Up until now, I've looked at people who have for better or worse had their time in the spotlight of Washington, DC and who have, for the most part, faded from view, or at least have made their ways to the back of our collective memory. And starting next month I'll take a gander at folks who were not as much on the national stage but who have affected policy or political expectations more regionally.
So far going through the scandals and politicized campaigns of yore has been relatively straightforward. Not so this time around. Because I'm taking up the sordid story of Oliver North. First, it's not so much that nobody knows what happened to him—he was on Fox News tonight shoring up support for the talking-out-of-turn General McChrystal, who was called back to DC after saying in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine that he was "disappointed" in his first meeting with President Obama on the Afghan War. Yeah, I know—who reads Rolling Stone anymore? North wasn't on Fox as a one-time guest; he's got a regular stint with the Beck and Hannity Gang. And he's on the Tea Party stump with the likes of none other than Sarah Palin. North has actually made a career out of being in the middle of the scandal.
To start, let's recap the Iran-Contra Affair, since it was a while ago, and because the word "affair" is pretty misleading, like saying one is going on a vacation but really is meeting up with one's mistress in South America, and all of South Carolina is looking for one, thinking one is on the Appalachian Trail. It's just like that.
Once upon a time, Iran and Iraq were at war. With each other, not us. Well, technically we're not at war with Iran, but we've talked about it ad nauseum for several years now. But at the time, there was a war between the two nations, with the USSR supplying some arms to the Iraqi side, which concerned the hell out of the Reagan Administration. Israel said that they would send arms to a "moderate" group within Iran who were opposed to the Ayatollah Khomeni if we would fill in their inventory afterward. They also agreed to give us money for this. At some point this plan devolved into a trade for six or seven hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon—some of the sources I've researched say six, and some say seven, and heck, what's a human between secretive countries? The moderate Iranians promised to do everything they could to free the hostages in Lebanon. Reagan couldn't turn away from such a goal, especially as his election in 1980 was the key to getting hundreds of people released.
According to The New York Times, we gave the following to Iran via Israel:
- August 20, 1985. 96 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles
- September 14, 1985. 408 TOWs
- November 24, 1985. 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles
- February 17, 1986. 500 TOWs
- February 27, 1986. 500 TOWs
- May 24, 1986. 508 TOWs, 240 Hawk spare parts
- August 4, 1986. More Hawk spares
- October 28, 1986. 500 TOWs
That seems like an awful lot of hardware, and a long duration of sending arms to Iran, but what the hell do I know? I'm not a hostage negotiator. In the midst of this, some of the revenue gained through these transactions went to the Contras in Nicaragua who were fighting against the communism-aligned Sandinistas. See, it's all about stopping communism in all of its sinful forms. Too bad the Congress had forbade sending more support to the Contras in the form of the Boland Amendment. So naturally we used money that Congress didn't know we had to continue showing our love to the Contras.
In the heart of this storm of arms, hostages, and armed rebels on two continents, was Oliver North. North set up the network so that funding would reach the Contras, working with President Manuel Noriega, the de facto leader of nearby Panama, on the deal. Yes, that Manuel Noriega, the one the US later deposed. North has said publicly that they "had a good relationship." He presumed that Noriega would help clean up the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, with all of the US money, although he recognized that Noriega needed an image makeover. The relationship soured—I can't imagine why—when Noriega refused to meet demands that North made.
President Reagan said he didn't know about all of these other deals in Central America, but that he accepted responsibility for what he did and did not know. Not that accepting responsibility amounted to any criminal charge or impeachment, but whatever, Oliver North came out and said that Reagan knew everything that had been going on. So North contradicted President Reagan in his memoir, Under Fire: An American Story, with:
I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically.
President Reagan, let's just recall for a moment, is the beloved and revered, almost deified figure of the far-right. And North contradicts Reagan's statements about Iran-Contra.
Hours after the first delivery of TOWs, Hezbollah released one of their hostages. Subsequent deliveries of weapons were made to different moderates within Iran, not everything went according to plan as one shipment of Hawks was botched, the Hezbollah captors bombed a few places globally with impunity, since they held still more hostages, and Oliver North stepped forward to make modifications to the whole arrangement.
Months after the Affair began, an Iranian journalist blew the whistle and leaked the operation to the public. Reagan went on national television, which in 1987 meant there was still a big audience watching network TV. Reagan said:
My purpose was... to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship... At the same time we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there.
This is about when Oliver North pulled an Enron and started shredding documents. Reagan appointed a commission—The Tower Commission, named after the principal investigator, former Senator John Tower—to look into what had gone wrong. The commission reached some very specific findings from this convoluted mess, the then-Democrat-controlled Congress ran its own investigation and reached separate findings, but both reports agreed: Oliver North acted on his own, broke the laws of the land, and ought to face the consequences.
Oliver North was indicted on 16 felony counts vis-à-vis the Iran-Contra affair, and convicted on three. With help from the ACLU, those convictions were vacated, after the court found that his testimony violated his Fifth Amendment rights.
Relatedly, North was also investigated for drug trafficking as a means of funding the Contras in the 1980s. Although he denies this, saying the US Government has never smuggled drugs for this purpose, Senator John Kerry went through North's notebooks and found numerous references to amounts of drugs and amounts of money received for such. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report about this trafficking. No charges against North came from this, even though the Boland Amendment would technically apply here.
In 1990, North founded the Freedom Alliance, a non-profit charity group to promote military service and at least some of the freedoms the military protects. The foundation's primary activities include providing support for wounded combat soldiers, and scholarships for the sons and daughters of service members killed in action. Sean Hannity, also of Fox News, has sponsored "Freedom Concerts" on his show to bring in money to the organization, but critics, some of whom are themselves conservative, charge that the Freedom Alliance doesn't spend enough of the money it takes in on charity work. In March this year, in response to accusations that money collected by the charity was inappropriately spent, the non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed formal complaints with the FTC and IRS against North, Hannity, and the Freedom Concerts and Freedom Alliance charities.
North was unsuccessful in a 1994 campaign for the Senate (in Virginia), in good part because Nancy Reagan went on television during the campaign to say that he'd lied to her husband during the Iran-Contra debacle. Despite this loss, he has gone on to write several best-selling books, land a syndicated column, do some work on MSNBC, and there's that Fox News job, War Stories with Oliver North, which according to Fox News, covers a variety of war-related stories. Delightful! And all this, even with his denials of Reagan—Oliver North is sitting pretty.
As a round-up of the aftermath:
The Iranian who leaked the scandal was executed in 1987, allegedly for actions not related to the scandal.
Iran is now governed by reactionary right, fundamentalists who are currently suppressing any resistance, not governed by "moderates" who received arms from the US. The US still has sanctions imposed against Iran.
Noriega was deposed in Panama by the US in 1989. Daniel Ortega, leader of the communist-inclined Sandinistas, did win election in Nicaragua in light of the scandal. Noriega now lives in Paris, after serving a prison term. He is exiled from Panama.
The Iran-Iraq War solidified Saddam Hussein's grip on power in Iraq.
Oliver North is a multi-millionaire.
Let me leave this with a picture of Lebanon.