Uncovering details of the Iran-contra covert operations lobby

The Iran-Contra Connection - Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era, by Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter. Boston: South End Press. 233 pp. and footnotes. $11 paperback. Flush with the aura of stardom that enveloped him as he entered the Iran-contra hearing room, Maj. Gen. Richard Secord (USAF, ret.) last May told a reporter from the New York Times: ``This is pipsqueak stuff. When I was in Southeast Asia, we used to pay out people in cash and gold bullion.... If I wanted to steal money, I could have been a real winner in those days.''

The cocky, stocky former deputy secretary of defense was referring to the fate of multimillion-dollar profits from the covert supply of arms to Iran and the Nicaraguan contras.

The general and his partner, the Iranian-American arms dealer Albert Hakim, were Lt. Col. Oliver North's right-hand men. They controlled the Swiss bank accounts to which many of the funds have been traced.

Whether Secord pocketed a bundle is not, according to Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter, an incidental matter. It lies at the heart of the fundamental issue they raise in ``The Iran-Contra Connection - Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era'': Are covert operations:

1.Inherently inimical to the public interest?

2.LIkely to transgress statutory authority?

3.Hostile to public accountability? Their answer is yes across the board.

In light of this summer's daytime TV fare there can be no arguing items 2 and 3. The key, of course, is No. 1. Marshall, Scott, and Hunter conclude from the recent historical record - backed by voluminous reference to mainstream and alternative news media accounts and occasional interviews with intelligence sources - that covert operations have done the average American little good.

The problem, they argue compellingly, is the combination of a durable ``covert operations lobby'' whose family tree can be traced to the anti-Castro and Indochina operations of the 1960s, with the predilection of presidents for calling upon it, as they have in the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, Iran-contra, and assorted other misadventures.

According to Marshall et al., Secord is a key member of that lobby. In Southeast Asia he made the acquaintance of CIA station chief Theodore Shackley and his deputy, Thomas Clines.

Other than Indochina and the current drama, what these three veteran covert operatives have in common is the stigma of a close relationship with former CIA agent Edwin Wilson.

Wilson is currently in a maximum-security federal prison serving a 52-year sentence for, among other things, arming Libya.

The extraordinarily successful government careers of Shackley, Secord, and Clines - the first had a chance to become CIA director, the second to be secretary of defense - were each terminated abruptly by the Wilson revelations of the late '70s and early '80s.

But the profiteering and scheming of former operatives are only some of the disquieting elements of the story told by Marshall, an editor at the Oakland Tribune, and his coauthors, a Berkeley professor and the writer of a monthly newsletter on Israeli foreign affairs.

Equally troubling is the allegation of illegal foreign contributions to Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign from right-wingers with a vested interest in his policies, all represented by the public relations firm of top Reagan aide Michael Deaver.

Two chapters focus on the key roles of Israeli officials and arms dealers. The first is written with counterproductive stridence.

Despite this drawback, the authors leave little doubt that the Israelis manipulated an all-too-willing Washington to serve their own geopolitical and financial agendas, in both the Middle East and Central America.

This is a troubling book.

Jerry Meldon is an associate professor of chemical engineering at Tufts University.

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