How the Reagan White House Bungled Its Response to Iran-Contra Revelations
On November 3, 1986, the world became aware of the shocking revelation that the United States had engaged in a covert deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran involving the sales of sophisticated weapons and the bartering for American hostages being held in Lebanon by Iran’s client, Hezbollah. A Lebanese news magazine had published the story, and identified former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane as having undertaken a mission to Tehran as part of the operation.
Just a month earlier, Washington had been rocked by the news that a cargo plane ferrying arms to Nicaraguan Contra rebels had been shot down over the jungles of Nicaragua. Congress had banned the Reagan administration from aiding the insurgents, and the White House had adamantly denied any U.S. connection to the flight. But the jury of public opinion was still out. Although the incident was a serious political blow and threatened congressional support for a cherished presidential objective, the McFarlane disclosure was a different matter—connecting top-ranking officials directly to a highly contentious and arguably illegal policy.
For the next three weeks, press attention shifted heavily to the Iran story, while behind closed doors at the White House, the State and Defense departments, and the CIA, the president and members of his cabinet labored to limit their vulnerability. National Security Advisor John Poindexter took the lead, stressing the need daily at his morning briefing to hold off on public comment. Reagan insisted to the press there was “no foundation” to the Lebanese report. “We will never pay off terrorists,” he declared, “because that only encourages more of it.” Vice President George H.W. Bush noted in his diary, “There is a lot of flack [sic] and mis-information out there. It is not a subject we can talk about.”
One reason for withholding information was the president had no intention of shutting down the initiative. He fully believed he had done nothing wrong, that somehow dealing directly with Iran was not the same as associating with the hostage-takers themselves. Members of his staff continued to be optimistic about the prospects, despite the publicity. NSC staff aide Howard Teicher, who had traveled to Tehran with McFarlane, saw in Iranian public statements the “clearest possible signals ... that the succession struggle is underway.” He pleaded to keep the initiative alive in hopes of influencing that process. Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger remained opposed but differed on how to handle the revelations.
Shultz alone proposed to engage the U.S. public rather than keep a tight hold on information, although he mainly saw it as a way to protect the administration rather than a worthwhile end in itself. In a cable to the national security advisor, he argued that “giving the essential facts to the public” offered the best way to “control the story.” But the president, vice president, CIA Director William Casey, and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan favored staying silent. So did McFarlane, who wrote to NSC staffer Oliver North, who had been charged with implementing the arms deals, “I hope to daylights that someone has been purging the NSA’s files on this episode.” Weinberger, too, “strongly objected” to the secretary of state’s preference for “telling all.”
Shultz was pessimistic about the direction of events. “It’s amateur hour over there [at the White House],” an aide remarked, reflecting the view of the State Department leadership—“a bunch of kids working w/Ollie.” Shultz repeatedly criticized the arms-for-hostages policy in discussions with his advisors: “The hostgs keep growing in number. This encourages that.”
Moreover, the political fallout was likely to be serious. “This cd be the kind of thing where somebody has to resign [and] take the rap.” As a member of Nixon’s cabinet during Watergate, he recalled individuals “get in [and] cant [sic] get out [and] so stonewall [and] get in deeper.”
One of those he had in mind was the vice president: “What concerns me,” he told a friend several days after the Iran revelation, “is Bush on TV” saying it was “ridiculous to even consider selling arms to Iran.” The fact was, Shultz asserted, the “VP was part of it ... [i]n that mtg.” Now he risked “getting drawn into web of lies.... Shd be v careful how he plays the loyal lieutenant role now.” The next day, according to Shultz, he met with the vice president and delivered the same message. Bush assured him, “I’m v[ery] careful what I say,” but Shultz rejoined, “You can’t be tech[nically] right, you have to be right. I told him he was there [and] approved it. He knew and supported it. I sd that’s where you are.” Assessing how Bush and other backers of the initiative were reacting to the mounting scandal, Shultz concluded ruefully, “They are now lying to themselves.”
Shultz’s stance understandably raised tensions within the administration. Several of his peers suspected he was looking out for himself more than for the president or his colleagues. (He believed Bush “sees me as a threat.”) His detractors tried to undermine his standing with Reagan, but he had support from an unlikely source—hard-line conservatives. Bush noted in his diary, “All in all, a troubling weekend. People running for cover, blaming ... The right wing, who is normally on Shultz’s case, rallying behind him because of [his opposition to] the trading arms for hostages policy.”
