After Iran-contra: lessons for the US
THE congressional committees that investigated the Iran-contra affair have now completed their work. Their findings and conclusions are contained in a joint report agreed to by a majority of both House and Senate committees, including a majority of the Senate Republicans. The committees have sought from the outset to inform the Congress and the public of activities by this administration which were improperly concealed from both. This report will help the public understand the issues involved and, ultimately, to determine the proper course to follow.
The ingredients of the Iran-contra affair were secrecy, deception, and disdain for law. A small group of officials, believing they alone knew what was right, set up a secret organization to conduct the government's business. It was financed in violation of Congress's exclusive constitutional power of the purse. Its activities were concealed both from Congress and from the public. In a society that believes deeply in its system of constitutional government, this behavior is unacceptable.
President Reagan's policy of supporting the contra insurgency in Nicaragua was rejected by the Congress in October 1984, when it passed a law cutting off aid to the contras.
Denied funds by Congress, the President turned to other sources. Millions of dollars were raised from foreign governments, private citizens, and the sale of arms to Iran. The funds were given to a private organization, the Enterprise. Under the direction of Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council aide, the Enterprise carried out the full-service covert operation to support the contras which Congress thought it had prohibited.
This covert operation was not reported to Congress, as the law requires. Several high administration officials publicly denied that the NSC staff was raising money or giving military support to the contras. The President assured the public that the law was being followed.
The first sales of US-origin arms to Iran, made in 1985 by Israel, were illegal. The President was so advised by his Cabinet, but still approved the sales. His desire to free American hostages held in Lebanon caused him to reverse publicly stated and widely supported policies of the United States: to make no concessions to terrorists and to sell no arms to Iran.
Profits from later Iran arms sales were used illegally by the Enterprise to provide covert support for the contra war effort. Those sales and the diversion to the contras were kept hidden from the Congress.
After reports of the Iran arms sales first appeared, on Nov. 3, 1986, the President said they were ``without foundation.'' By mid-November, the President had conceded the sales. But he denied trading arms for hostages and involvement of the US in the illegal Israeli sales which he had approved in 1985.
Several top advisers then each told conforming ``cover stories'' to Congress and the attorney general denying US knowledge or approval of the Israeli sales. They said a Central Intelligence Agency proprietary had transported the Israeli arms to Iran in the mistaken belief they were ``oil drilling parts.'' National-security adviser John Poindexter then destroyed the presidential document that showed this story was false.
Colonel North shredded and altered documents to prevent discovery of the contra covert action and the Enterprise. It was not until these committees obtained records and testimony from retired Gen. Richard Secord and his partner, Albert Hakim, that the Enterprise and the extent of its activities was revealed.
Although Admiral Poindexter testified that Mr. Reagan was not told of the use of Iranian arms sales proceeds for the contras, the responsibility for the affair still rests with the President. It is his duty to ensure that all who work for him know that the law is supreme.
In this he failed. The covert support of the contras and the Iran arms sales were carried out in violation of US laws and established procedures of government. They were carried out in a manner contrary to the Constitution. They were concealed and covered up through false statements to the public and false statements to the Congress, which were themselves violations of law. Those who conducted these operations have all testified that they believed they were carrying out the President's policies. The President has yet to condemn their actions.
A failure to adhere to the constitutional process had predictable consequences. The policies failed. The sale of arms to Iran damaged US credibility at home and abroad, and as many Americans remained hostage as were held before. Secret support of the contras further divided the country.
The lessons of the Iran-contra affair are basic ones. Officials must observe the constitutional principles that have made this country great and kept us free for 200 years. Government policies should not be kept secret. Laws should be obeyed. Public officials should be honest. Congress and the president must work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.
These are the simple but necessary steps to restore faith in our system of democratic government.
Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana chairs the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions With Iran.