Men of Zeal

It’s a funny thing, but even if I think I keep on top of things by reading newspapers and watching TV news, I often find out that I don’t know or remember a thing.

Let’s talk about the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.  How much do I really remember?  Well, I could tell you that it involved selling weapons to Iran and devoting profits to helping the Contras in Nicaragua, and I could tell you the names of some of the participants.  But I couldn’t really tell you what happened.

Today, I can do a little better, because I have just read Men of Zeal, the history of the Congressional hearings written by two of the Senate committee members, then-Maine Senators William Cohen and George Mitchell. Although the structure of the book is a little weird (because on some things, the two authors were not totally in agreement or at least had a different perspective), it is informative.

Basically, the story was as follows:  First, there was a determination to sell weapons to Iran in order to work a deal with Iran to obtain the release of the American hostages being held in that country.  In order to do this, both private companies and the State of Israel were brought into to help facilitate the transfer of arms to this hostile nation, and of course all of this was covert, no one was supposed to know anything about it.

Then, with the question of supporting the Contras a matter of great contraversy in the country, and with a Congressional directive in place prohibiting government support, a second covert program was developed, to take some of the profits of the Iran arms sales, and to convince third party countries with some dependence on the US to provide additional funding, and to send this support to help fight against the government of Nicaragua.

In fact, these programs did not remain secret, and the Congressional inquiry’s goal was to figure out who knew what and when.  Clearly, some in the Reagan government fought against these programs, namely George Schultz and Caspar Weinberger, and they were simply avoided and ignored.  Then there were those who felt that the goals of the programs were more important than the niceties of the law, people like Oliver North.  Then there were questions of how much Ronald Reagan knew.  Perhaps, he knew everything, perhaps he kept himself from knowing much.  None of this will ever be known, in part because there was a major effort, led by North, to destroy government documents, including presumably presidential “findings”, which provided the support for the programs.  And, there was tremendous contradiction in testimony with regard to any number of specifics, and it was stated that some extraordinarily smart individuals, like John Poindexter who was reputed to have a photographic memory and remember all of the details of everything, just couldn’t remember what they said, what they heard, or with whom they met.  Finally, there was the death of William Casey, the CIA head, who was obviously heavily involved, but who was not available for questioning.

So, we have covert programs without Congressional notification, programs diverting funds to Nicaragua where Congress had specifically forbidden government funding, we had deal making (unsuccessful for the most part) with a terrorist government that we did not recognize, we had admitted lying before Congress, with had shredding of government documents during an ongoing investigation, we had private companies earning fortunes and some of the profits going to some of the government participants (such as putting a $13K security system into Oliver North’s house in Virginia).

There were some eventual prosecutions, and there were some pardons.  A sorry, sorry story.


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