THE IRAN-CONTRA HEARINGS : Iran-Contra Hearings at an End : No Evidence Found of Reagan Wrongs but a Scar Remains
The Iran- contra hearings ended Monday, bringing to a close a grueling, three-month public inquiry into high-level chicanery that found no evidence of wrongdoing by President Reagan while leaving an indelible scar on his presidency.
“The story has now been told,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate investigating committee, as he gaveled the hearings to a close. “I believe we have largely succeeded in piecing together the incredible chapters of this chilling story and presenting to our fellow citizens a chronology of events as they occurred.”
Inouye noted that the Senate and House investigating committees, which jointly heard 29 witnesses in 40 days of public testimony, privately interviewed nearly 500 persons and reviewed about 250,000 pages of documentary evidence, had completed the task much faster than their 1970s historical counterpart--the Senate Watergate Committee, which had 53 days of hearings.
Abuse of Power
In concluding statements, Republicans as well as Democrats agreed that the President’s decision to sell arms to Iran was “an act of folly,” as Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) termed it, and that members of Reagan’s staff--namely former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North--had abused their power by diverting sale profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.
But Republicans were quick to emphasize that the Iran-contra investigation had uncovered no evidence that Reagan himself violated any law.
“These hearings have demonstrated conclusively, in my opinion, that the President has indeed been telling the truth,” said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice chairman of the House panel.
No Cover-up Seen
“There is no evidence that the President had any knowledge of the diversion of profits from the arms sale to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance. . . . There is no evidence of any effort by the President or his senior advisers to cover up these events.”
Rudman added that the President’s personal diaries, portions of which were made available to the committees but never made public, support the conclusion that Reagan was unaware of the diversion.
“I am firmly convinced that statement is unequivocally correct, having reviewed the entire documentary record, including the President’s own personal diaries, to which we were given access in an extraordinary and unprecedented decision,” he said.
The President’s long-held contention that he played no role in the diversion was corroborated by Poindexter, a rear admiral, who testified that he never consulted with Reagan about the diversion. His testimony was supported by former Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, who recalled that the President was clearly surprised when he learned of it last November.
Some Democrats did have doubts that Poindexter was telling the truth on many points. Noting that Poindexter’s statements frequently conflicted with those of other witnesses, Inouye wondered after the hearings ended: “Do I believe the admiral or the colonel, or do I believe the statements attributed to (the late CIA Director William J.) Casey?”
Nevertheless, Inouye acknowledged that Poindexter’s testimony about the President was never challenged by any witness and would be duly reflected in the committee’s final report, to be published later this year. He told reporters that he would take “to my grave” whatever private misgivings he still has about the testimony relating to Reagan’s involvement.
Will Hear CIA Officials
The committees, which began the hearings May 5, plan to interview several high-level CIA officials in closed session during the rest of the week and then adjourn for the traditional August congressional recess. When they return after Labor Day, the panel members will begin drafting their report.
In his summation, Inouye laid blame for the Iran-contra affair on four men--Poindexter, North, Iran-contra middleman Richard V. Secord and Secord’s Iranian-American business partner, Albert A. Hakim--whom he described as “persons convinced they have a monopoly on truth.”
Together, he said, these four men created “a secret government directed principally by (National Security Council) staffers accountable to not a single elected official, including apparently the President himself--a shadowy government with its own air force, its own navy, its own fund-raising mechanism and the ability to pursue its own ideas of national interest, free from the checks and balances and free from the law itself.”
‘Story of Deceit’
“I see it as a chilling story; a story of deceit and duplicity and the arrogant disregard of the rule of law,” Inouye said. “It is a story of withholding vital information from the American people, from the Congress, from the secretary of state, from the secretary of defense and--according to Adm. Poindexter’s testimony--from the President himself. It is also a story of a flawed policy kept alive by a secret White House junta, despite repeated warnings and signs of failure.”
Likewise, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House panel, said the hearings have demonstrated that “shortcuts in the democratic process and excessive secrecy in the conduct of government are a sure road to policy failure.”
In the final report, Hamilton said, the committee members should focus on ways to make government officials more accountable, to separate intelligence gathering from the formulation of foreign policy, to promote cooperation between Congress and the President, and to direct national attention to the Constitution and the rule of law.
