted,” the majority report of the committees asserted. “If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”
The White House reacted with a statement by Reagan’s spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, saying the president understood mistakes had been made, accepted responsibility and believed the time had come to move on to other, more pressing issues.
The congressional report provided the most accurate accounting to date on how nearly $48 million raised from the arms sales to Iran had been distributed and added some new details about other matters.
Although it included little important evidence that was not covered during the three months of public hearings last spring and summer, it marshaled the details of the complicated affair into an authoritative narrative that sought to underpin its severe judgments on the Reagan administration.
The 11-month investigation, the most thorough and highly publicized congressional inquiry since the Watergate scandal, grew out of the disclosures a year ago this month that the Reagan administration had secretly sold arms to Iran and had run a clandestine operation to support the rebel forces in Nicaragua.
The focus now shifts to the special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, who is expected to seek indictments soon, perhaps in January.
“The Iran-Contra affair was characterized by pervasive dishonesty and inordinate secrecy,” the report said in a sweeping criticism of officials involved in the clandestine deals to ship arms to Iran and use the proceeds to finance the Nicaraguan rebels.
The report, which was accompanied by a dissenting minority report divulged earlier in the week, was signed by all the Democrats on the Senate and House panels and three of the five Republican senators.
In addition to sharp criticism of the president, the report asserted that a “cabal of zealots” in the administration had managed to take control of foreign policy in key areas. Among the targets of the criticism were Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the former National Security Council aide; Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, the president’s former national security adviser; William J. Casey, the former director of central intelligence; and Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
The panels found that the desire of high officials to raise money for the Nicaraguan rebels had been “an integral part” and not merely a byproduct of the policy of selling arms to Iran.
The congressional investigators found no evidence of complicity by Vice President George Bush. “The vice president attended several meetings on the Iran initiative, but none of the participants could recall his views,” the report stated.
The committees made these specific criticisms of Reagan:
• He did not “communicate unambiguously to his subordinates” that they should keep him advised of their activities.
• He himself approved the policy of selling arms to Iran and instructed his staff to maintain the Nicaraguan rebels “body and soul” during the period in which Congress had banned official U.S. military assistance.
• He has not to this day condemned the members of his National Security Council staff who lied to Congress and shredded evidence.
• He made a number of false public statements about the affair, including his assurance that a supply aircraft shot down in Nicaragua had no connection with the U.S. government and his early declaration that reports of U.S. arms sales to Iran had “no foundation.”
Whether or not the president knew of the diversion of funds to the Contras, he cannot be absolved of responsibility, the report declared.
“The president created or at least tolerated an environment where those who did know of the diversion believed with certainty that they were carrying out the president’s policies,” it said.
The conclusions about the president stand in marked contrast with those in the report issued last February by the special presidential review board headed by former Sen. John G. Tower. The Tower board faulted the president’s management style but otherwise found him not directly responsible for misdeeds by his administration.
The Tower board accepted Reagan’s assurance that he had not known that proceeds from the arms sales to Iran were used to help the rebels in Nicaragua.
The congressional report acknowledged that no evidence had been found to contradict the president but, in the next paragraph, added: “In light of the destruction of material evidence by Poindexter and North and the death of Casey, all of the facts may never be known.”
The committees declared that the Iran-Contra affair had “resulted from the failure of individuals to observe the law, not from deficiencies in existing law or in our system of government.”
Therefore, the report stated, “the principal recommendations emerging from the investigation are not for new laws but for a renewal of the commitment to constitutional government and sound processes of decision making.”
The committees did, however, include a series of modest recommendations for procedures to ensure that the president and Congress were accountable for covert operations.
The main report, which ran 427 pages, consisted of a 22-page summary, a long narrative describing the evidence, based on a review of 300,000 documents and interviews with more than 500 witnesses.
A second section contained the minority report signed by all the Republicans on the House panel and two of the five Republican senators, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and James A. McClure of Idaho. This report challenged much of the criticism of Reagan.
In his statement at the White House, Fitzwater said the president had cooperated with the investigation and had changed procedures at the National Security Council to “prevent these kinds of instances from happening again.”
Fitzwater maintained that the congressional report reflected “subjective opinions,” but he commended the panels for their “long, arduous work.” He emphasized that the report had not found the president in violation of the law.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Senate panel, called the minority report “pathetic.”
