Book Review: Iran-Contra

Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
by Malcolm Byrne
(c) 2014 by The University Press of Kansas

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Communism was on its way out as the #1 Global Threat and Radical Islam was quickly climbing up the charts….

On October 5, 1986, a Sandanista soldier fired off his SAM-7 at a Fairchild C-123K cargo plane that had just crossed into Nicaraguan airspace from Costa Rica. He got really lucky – the missile hit, and knocked down the plane. Three of the crew died in the crash – but Eugene Hasenfus survived. He confirmed to his captors what documents found in the crash revealed: the plane was on a covert mission on behalf of the CIA to supply the Contra rebels with arms – in direct contravention of US laws.

A few weeks later, a news magazine in Lebanon published a scoop. Representatives from the Reagan administration had been meeting with Iranian government officials in an effort to purchase the release of a couple of Americans who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. This was a big deal; the stated position of the American government was “We will never negotiate with terrorists”. And Iran, now that a theocratic Islamic government had kicked out our friend the Shah and then allowed a bunch of radicals to capture the staff of our embassy in Tehran, was considered the number one terrorist-backing government in the world.

This was all Very Bad News for the Reagan administration, especially when it was found that the profits from the arms sales to Iran were being used to pay for supplying the Contras without the knowledge – nevermind the permission – of Congress.

Malcolm Byrne, a Deputy Director and Research Director at the National Security Archive, uses that access to go into great detail into what went on, from the White House and National Security Council meetings to hotel rooms in Israel and shady characters pretending to have influence. Byrne is probably the best person to write this work; he notes he was a recent hire at the Archive when the scandal broke, and his boss saw right away how important it would be to keep as much of the documentation as possible

It’s all very dry reading, based on notes and diaries. There’s not much in the way of personal interviews or recollections. Which is a shame, since there are still some people around who were key figures in the scandal. Nonetheless, Byrne gives plenty of juicy details on things like Israel’s role in the negotiations with Iran (on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, they had contacts in the Iranian government – Iran was at war with Iraq, which was more of a threat to Israel). He makes it quite clear that even if he didn’t care about the details, President Reagan was fully aware of what was going on.

Once the scandal broke, the Congressional hearings were completely  bungled. The Office of the Independent Counsel’s investigation was hampered from the start (it was headed by someone with no experience in governmental investigations), and a deadline was put a on the hearings so as not to carry over into the presidential campaign. Congressmen were more interested in grandstanding to score political points instead of finding and punishing the guilty.

The whole kerfuffle gave people plenty of time to destroy documents. Slaps on the wrist penalties were overturned on appeal, and the people being investigated were able to stonewall and delay enough so that the deadline came and went without a clear resolution. The entire matter was closed when President George H.W. Bush (who was vice-president during the scandal) pardoned all the key figures at the end of his term.

The net result? The president’s staff was allowed to continue to execute on the president’s will without any Congressional oversight.

Byrne’s work might not be a particularly easy read, but it’s well worth checking out. As we are in the home stretch of a presidential election campaign, and are fussing and fretting over e-mails and donations to charitable foundations, it’s well worth recalling what a REAL governmental scandal looks like.

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