Iran-contra: the No. 1 question

DURING one of the philosophical exchanges in the select committee hearings, Sen. Daniel Inouye reflected that with each passing day a certain question became increasingly insistent in his mind: How could the Iran-contra affair have happened in the first place? The processes of constitutional government had been carefully defined and developed over two centuries. Yet here he was listening to government officials explain how and why they acted outside the law. The answer is lodged in Congress itself. For in 1947 Congress passed legislation that made the Iran-contra affair, or things like it, so probable as to become almost inevitable. In 1947, Congress allowed itself to be taken in by the argument that the only way to contend with a KGB in the world was to develop not just a superintelligence operation of our own, but the capacity for designing and carrying out ``covert'' operations. The agency would have secret budgets and work with unvouchered funds. Structurally and theoretically, it would report to a special ``oversight'' committee of Congress, but the nature of the reporting and overseeing was so loosely defined as to create the danger of a fourth branch of government with potential power to compete with and even override the other three.

There was no Hamilton or Madison or Jay in Congress, at the time this legislation was passed, to argue, as leaders of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention did in 1787, that excessive secrecy and flaws in the structure of government would set a broad stage for misdeeds; that the moment some government agencies were authorized to operate outside constitutional restraints the practice would spread to other agencies; that poor laws would bring out the worst even in good men; that government officials who made mistakes should not be allowed to use the apparatus of secrecy to shield themselves from the consequences of their errors; or that institutionalized secrecy tends to favor chip-on-the-shoulder personalities in government rather than those with genuine ability to perceive and ponder the basic requirements of national security.

THE United States involvement in Indochina after the departure of the French in 1956 created an occasion for the confluence of all the flaws inherent in the existence of powerful undercover agencies, culminating in the Vietnam war. In 1960, the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in covert operations to overthrow the first democratically elected government in Laos, a government officially recognized by the US State Department. The idea for the overthrow came from top government officials in Thailand, who wanted a member of their own ruling family to run Laos. It was believed that the coup would be relatively bloodless and that the new military government would be committed to US interests. This intelligence item was wrong. The result was a civil war in which both sides were supplied and financed by the US. Eventually, the Laos government forces backed by the State Department prevailed over the forces backed by the CIA. Thousands of Laotian citizens were killed or wounded and their homes burned.

Similarly, the war in Vietnam was born in miscalculations and misassessments. Presidential statements, which presumably reflected US intelligence in the field, repeatedly stressed the theme of a massive effort by Chinese communists to overthrow or capture the Indochinese nations, one by one, in a ``domino strategy.'' The loss of the war in Vietnam would lead to the loss of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, which in turn would cause the dominoes to topple, one by one - Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, East Pakistan, West Pakistan, India, and sundry points west.

Many thousands of American lives were committed to that judgment, but we were to discover through unfolding history that we were the victims of our own ``intelligence.'' North Vietnam, which the US saw as a puppet of China, forcibly rebuffed every effort of China to encroach on its territory, as it had done over hundreds of years. Far from being united and unified under a single communist banner, Vietnam and Cambodia became embroiled in a sanguinary conflict.

The greatest misassessment of all, one that served as the basis of much US foreign policy, was that communism was a centrally organized and monolithic world entity. The extent of that error came to light in the severe rivalry between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, reflected in overlapping territorial claims and sporadic border warfare. By focusing on ideological questions, we underestimated the potency of conflicting nationalist drives in the world.

Definitions of communism have been increasingly arbitrary. Important distinctions between social democrats and communists became blurred to the point where the quest for social justice was regarded as a form of Marxist domination. Conversely, any government that pronounced itself anticommunist was likely to be regarded as an ally, even though it was dictatorial and a zone of political instability and unrest. Free elections were secondary to a nation's willingness to be responsive to US policy needs and changes. The CIA became a device for producing a tilt in the internal affairs of other nations, friendly or otherwise. But the greatest danger of all represented by covert operations was the opportunity it gave US policymakers to circumvent constitutional forms and procedures. A president who found it awkward to press ahead with certain policies could use undercover facilities to accomplish his ends.

PERHAPS the most important disclosure of the entire select committee hearings emerged from the testimony of Donald Regan, former White House chief of staff. Mr. Regan said that he was supposed to operate at the highest level of government, but he had no way of knowing exactly how the National Security Council and National Security Agency really functioned, how they exercised authority, how they got their funds, or how they spent those funds.

What is meant by ``covert'' operations? Does it mean that an agency of the US government should be free to engage in assassinations or the overthrow of other governments? Does it mean that activities contrary to the traditions and institutions of the American people are acceptable because this is supposed to be the only way to cope with potential enemies? The moment we acquiesce to such an approach, we do to ourselves what no enemy in our history has been able to do to us.

The report of the Tower Commission referred to the ``style'' of Ronald Reagan, pointing out that he delegated a great deal of authority without a corresponding degree of supervision. This is true, but it is important to recognize that the style of government itself has changed since secret agencies became an established function of the government. That new style may be especially suited to the present White House incumbent, but it is a mistake to believe that it has not been a problem of other presidencies in the past 40 years or will not be a problem for future administrations unless corrected.

Senator Inouye's question finds its answer not so much in the testimony of the witnesses called before his committee as in Mr. Madison's ``Debates of the Constitutional Convention.'' That particular record contains all the historical arguments necessary to show how readily and easily power can be abused once a government creates openings outside its own laws.

The American people can point to a longer history under the same form of government than the people of any other major nation in the world. If we want it to stay that way, we will put our traditional assets to work instead of acquired liabilities.

Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCLA. His first book, ``The Good Inheritance,'' published in 1942, dealt with the historical background of the US Constitution.

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