The November 10 Meeting
Public pressure soon dictated the need for a formal White House reaction to the Iran revelation. On November 10, the president met with his top advisors to establish a unified version of events and to make sure he could rely on his aides’ public support for the policy. Reagan began the discussion by insisting on the need to issue a statement “as result of media, etc.,” according to Donald Regan’s notes. The president clung to his conviction: “We have not dealt directly w/terrorists, no bargaining, no ransom.” Virtually no one in the room shared this view, but no one immediately challenged him.
Poindexter followed with a recitation of the Iran program filled with deliberate inaccuracies. The “main objective,” he declared, had been a “long-term” policy of establishing contacts with “more moderate elements” in Iran “looking to the future.” The second aim had been to “stop Iran[’s] export of terrorism.... [H]ostage release” was the third. Poindexter then disclosed the existence of the January 1986 presidential finding authorizing the deals, following with a description of Israel’s involvement, which he falsely claimed U.S. officials had “stumbled on” while “tracking down its shipments to Iran.” The first delivery of arms to Iran in summer 1985, he said, had been “shipped by Israelis,” not by the United States; Washington had been informed only “after the fact.” Subsequent shipments had been “OKd in advance,” but these purportedly consisted only of defensive weapons in “miniscule amts.”
Much of Poindexter’s account—not to mention the president’s—was untrue. Reagan’s main goal for the operation was the release of the U.S. hostages, not a long-term relationship with Iranian moderates. The United States did not inadvertently discover a rogue Israeli arms operation, nor had Washington learned only afterward of the first TOW [anti-tank missile] shipment. Both countries had coordinated with each other from the beginning, and Reagan himself had authorized the August 1985 delivery. The total missile count was double the figure Poindexter reported. Furthermore, the account omitted any reference to the November 1985 HAWK missile shipment debacle and failed to mention the December 5 and January 6 presidential findings.
The legally problematic HAWK operation was deeply troubling to several of the president’s aides. In late November 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese acknowledged his concerns to Shultz (who quoted him in debriefing his aide, Charles Hill): “Certain things cd be violation of a law. P[resident] didn’t know about Hawk in Nov . If it happened [and] P didn’t report to Congress, it’s a violation.” Notwithstanding Meese’s contention, Reagan had not only been fully aware of the activity in November 1985, he had approved it—and, indeed, no one had informed Capitol Hill, as required by law. Yet there is no indication any of Reagan’s advisors who knew about the shipment and who attended the National Security Planning Group (NSPG) meeting on November 10—including Shultz, Weinberger, Regan, Casey, Poindexter, and the president himself—raised the matter before the group.
Although the purpose of the November 10 session was to coordinate the administration’s public stance, it widened the divisions within the NSPG. Weinberger expressed surprise at how many missiles had been traded. Shultz claimed never to have heard about the January finding. He questioned the wisdom of the initiative and according to notes of the discussion engaged in a testy exchange with both the president and Poindexter, asking: “In this context of [hostage] releases how can you say it [TOW sales] not linked? P [President]: It not linked! Pdx: How else will we get hostg out? I [Shultz] sd when we cross line, Isr[ael] gets clear field—[and] they supply stuff that really matters.” Shultz called for the deals to be shut down once and for all. Returning to the State Department, he complained the others were “distorting the record,” “trying to get me to lie,” and “taking the president down the drain.... It’s Watergate all over.”
The November 24 Meeting
On November 24, 1986, the NSPG met from 2:00 until 3:45 in the afternoon to discuss developments in the intervening two weeks. Although the most significant occurrence had been the discovery three days earlier of the soon-to-be-infamous “diversion memorandum” showing a plan to divert Iran arms sales profits to the Contras (the act that put the hyphen in Iran-Contra, as one observer later put it), that putatively shocking revelation never came up. Instead, it was all about Iran.
After a detailed summary of the Iran program by George Cave, a retired CIA Iran expert who had been asked to help with the White House operation, the principals discussed whether and how to “keep channels open.” Reagan’s views had not budged since the disclosure of the initiative three weeks earlier. According to Weinberger’s notes, “RR—definitely feels what we were doing to establish bond is right thing. If [Iranian leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini died we could be charged ... [with] lost opportunity (not that I give a damn about history).” Shultz, who left the meeting early, told aides the president was “defiant” about going forward. He was “v[ery] hot under the collar ... frustrated and mad, self-righteous.” He had an “understand me and get off my back kind of view.” The experience left Shultz bewildered: “Maybe we are crazy?” he asked his aides.