The criticism of Reagan came under a heading in the majority report’s summary, “Who Was Responsible.” The section concluded, “What may aptly be called the ‘cabal of the zealots’ was in charge.”
The section noted that North, an assistant on the National Security Council staff who was dismissed last November when his activities became publicly known, had “coordinated all of the activities and was involved in all aspects of the secret operations.”
The report found that Poindexter, who was allowed to resign as Reagan’s national security adviser when North was discharged, and Robert C. McFarlane, Poindexter’s predecessor, had approved all of North’s actions.
The report accepted fully North’s uncorroborated testimony that Casey, the former director of central intelligence, had been a mastermind of the “extra-legal covert organization.”
For a look at the other side’s perspective, this copyrighted article covered the dissenting Republicans’ minority report on the Iran-Contra Affair. It was published by the Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama) on the front page of its Nov. 18, 1987, issue:
Iran-Contra Study Tough on Reagan
By Jim Drinkard, Associated Press Writer
Washington (AP)—The congressional Iran-Contra report paints a picture of a Reagan administration at odds with the law and the Constitution, but minority Republicans dismissed it Tuesday as a partisan indictment of the president that ignores foreign policy questions raised by the affair.
The report says President Reagan flirted with constitutional crisis by creating a White House atmosphere that encouraged evasion of legal requirements and flouting of proper procedures for reaching foreign policy goals.
It also says the administration violated the Constitution by going to third countries to solicit donations for Nicaragua’s Contra rebels at a time when Congress barred even indirect military aid to them.
And it is sharply critical of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, questioning why he delayed launching a criminal investigation of the affair when it became public a year ago.
The voluminous document, reviewing in detail the story of how administration officials sold arms to Iran in hopes of freeing Americans held hostage in Lebanon, then diverted some $4 million of the profits to the Contras, is due to be released Wednesday.
But glimpses of its findings were gleaned Tuesday from a report of minority Republicans on the House and Senate investigating panels and from committee sources.
“Clearly, what went on here was not what the founding fathers envisioned,” said a source familiar with the report, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. “It paints a picture of a government out of control.”
In its broadest criticism of the president, the Democratic-directed report concludes that Reagan failed in his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
In the introduction to their own dissenting version of the report, the GOP dissenters contended that it also attempts, “almost as an overarching thesis, to portray the administration as if it were behaving with wanton disregard for the law.”
But the minority dissent found that conclusion, as well as many others in the document, based on selective use of testimony and dubious interpretation of the law.
The document was signed by all six Republicans on the House committee—Reps. Dick Cheney of Wyoming, William Broomfield of Michigan, Henry Hyde of Illinois, Jim Courter of New Jersey, Bill McCollum of Florida and Michael DeWine of Ohio—and two Senate Republicans, Orrin Hatch of Utah and James McClure of Idaho.
The GOP members did find numerous mistakes, most of them errors of political judgment, including an 11-month delay in notifying Congress of the Iran arms initiative.
However, they wrote, “We emphatically reject the idea that through these mistakes, the executive branch subverted the law, undermined the Constitution or threatened democracy.”
“On some issues—particularly the ones involving the statutes involving covert operations—we believe the law to be clearly on the administration’s side,” they added.
Even where the administration did run into legal gray areas, the Republicans asserted, the problems do not affect the fundamental policy decisions that the administration pursued in the Middle East and in Central America.
The minority contended that the report seeks to treat policy debates as though they were legal or criminal concerns, and tries to give to Congress a greater role in policymaking than it should properly assume.
On the key point of Reagan’s knowledge of the diversion of money to the Contras, the final report raises doubts and says that if the president did not know about it, he should have.
In its dissent, the GOP minority agreed but faulted former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, who testified that he made the decision to divert the money without ever telling Reagan. Poindexter actually undercut Reagan’s authority by keeping the truth from him, it said.
The minority said it understands the enthusiasm of National Security Council aide Oliver North in pursuing the diversion, but added: “Enthusiasm is not a sufficient basis for important policy decisions.”
And it faulted Poindexter and North for their “apparent belief that covering up was in the president’s best political interest.”
The minority report contended that the final product of the committee majority more represents a continuation of years of mutual mistrust and policy warfare with the administration over Central American policy than a sincere attempt to find out what went wrong and heal rifts.
Reagan should have publicly confronted congressional efforts to restrict aid to the Contras by vetoing a bill that carried the restriction in 1984, the Republicans contended.