Iran-Contra Message: 'Don't Do It' : Warning Signals Aplenty, but Presidents Must Heed Them

"Fundamental processes of government were disregarded and the rule of law was subverted." So pronounced the Senate-House investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, Congress' second major investigation of intelligence abuses in a generation. Can those abuses happen again? The answer almost certainly is yes .

That is true even though the Reagan Administration was a strange creature even by the standards of recent Administrations. It combined strong ideology with weak processes and disdain for the role of Congress. A "cabal of zealots" is how the report characterized the President's men.

Worse, few checks existed in the Administration to rein in the zealotry. As the congressional report delicately put it: The President did not "communicate unambiguously to his subordinates" that they should keep him informed of their activities.

Looseness pervaded the entire affair. By Secretary of State George P. Shultz's testimony, it was not clear to him when, or even if, particular decisions had been made. In this looseness, the Reagan Administration differed from another Administration it resembles in its commitment to foreign policy activism--John F. Kennedy's. Kennedy, who initially prized informal decision-making, learned enough from his intelligence fiasco, the Bay of Pigs invasion, to build arrangements that gave him better checks on the actions of his subordinates.

Finally, the men around the President, Central Intelligence Agency director William J. Casey in particular, came into office viewing Congress not as a partner but as an obstacle. It was something to be evaded, not consulted. When the President finally approved a "finding" for the arms sales to Iran, he was explicit: Do not tell Congress.

In the late 1970s the CIA and its sister agencies were led by people who had been through the experience of investigation and reform. Questions of law and constitutional balance came naturally to them. By contrast, the Reagan leadership was looking for a way around the roadblocks, a way to get the job done. One Senate staffer described a recent CIA congressional liaison, a man who was a veteran covert operator, as behaving like a station chief in enemy territory, running operations against the adversary--Congress.

For all these unusual characteristics of the Reagan Administration, still, new laws or procedures cannot provide a guarantee against future abuses, for in an important sense the system "worked," even in the instance of the arms sales to Iran. In deciding to sell arms to Iran, the President pursued a line of policy opposed by both his secretaries of state and defense, about which he was afraid to inform the congressional intelligence committees, and which was liable to be revealed by Iranian factions when it suited them.

These warning signals are all that any system can provide. When the opposition of most of the government's senior foreign policy officials mean that they have to be cut out of the policy, it is likely that the policy, and not they, are wrong. The President thus proceeded at his peril. If Presidents are determined to do something silly or stupid, they will find someone, somewhere, to do it.

Rather, the lesson of the Iran-Contra affair is a caution for Presidents and for those who advise them: Don't do it. Two decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Administration to run a covert operation from the White House; then, the reason was that Presidents wanted to stay at arms' length from such things, even if they could not in a pinch plausibly deny them.

Now, if covert actions are to be undertaken, they should be done by the agency of government constructed to do them--the Central Intelligence Agency. It has the expertise; whatever else can be said about the arms sales to Iran, the operation was amateurish in the extreme. And the CIA has the accountability that derives from more than a decade of attempting to balance the need for secrecy with Congress' right to know.

Moreover, now as two decades ago, if the President's closest advisers become the operators, the President loses them as a source of detached judgment on the operation. The President's own circle become advocates, not protectors of the President's stakes (even if he does not quite realize his need for protection). So it was with Robert C. McFarlane and John M. Poindexter, President Reagan's national security advisers; once committed to arms sales to Iran, they had reason to overlook the warning signals thrown up by the process. Excluding Congress also excluded one more "political scrub," one more source of advice about what the range of American people would find acceptable. And the chances increased that someone like Oliver North, misguided, would interpret the President's interest after his own fashion.

We cannot guarantee that another Iran-Contra will not happen. What we can do is draw again, and more sharply, lines that were traced a decade ago in the last congressional investigation of intelligence. At least, future administrations would then be unnoticed. A few jail terms for White House staffers, as for the Watergate plumbers, would sharpen the lessons for their successors. Those future staffers might think to themselves, if not say to their President: "Yes, Mr. President, I'll do it, but you realize I may have to go to jail."

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