rotten > Library > History > Political Scandal > Iran-Contra


aka Irangate

The Constitution contains a one-sentence definition of treason:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

If you're an American pondering whether to sell missiles to a foreign power with a proven history of sponsoring terrorism against the United States, you probably ought to think twice. It could reasonably be argued that this would be giving aid to an enemy of the U.S., and therefore expose you to a charge of treason. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it?

And yet this is precisely what President Ronald Reagan did. But did he get impeached? Nope. The American people decided that if the President was paving a road with his very best intentions, it didn't really matter where that road ultimately led. Who cares about a few broken laws? And in the wake of overwhelming public apathy, the whole affair was quietly set aside.

Illegal Arms for Terrorists

In spite of a weapons embargo, Reagan authorized illegal arms sales to the nation of Iran, a country he had himself declared to be a "terrorist state." It was certainly an apt description. In section 59 of Arlington National Cemetery, near the graves of 21 American soldiers killed in the line of duty, there is a cedar tree with this marker:



In October 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with 2.5 tons of TNT into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion killed 241 American servicemen. And the Iranians were behind it. They financed the operation. They coordinated it from their embassy in Syria. They trained the suicide bomber in Iran. They even manufactured the truck there. The Iranians were in it up to their eyeballs.

And we knew it. One month before the Beirut bombing, the NSA intercepted a phone call made by the Iranian ambassador to Syria. The ambassador described having given Hezbollah orders to kill American forces in Lebanon and also "undertake an extraordinary operation against the Marines" in Beirut. Somehow, this information got lost in the Pentagon until two days after the bombing.

President Reagan later described the events in his memoirs:

The evidence indicated that both suicide vehicles were driven by radical Shiite fundamentalists suicidally bent on the pursuit of martyrdom. They were members of the same group responsible for the barbarous bombing of our embassy in Beirut the previous April, a group whose religious leaders promised instant entry to Paradise for killing an enemy of Iran's theocracy. Nancy and I were in a state of grief, made almost speechless by the magnitude of the loss.

In July 1985, President Reagan denounced Iran as part of a "confederation of terrorist states" which had committed "outright acts of war" against the U.S. He declared Iran to be an enemy of the United States:

"Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua—continents away, tens of thousands of miles apart, but the same goals and objectives. I submit to you that the growth in terrorism in recent years results from the increasing involvement of these states in terrorism in every region of the world. This is terrorism that is part of a pattern, the work of a confederation of terrorist states. Most of the terrorists who are kidnapping and murdering American citizens and attacking American installations are being trained, financed, and directly or indirectly controlled by a core group of radical and totalitarian governments—a new, international version of Murder, Incorporated. And all of these states are united by one simple criminal phenomenon—their fanatical hatred of the United States, our people, our way of life, our international stature."

And yet only 39 days after making that speech, Reagan's men began furnishing some of these fanatical America haters with what would eventually amount to 107 tons of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. These shipments continued for more than a year. They even continued beyond August 1986, when President Reagan signed into law a federal ban on arms sales to terrorist nations, which included Iran.

That's how he committed treason. But if Ronald Reagan's a traitor, he also had a whole bunch of accomplices. Like his Vice President, George HW Bush. But thanks to some convenient Presidential pardons, everybody got away scot-free.

But why would they do this? What rationale did they have for selling missiles to a bunch of terrorists? Why would our highest elected leaders commit treason against their own country?

Illegal Payments to the Contras

In the Central American nation of Nicaragua, a war was raging. An army of guerrillas was engaged in a struggle to overthrow the Communist regime which had recently come to power. The Reagan administration supported the revolutionary force, known as the Contras, in their bid to overthrow the Sandinistas and restore a pro-American government to Nicaragua.

Unfortunately, the Congress felt differently. Much differently. So differently, in fact, that it passed a set of laws making it a crime to give aid to the Contras. In doing so, the U.S. government had forbidden itself from furnishing the Contras with money or supplies of any kind.

The White House was suddenly facing a crisis. They weren't allowed to send money. But even if they were, where would they get it? During a June 1984 meeting of the National Security Planning Group, the President and his closest advisors weighed their options:

KIRKPATRICK: If we can't get the money for the anti-Sandinistas, then we have to make the maximum effort to find the money elsewhere.
SCHULTZ: I would like to get the money for the Contras also, but ... Jim Baker said that if we go out and try to get the money from third countries, it is an impeachable offense.
CASEY: Jim Baker said that if we try to get money from third countries without notifying the oversight committees it could be a problem.
SCHULTZ: Baker's argument is that the U.S. government may raise and spend funds only through an appropriation of the Congress.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: We must obtain the funds to help these freedom fighters.
VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return, so that some people could interpret this as some kind of an exchange.
McFARLANE: I certainly hope none of this discussion will be made public in any way.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: If such a story gets out, we'll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House until we find out who did it.

