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Like an untreated infection within the political system, the Iran Contra affair continues to grow... View other pieces in "The New Yorker"
By Mark Danner June 17, 1991
Tags: Iran-Contra Print

Like an untreated infection within the political system, the Iran-Contra affair continues to grow, spreading corruption not only into the future but, oddly, back into the past as well. The inconclusive results of the congressional hearings on the affair loom over the reaction, or lack of one, to recent allegations about a so-called October Surprise before the 1980 Presidential election. This charge-that members of Ronald Reagan's campaign staff, in order to assure President Carter's defeat, promised arms shipments to certain Iranian officials if Iran would wait until after the election to release the American hostages being held in Teheran-has lingered ever since Reagan's, Inauguration. In midApril of this year, however, Gary Sickan adjunct professor of Middle Eastern politics at Columbia University, who had had responsibility for Iran as a member of the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter, and, briefly, Reagan-published a long Op-Ed article in the Times laying out a carefully argued case that such a deal was actually made.

Mr. Sick explains that in the course of researching a book about the Reagan Administration's policy toward Iran he conducted hundreds of interviews, and that his sources included government officials from several countries in Europe and the Middle East and also "low-level intelligence operatives and arms dealers who are no boy scouts." In the end, however, it was not the credentials of his sources but their knowledge of "certain events" that Sick himself knew about only by virtue of his service on the N.S.C. staff, and "the absence of contradictions on the key elements of the story," that pushed him to continue his investigation --until, he says, "the weight of testimony" overcame his initial doubts. The heart of Sick's story concerns .a series of meetings that William Casey, then Reagan's campaign manager and soon to be his C.I.A. director, is alleged to have had with Iranian officials in Madrid and Paris during the summer and fall of 1980. It was at these meetings-Sick says that he has "more than 15 sources who claim direct or indirect knowledge" of them-that an agreement was supposedly reached: the Iranians would not release the hostages before the election, and, in return, the Reagan men would persuade Israel to ship arms and spare parts to Iran. In late October, Israel did in fact send a shipment of American aircraft tires to Iran, in direct violation of the Carter Administration's policy. just after the shipment, Sick writes, "a series of delaying tactics ... by the Iranian Parliament stymied all attempts by the Carter Administration to act on the hostage question ... before Election Day." After Carter's defeat, and shortly before Reagan's Inauguration, the Iranians suddenly offered a series of "startling concessions," which resulted in the hostages' being released minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President. Soon after that, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons began flowing from Israel to Iran, in shipments that the Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens asserted in 1982 were coordinated with the Reagan Administration "at almost the highest of levels."

The implication of this story, if it's true, are vast. A small group of Americans with no position in the government, and no electoral mandate, essentially seized control of the foreign policy of the United States; and, for all practical purposes, the future leadership of the country, not to mention the fate of the fifty-two Americans being held hostage, was being negotiated in secret meetings with a handful of shady characters in a hotel room in Paris. But what is even more striking about Mr. Sick's accusation is the lack of reaction it has elicited.

The White House, after saying little for two weeks, put forward its spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, to belittle Mr. Sick as "the Kitty Kelley of foreign policy" and to assert, falsely, that "at the time, that was all looked into." Then, nearly a month after Mr. Sick's article appeared, President Bush, in response to a general question about the October Surprise, offered this strange statement: "I can only say categorically that the allegations about me are grossly untrue-factually incorrect -- bald- faced lies.... I'm talking about myself. And I can categorically deny any contact with the Iranians or anything having to do with it.... It's been looked at exaustively. But all I'm talking about-all I can speak foris my own participation or lack thereof." Since Mr. Bush's presence or absence in Paris is by no means central to the affair-and Mr. Sick is careful to say that he hasn't made up his mind about an allegation that Mr. Bush was there-the President's meticulously circumscribed denial, instead of forestalling further inquiry, seems almost to compel it.

And yet Congress has shown itself curiously unwilling to investigate. Not until mid-May did Capitol Hill sources confirm that leaders in the House had decided to launch a "low-key investigation" into the matter. The low calibre of this "preliminary" inquiry-it is being conducted by committee staff people, who have no power to subpoena witnesses or documents -- suggests that Congress is more interested in burying the story than in uncovering it. Republicans have no interest in investigating, because it might damage President Bush; Democrats have no interest, because it might not-or, worse, might make them seem politically opportunistic.

Former President Carter, for his part, has said that the evidence of wrongdoing "is so large ... I think there ought to be a more thorough investigation of the allegations." Mr. Carter would be practically alone were it not for the former diplomat Moorhead Kennedy, a Republican, who was one of the hostages. He points out that Sick's story, if it is true -- "And I believe it to be true," he says-means not only that his own captivity, as well as that of his fellows, was prolonged for many months but that William Casey and other future Reagan-Bush officials were co-conspirators in federal crimes, including treason, and, of course, in trading arms for hostages.

As Mr. Sick notes, the story of the October Surprise carries with it the suggestion that "the arms -- for- hostage deal that in the twilight of the Reagan Presidency became known as the Irancontra affair, instead of being an aberration, was in fact the re-emergence of a policy that began even before the Reagan-Bush Administration took office." Such crimes would represent the corrupting not only of United States foreign policy but of the American electoral process-by what Mr. Sick calls "a willingness to pursue private, high-risk foreign policy adventures out of sight of the electorate."

We live, Americans like to say, in a nation of laws. But great political crimes sometimes threaten to burst the bounds of law. The Watergate scandal was prosecuted in the first instance by Congress-in public hearings that led not only to a cleansing of the political system but also to the passage of a number of historic statutes intended to prevent future abuses of power. Congress's investigation of Iran-Contra, however, has produced little punishment, political or otherwise, and no reform. Oliver North may yet escape even his meagre sentence: twelve hundred hours of community service, probation, and a fine. And now Robert Gates, who, as deputy director of the C.I.A. during Iran-Contra, helped prepare the highly misleading congressional testimony of its then director, William Casey, and who, in the face of questions about his role in the scandal, was forced to withdraw his nomination to succeed Casey, has again been nominated for the post by George Bush, and his confirmation is widely expected.

Perhaps the most disquieting legacy of Iran-Contra, in which extremely serious political crimes were exposed and then left largely unexorcised, is a kind of pervasive moral lassitude, in which charges that the integrity of the 1980 Presidential election was compromised with the help of the Iranian government evoke an almost bored reaction. It now appears that the charges will be left to linger, unanswered and uninvestigated, because no one with any power sees it to be in his personal political interest to confront them. The dictum that we live in a nation of laws can also be understood ironically-that ours has become a nation only of laws. For laws without the will to enforce them and confront the consequences remain simply words on paper.

© 2021 Mark Danner