No ‘Further Restrictions’
Like Hamilton, Cheney sought to discourage the committees from recommending any new laws designed to make sure that no future President makes the same mistakes as Reagan. “In my opinion,” he said, “there is no justification for further restrictions on the power and flexibility of future presidents.”
While saying that the Administration made many mistakes, Cheney also cited a number of what he described as “mitigating factors.” These included the President’s concern for the American hostages being held in Lebanon, his desire to keep the contras alive during a break in congressional funding and a concern for the security of covert operations caused by congressional leaks of classified information.
Both Cheney and Rudman emphasized that once the Iran-contra scandal came to light, the President had done everything possible to cooperate with investigators. This included a suspension of executive privilege, freeing his advisers to discuss openly their normally privileged conversations with the President.
Rudman noted that there is evidence that North, Poindexter and others engaged in a cover-up last November after the Iran arms sales became public, which included shredding of documents, lying to the attorney general when he began investigating the affair and withholding information from the President. But Rudman condemned as “unfair . . . and false” suggestions that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III assisted in that cover-up.
Clearly, the most skeptical view of the hearings came from Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida.), who likened the scandal to a line he once heard in a Broadway play, “Butterflies Are Free.”
He recalled that the playwright defended his portrayal of intimate sexual behavior by saying: “Well, that’s life and therefore it should be reported.” He said that the other character’s response was: “So is diarrhea, but I don’t know how to make it entertaining.”
In the view of many panel members, the affair was rooted in the legacy of the Vietnam War. The inquiry itself was the work of a Congress that emerged from the Vietnam experience with a resolve that it would never again follow a President into a foreign policy quagmire.
In Friday’s session, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) noted that two of the most central figures in the affair--North and Poindexter’s predecessor as national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, a former Marine--were Vietnam veterans.
With that shared experience, he said, they inevitably turned against politicians and the procedures by which lawmakers run foreign policy. “Anybody touched by Vietnam, anybody who experienced it on the ground . . . has a mind-set, inevitably, a mind-set that is directed against the political mind,” Hyde said.
On Monday, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) countered Hyde’s argument, saying that the disillusionment of these Vietnam veterans--no matter how justified--does not excuse violation of laws and the established procedures by which a government operates.
“I would say that it’s one thing to understand their despair and deep-seated bitterness, but I think quite another to put people in positions that permit them to twist and distort the political process to either conform to their world vision or satisfy a need for moral retribution,” Cohen said.
“No matter how sympathetic we are to these individuals, I think in our system, the military has to remain subordinate to civilian control.. . . The law may be equally violated when people act out of patriotic passion and zeal as when they act with contempt and calculated disrespect.”
In deciding to sell arms to Iran, the President ignored the warnings of many of his Administration’s most respected experts on foreign affairs, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who was the final witness to testify.
Cohen noted that many in the Administration had recognized that the policy was bound to prove a disaster, even if it had resulted in the release of all the hostages. He read aloud the arguments spelled out in a bluntly worded memorandum written by an unidentified “individual” who was identified by a committee source as Robert M. Oakley, director of the State Department’s counterterrorism program.
In the memo, Oakley had warned: “If there should be a successful release, the truth will still almost certainly come out, with the joy over return of the hostages only temporarily overshadowing tough questions/criticisms/accusations from certain foreign governments and domestic political circles. In addition to public criticism, there is the problem--often cited correctly by the secretary--that those holding our hostages and other potential hostage-taking groups will know of it.”
Asked whether he agreed with Oakley’s arguments, Weinberger replied: “I think I made some of those points in some of the meetings, and I think others did, too.”
Weinberger said the Iran arms sale was the only policy he could remember that both he and Shultz opposed and could not persuade the President to reject. The two Cabinet officers are known to disagree frequently.
“Secretary Shultz told me the other day that we should never agree on anything again because look what happened,” he quipped.
While questioning Weinberger, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) disclosed that in purchasing TOW missiles from the Defense Department for sale to Iran, the CIA had used an unusual payment procedure to avoid a requirement that Congress be informed of all such purchases of more than $1 million.
Brooks noted that the CIA paid the Defense Department in a series of five checks, each in the “interesting amount of $999,999.” He added: “Something is a little fishy.”
Brooks, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee, noted that the reporting threshold of $1 million was set in response to criticism that Congress had tried to “micromanage” government departments.
Weinberger promised to put out a directive to all Defense Department officials to be on the alert for such efforts to circumvent congressional oversight in the future.