Remarkably, the discussion indicated several of those in the room still clung to some of the false positions they had held at the time of the high-level meeting on November 10. When Donald Regan asked, “Did we object to Israelis sending HAWK ... missiles to Iran?” Poindexter deflected the question by putting the responsibility on McFarlane, conveniently no longer with the government (nor at the meeting): “From July ’85 to Dec ‘87 McFarlane handled this all alone—[n]o documentation.”
Meese followed with additional details, largely reflecting information from his recent interviews with high-level administration officials. He identified the true nature of the cargo and the reason for Iran’s return of the HAWKs in early 1986. He also revealed his view that the operation itself had been unlawful: it was “not legal because no finding.” But his next statement—“President not informed”—was patently false, as several individuals in the room were well aware. Shultz had reported to Meese just three days before that the president had advised the secretary of state of his familiarity with the shipment. McFarlane had also told Meese about Reagan’s approval, and North had provided similar information the evening before. What is more, by his own testimony, Meese never asked the president about the HAWK operation, which calls into further question his grounds for disregarding his cabinet colleagues’ statements.
Just as surprising as Meese’s assertion of Reagan’s ignorance was the fact no one challenged it. As the independent counsel’s final report noted, “Virtually everyone else present at the senior advisers meeting knew or should have known that Meese’s claim ... was false, but no one corrected [him]. Meese concluded the meeting by asking, ‘anyone know anything else that hasn’t been revealed[?]’ Again, no one had anything to add.”
Meese, with the tacit acquiescence of other top officials, had laid out a version of events all were expected to uphold. Regan later admitted to a grand jury he knew Meese’s assertion was false. Shultz’s message to his advisors immediately after the meeting was much the same: “They [are] rearranging the record.”
The meeting wound down shortly afterward but not before an agitated President Reagan warned once more against leaks. “RR—All of us tell everyone in our shops to shut up,” Weinberger recorded the president saying. “Stay off air [and] say nothing. Don’t answer questions.”
Regan spelled out the president’s orders in a memorandum, setting out a strategy and assigning fault for the scandal along lines virtually identical to what the administration ultimately adopted: “Tough as it seems[,] blame must be put at NSC’s door—rogue operation, going on without President’s knowledge or sanction. When suspicions arose he took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting of top advisors to get at facts, and find out who knew what. Try to make the best of a sensational story. Anticipate charges of ‘out of control,’ ‘President doesn’t know what’s going on,’ ‘Who’s in charge,’ ‘State Department is right in its suspicions of NSC,’ ‘secret dealing with nefarious characters,’ ‘Should break off any contacts with: a) Iranians, b) Contras.’”
The NSPG meeting defined the official line on the HAWK deal, but it did not address the funding diversion. Meese’s rationale for holding onto that information was that he needed to confirm more details before sharing his findings with colleagues. During the rest of the day on November 24, he tracked down who else may have known about it and whether anyone had told the president. He spoke to Reagan, Bush, Regan, McFarlane, Poindexter, and perhaps others. He met with Casey the next morning. As usual, he kept no record. These meetings were no more than “casual conversations” that did not require notes, he insisted, not “what you might call interviews” intended to “elicit a great deal of information.” His failure to follow basic investigative procedure on such a legally and politically significant issue led to further public disapproval after the scandal broke, including expressions of “unanimous anger” from Congress.
After his “interviews,” Meese met with President Reagan. Also attending was Regan, who told investigators the president had been “crestfallen” at hearing about the diversion. He described his own reaction dramatically as “horror, horror, sheer horror.” All reportedly agreed on the need to disclose the matter the following day.
On the morning of November 25, Regan advised Poindexter to be prepared to step down as national security advisor. Meese assigned Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper to work with White House counsel Peter Wallison to draft the president’s statement for use at the noon press conference, where the links between the Iran and Contra operations would be revealed. At 10:15 a.m., Reagan met with his senior advisors and accepted Poindexter’s resignation. Only then did most of those present hear about the diversion. The president, Shultz, Meese, and Casey proceeded to brief congressional leaders.
That morning, just before the press conference, retired Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, a key player in the affair, called Poindexter and pleaded with him not to resign. He urged him to “force the president to step up to the plate and take responsibility for his actions.” Poindexter was impassive: “You don’t understand,” he said. “It’s too late. They’re building a wall around him.”
Adapted from Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power,
By Malcolm Byrne © University Press of Kansas, 2014
Malcolm Byrne is the author of Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (University Press of Kansas, 2014). He directs a multinational archival research project on the history of U.S.-Iran relations at the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental organization based at The George Washington University.