It didn't take long for somebody to hit on the idea of soliciting donations from private individuals. They set up a front organization and issued newspaper ads urging Americans to contribute $16 a month to sponsor a Nicaraguan rebel. The poster boy—a Contra soldier with the highly dubious name "Charley"—appealed simultaneously to both our noblest ideals (as well as our own sense of self preservation) when he wrote:

There is no "country" called Nicaragua. Only a nation of people living under a totalitarian regime funded by Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Aren't you as Americans, committed to governments of the people, by the people, and for the people? Isn't that what you fought for just over 200 years ago?

In America you have so much. We have nothing. Our very future and the future of the democratic world is at stake.

Please help me and my fellow patriots. We haven't got long.

Vaya con Dios,

But despite the efforts of the White House PR machine, the Contras increasingly appeared to be a particularly ruthless and bloodthirsty bunch. Stories of atrocities against civilian noncombatants certainly didn't help. In the words of human rights group Americas Watch, "the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses ... so prevalent that these may be said to be their principle means of waging war." Another NGO compiled a year's worth of Contra atrocities, which included murder, rape, torture, maiming children, cutting off arms, cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, castration, bayoneting pregnant women in the stomach, and amputating genitals.

An eyewitness to a Contra raid in Jinotega province said:

"Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off and their eyes poked out. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit."

And then there were the CIA manuals. The Central Intelligence Agency printed and distributed two booklets to the Contras. One was a 16-page comic book depicting techniques for sabotaging the Sandinista government from within, mostly through vandalism and demolition. It was essentially a course in monkeywrenching.

The other tract was a pamphlet entitled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. It was basically a how-to manual for mounting a covert insurgency. One particularly chilling passage described the assassination of government officials:

Selective Use of Violence for Propagandistic Effects

It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, mesta judges, police and State Security officials, CDS chiefs, etc. For psychological purposes it is necessary to gather together the population affected, so that they will be present, take part in the act, and formulate accusations against the oppressor.

When asked in November 1984 to clarify this passage from the manual, President Reagan claimed that the problem was just a misunderstanding which stemmed from a simple mistranslation:

PRESIDENT REAGAN: [T]here was nothing in that manual that had anything to do with assassinations or anything of that kind.
REPORTER: Didn't the manual say "neutralize?" And can't that be construed as meaning "assassination?"
PRESIDENT REAGAN: I suppose you could construe it any number of—several ways. But in the context in which it was recommended—actually, that was not the choice, the original choice of the word. The real word was remove, meaning: "remove from office." If you came into a village or town, remove from office representatives of the Sandinista government. When they translated it into the Spanish, they translated it "neutralize" instead of "remove." But the meaning still remains the same.
REPORTER: Well, how would you go about doing that without violence and force?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: No. You just say to the fellow that's sitting there in the office: "You're not in the office anymore.''

Then the press corps broke into laughter. Literally. Which might be the reason nobody asked Reagan why this astonishingly polite technique would be listed under the heading "Selective Use of Violence for Propagandistic Effects." They just let it go. Why spoil the mood?

Despite the obvious moral ambiguities, some private funding did materialize. One prominent source was Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, who coughed up millions for the anti-Communist rebels.

The Reagan administration continued to lobby Congress for Contra support. But in light of all the unseemly revelations, lawmakers refused to budge. A solution was found the following year. The White House would secretly sell surface-to-air missiles to the "terrorist state" of Iran at a hefty profit. The country which had killed more than 200 U.S. Marines in Beirut ponied up $12,237,000 for a cache of American-made weapons whose wholesale price was only $6,965,752. The resulting profit of $5,271,248 was kept totally under the table. Congress didn't know about it. Nobody did.

Most of the proceeds were funneled to the Nicaraguan Contras, in violation of the Boland Amendment. Hence, it was illegal. Simple as that.

The remainder was kept as startup capital for an off-the-books covert action agency referred to internally as "The Enterprise." It controlled a multimillion dollar slush fund available for any sort of operation that absolutely no one was supposed to know about. Disbursements from these accounts were not subject to any form of scrutiny or oversight by Congress. In addition to its Swiss bank accounts and shell corporations, The Enterprise possessed five airplanes, two landing strips, twenty contract pilots, and a boat. This enabled them to violate the Boland amendment with total impunity.

Creating a Market for American Hostages

There was an added wrinkle to this scheme. One side benefit of the Iranian arms sales was supposed to be the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon. A handful of hostages were in fact released. But the ongoing arms deals created a market for U.S. hostages, and the net total of Americans held in captivity actually increased as a result of this policy initiative.

Oliver North championed the following deal in his December 4, 1985 email:

the following proposal has evolved which the Iranians today said they wd like to discuss in detail on Saturday:—The total "package" from the Israelis wd consist of 50 HAWKs w/PIP (product improvement package) and 3300 basic TOWs.—Deliveries wd commence on or about 12 December as follows:

H hr: 1 707 w/300 TOWs = 1 AMCIT
H+10hrs: 1 707 (same A/C) w/300 TOWs = 1 AMCIT
H+16hrs: 1 747 w/50 HAWKs & 400 TOWs = 2 AMCITs
H+20hrs: 1 707 w/300 TOWs = 1 AMCIT
H+24hrs: 1 747 w/2000 TOWs = French Hostage

AMCIT stands for "American citizen." Therefore, the average American citizen was evidently valued at 260 TOW anti-tank missiles and 10 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles. Meanwhile, a French hostage was worth 2,000 TOWs. (Go figure.) According to their product pages on Raytheon's website:

  • The "Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided" (TOW) missile can destroy ground targets (tanks, trucks, schoolbuses) up to 3.75 km away. It's fairly portable, and can be carried by 3 or 4 men. Raytheon also trumpets the TOW's lethality ("high probability that a hit is a target kill"). And their shelf life is at least 15 years without maintenance.

  • The HAWK is an "all-weather, surface-to-air, medium-range/medium-altitude" missile. With a warhead consisting of 300 pounds of high explosives, the HAWK can bring down warplanes, helicopters, and commercial jetliners at a range of 24 km and a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet (9.1 km).

Ultimately, we managed to bargain down the Iranians. Altogether, we sold them 2,008 TOWs plus a bunch of HAWK missiles. In total, they weighed more than 107 tons. That's a lot of weaponry.

The Cover-Up

When they finally got caught, the Reagan administration did everything they could to cover it up. They lied their asses off. Oliver North held a "shredder party," and failed in his attempts to wipe all the incriminating email from the White House mailserver.

And still the American people elected George HW Bush as their next President. What's a guy gotta do?

As Reagan's Vice President, Bush got a bunch of shit jobs. One of his duties was heading up the Presidential Task Force on Terrorism. At the same time, he attended at least five high-level meetings where the sale of arms to Iran was discussed. Even so, Bush stood up in front of news cameras and somehow managed to announce with a straight face:

"Today I am proud to deliver to the American people the result of the six months effort to review our policies and our capabilities to deal with terrorism. Our policy is clear, concise, unequivocal. We will offer no concession to terrorists, because that only leads to more terrorism. States that practice terrorism, or actively support it, will not be allowed to do so without consequence."

Then the media began reporting that Bush had attended at least five of these meetings where illegal Contra payments were discussed. The Vice President did his best to help clarify things for reporters:

"I saw some references in one of these stories to the nine, nine o'clock meetings. Let me tell you how it works. Somebody comes in there, like there's Don Regan, me, and the President. 'Anybody hear anything new on the hostages today? We got and heard of that? Has it moved forward at all? No, but we'll ask Poindexter.' Poindexter would come in the room, 'No, we haven't had a report.' That's the end of that meeting. Then you go ahead and talk about the budget, or talk about something else."

Bush steadfastly maintained that he had never been "in the loop." Notice, however, that when the journalist asked about funding the Contras (illegal under the Boland Amendment), Bush only claimed not to know about the specific terms of the Iranian deal (weapons for hostages):

REPORTER: Did you know about the Contra aid or not?
VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: I sensed that there were—that we were sending arms. And I sensed we were trying to get hostages out. But not arms for hostages.
REPORTER: Did you not begin to smell a rat here?
VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Not really, no. I could see that it was—got a little close, but not, not, enough to say—no, this is not arms, that this is purely arms for hostages.

As Senator Bob Dole put it, "The record is that he was either absent or silent. I don't know what that does for him."

Arms for Hostages timeline

23 Oct 1983 In an attack organized and coordinated by the Iranian government, 241 U.S. Marines are killed when a suicide bomber drives his truck into their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
3 Mar 1984 American citizen and CIA agent William Buckley is taken hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah. He dies in captivity 15 months later, due to medical neglect.
14 Jun 1985 Terrorists hijack TWA Flight 847 from Athens and divert the jetliner to Beirut. Of the 153 passengers aboard, 135 are U.S. citizens. One of the Americans, Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, is killed and his body thrown off the plane at Beirut airport. After a round trip to Algiers and back to Beirut, all but 39 passengers are released; those are taken into captivity but released 17 days later in Damascus.
18 Jun 1985 President Ronald Reagan declares during a televised press conference: "Let me further make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists—to do so would only invite more terrorism—nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so. Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay."
18 Jul 1985 President Ronald Reagan greenlights McFarlane's plan to make overtures to the Iranian government through arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, personal friend of Iran's Prime Minister, Hussein Mousavi.
25 Jul 1985 The Israelis hammer out a working arrangement through Ghorbanifar. Iran will buy their missiles from Israel, and America will replenish Israeli stockpiles.
20 Aug 1985 Israel ships 96 anti-tank missiles to Iran. No hostages are released.
30 Aug 1985 Israel ships 508 anti-tank missiles to Iran.
17 Nov 1985 Colonel Oliver North is put in charge of the shipment of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
7 Dec 1985 Shultz, Weinberger, and Donald Regan advise Reagan to stop Iran arms sales.
Jan 1986 According to Caspar Weinberger's notes of a National Security Council meeting, "President decided to go with Israeli-Iranian offer to release our 5 hostages in return for sale of 4,000 TOWs [U.S. missiles] to Iran by Israel. George Shultz + I opposed—Bill Casey, Ed Meese + VP favored—as did Poindexter."
16 Feb 1986 The U.S. ships 1000 anti-tank missiles to Iran.
26 Jul 1986 Father Jenco, one of the hostages held by Muslim extremists, is released in Damascus.
27 Aug 1986 President Ronald Reagan signs into law a federal ban on arms sales to terrorist nations, including Iran.
Sep 1986 Former National Security Advisor William McFarlane takes 23 tons of weapons to Iran.
9 Sep 1986 Frank Reed is kidnapped in Beirut.
21 Oct 1986 American Edward Tracy is taken hostage in Lebanon.
30 Oct 1986 500 anti-tank missiles shipped to Iran.
2 Nov 1986 American hostage David Jacobsen is released in Beirut.
3 Nov 1986 Lebanese magazine "Al Shiraa" reports that the U.S. has sold arms to Iran. The Iranian government confirms the story.
13 Nov 1986 In a nationally televised speech to defend against charges concerning arms sales to Iran, Reagan admits sending some defensive weapons and spare parts to Iran, but denies it was part of an arms for hostages deal. "Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands.... We did not—repeat, did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we." Polls show that the American people do not believe Reagan.
21 Nov 1986 Attorney General Meese is asked to conduct an inquiry of the Iran affair to get facts straight.
1 Dec 1986 Reagan appoints the Tower Commission to review Iran Contra.
2 Dec 1986 In a "New York Times" poll, Reagan's approval drops from 67% to 46% in one month. Frank Carlucci replaces Poindexter as National Security Advisor.
11 Dec 1986 Republican Congressman Bob Dornan: "When someone says, 'But he was giving arms to people he knew had killed our Marines,' it's hard to respond to that."
18 Dec 1986 December 18: C.I.A. Director William Casey undergoes surgery for a malignant brain tumor.
19 Dec 1986 Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh is appointed to investigate Iran-Contra.
2 Feb 1987 Reagan testifies to the Tower Board for a second time. His testimony is inconsistent and confused. The Board pointed out Reagan hadn't known about August shipment of anti-tank missiles, but Reagan had said he DID know. When asked for an explanation, Reagan picked up a briefing memo he had been provided and read aloud: "If the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised."
20 Feb 1987 A Reagan memo to the Tower Board reads: "I don't remember, period." "I'm trying to recall events that happened eighteen months ago, I'm afraid that I let myself be influenced by others' recollections, not my own.... The only honest answer is to state that try as I might, I cannot recall anything whatsoever about whether I approved an Israeli sale in advance or whether I approved replenishment of Israeli stocks around August of 1985. My answer therefore and the simple truth is, 'I don't remember, period.'"
26 Feb 1987 The Tower Commission report is delivered to Reagan. The report could not link Reagan to diversion of funds from Iran to the Contras. But it concluded that Reagan, confused and unaware, allowed himself to be misled by dishonest staff members who organized the trade of arms to Iran for hostages held in Lebanon and pursued a secret war against the Nicaraguan government. The report charges that Reagan had failed to "insist upon accountability & performance review, " allowing the National Security Council process to collapse. Reagan's approval rating is down to 42%.
4 Mar 1987 On national television, Reagan acknowledges mistakes on Iran-Contra. "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower Board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake." Reagan's approval rating rebounds to 51%.
3 Aug 1987 August 3: Congress completes its public hearings on Iran-Contra. "We may never know with precision or truth why it ever happened." Meanwhile, Reagan's close aides Lyn Nofziger and Michael Deaver are convicted of influence peddling. Meese is investigated and cleared. Nofziger's conviction is overturned on appeal.
24 Dec 1992 President George HW Bush pardons six Iran-Contra principals: Weinberger, Abrams, Clarridge, Fiers, George and McFarlane.

Contras timeline

18 Feb 1982 President Ronald Reagan makes a minor slip when asked whether he had approved covert action to destabilize the Sandinistas: "Well, no, we're supporting them. Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. I'm sorry. I was thinking El Salvador, because of the previous—when you said that. Nicaragua. Here again, this is something upon which the national security interest—I will not comment."
9 May 1984 President Ronald Reagan explains who is fighting to overthrow the current Nicaraguan regime: "Thousands who fought with the Sandinistas have taken up arms against them and are now called the Contras. They are freedom fighters."
Jul 1984 Saudis secretly begin making monthly payments of $1 million to fund the Contras. The funds are deposited in a Cayman Islands bank account controlled by Contra leader Adolfo Calero.
10 Oct 1984 Congress passes the 2nd Boland Amendment, outlawing our solicitation of other countries to support the Contras. It is now also illegal for the CIA, Defense Department, or any intelligence agency to make efforts "supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization or individual."
17 Oct 1984 The New York Times runs an article entitled "CIA Primer Tells Nicaraguan Rebels How to Kill." The story describes the secret manual Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare which the CIA furnished to the Contras in Nicaragua. The booklet instructed how to kidnap and assassinate civil officials, such as judges and police.
8 Mar 1985 President Ronald Reagan attempts to drum up public support for the Contras: "They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. I've spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth about them. You know who they're fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance."
6 Jun 1985 The Senate authorizes $38 million in nonmilitary aid to the Contras.
25 Feb 1986 Reagan asks Congress for $100 million in aid for Contras. The House rejects appeal; the Senate approves his request. Bill returns to the House.
29 May 1986 Colonel Oliver North tells McFarlane that profits of weapons sales to Iran are being diverted to the Contras.
25 Jun 1986 The House finally passes the Contra aid package by 12 votes. Reagan calls it "a step forward in bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy."
22 Nov 1986 Meese's office discovers the Iran-Contra connection. When searching North's office, they found a memo dated 4/4/86 from North to Poindexter, which included an amount that to be sent to the Contras from the profits of the Iran sales. North, who had spent the night shredding papers, later called the diversion of funds, "a neat idea."
24 Nov 1986 Meese tells Reagan that some proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran went to the Contras. Reagan is visibly shaken and according to Meese, surprised. He is aware that the diversion of funds could mean impeachment for violation of the Boland Amendment.
25 Nov 1986 National Security Advisor John Poindexter resigns and Oliver North is fired. In press conference, Meese announces Iran-Contra: $10m to $30m of profits from sale of U.S. arms to Iran had been diverted to Swiss bank accounts for use by Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
26 Feb 1987 The Tower Commission report is delivered to Reagan. The report could not link Reagan to diversion of funds from Iran to the Contras. But it concluded that Reagan, confused and unaware, allowed himself to be misled by dishonest staff members who organized the trade of arms to Iran for hostages held in Lebanon and pursued a secret war against the Nicaraguan government. The report charges that Reagan had failed to "insist upon accountability & performance review," allowing the National Security Council process to collapse. Reagan's approval rating is down to 42%.
16 Mar 1987 Oliver North, John Poindexter, and two others are indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by secretly providing funds and supplies to the Contra rebels fighting the government of Nicaragua.
25 Oct 1992 During a speech at Texas Southern University, Jesse Jackson declares: "Bush knew in detail about Irangate and Iraqgate. He says he was not in the loop. Well, he's right. He was not in the loop, he's in the soup—and we're going to turn up the heat."
24 Dec 1992 President George HW Bush pardons six Iran-Contra principals: Weinberger, Abrams, Clarridge, Fiers, George and McFarlane.


19 Jan 1994 Rush Limbaugh tells his television audience: "This (Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence) Walsh story basically is: we just spent seven years and $40 million looking for any criminal activity on the part of anybody in the Reagan administration, and guess what? We couldn't find any. These guys didn't do anything, but we wish they had so that we could nail them. So instead, we're just going to say, 'Gosh, these are rotten guys.' They have absolutely no evidence. There is not one indictment. There is not one charge."

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