This essay is a review of:
Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
Bruce Riedel, CIA officer and author of the book’s foreword, said, “Too often we have been too eager to look forward after scandal breaks, not backward, and consequently have ignored the lessons of past abuse of power. This book offers a rewarding look backward, with lessons for looking forward.”1 The author Malcolm Byrne concludes that the Reagan administration was involved in the illegal Iran-Contra affair, but escaped punishment. As the director of research of the National Security Archive, he has access to valuable documents that support this conclusion. Byrne effectively tells the harrowing story of the Iran-Contra scandal by setting it in its Cold War context and analyzing how the rise of conservatism allowed Reagan to pursue his controversial foreign policies.
The book discusses the events leading up to the Iranian arms trade in Chapter One to Chapter Three. The development of secret agencies like the National Security Council (NSC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), involved in covert operations to thwart communism, and the 1979 Iran hostage crisis influenced the administration to take a tough stance on attempts to challenge its power. When the U.S.-friendly dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was overthrown by the liberal Sandinistas, a group of counterrevolutionary guerrillas, the contras, conducted hit-and-run attacks along the Honduran border. Reagan publicly supported the contras, calling them “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”2 He justified his support in the Reagan Doctrine, which called for the eradication of Marxist-Leninist regimes in Latin America. However, because the contras had a reputation for killing civilians and trafficking drugs, Congress prohibited assistance to them by passing the Boland Amendment, which restricted financial and intelligence aid to them. National security director Robert McFarlane and NSC staffer Oliver North took over operations in Latin America and circumvented the ban by establishing a private corporation, the Enterprise, to fund the contras. The Enterprise, led by Richard Secord, dealt with government finances irresponsibly, a mistake which would later haunt it in investigations. While this was happening, an Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, captured hostages and bombed U.S. marines in Lebanon. Because of the hostage crisis, Reagan had a “marked impulsiveness…driven by an emotional reaction to a horrific scenario” to get the hostages back.3 His personal feelings influenced his decision to trade with the United States’ enemy, Iran.
In Chapter Four to Chapter Seven, Byrne discusses the U.S. arms trade with Iran and North’s challenges with aiding the contras. The United States had a long-standing policy of not dealing with terrorists, codified in Operation Staunch in 1983. However, the administration defied this policy to secure the release of U.S. hostages, establish better relations with the Iranian government, and check Soviet influence in the Middle East. The administration approached Manucher Ghorbanifar, an arms dealer with connections to the Iranian government. Ghorbanifar had been dealing with Israel, the dominant country that traded weapons with Iran. He offered to purchase Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) missiles for the release of U.S. hostages. The negotiations continued, and when the United States illegally shipped Homing All the Way Killer (HAWK) missiles to Iran, President Reagan issued a presidential finding in December 1985 authorizing the action. Reagan was “frequently lampooned as disengaged from the policy process,” but when it came to issues he felt strongly about like the hostages or contras, “he was most impressive.”4 His strong feelings for the contras influenced his decision to mine Nicaraguan harbors. In response to this act of aggression, the House of Representatives denied congressional aid to the contras. The United States found an alternative source of funding through quid pro quo deals with third-world countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, exchanging U.S. favors for contra aid. To further address the contras’ funding deficiency, North stepped up U.S. support of the contras by setting up an airlift operation in Ilopango, El Salvador, and establishing the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office (NHAO), an additional source of contra funds. During this time, Edwin Meese became the attorney general, and George Schultz the secretary of state.
The book discusses the United States’ increased involvement in trading arms with Iran and aiding the contras in Chapter Eight to Chapter 10. The United States replaced the hesitant McFarlane with John Poindexter, as national security advisor. Meanwhile, Israel’s counterterrorism advisor, Amiram Nir, negotiated a new TOW deal with Ghorbanifar, proposing to exchange Iraqi war intelligence and an additional batch of TOW missiles for the release of hostages. Because Ghorbanifar did not deliver on his commitments, the United States shunned the unreliable arms trader and took over the Iranian arms trading operation, previously controlled by Israel. Then, the United States sent McFarlane to Tehran, Iran, to discuss the arms deals. Unfortunately, the negotiations broke down and the arms trade ended. Meanwhile, North proposed unfairly charging the Iranian government for weapons purchases to fund the contras in the diversion memo, a proposal which “was almost certainly illegal, not to say unconstitutional” because “it appeared to run directly against constitutional prohibitions barring government officials from using funds for purposes specifically disallowed by Congress,” like funding the contras.5 This act was important because it mixed private and government funds and when revealed to the public, damaged relations with Iran. North resorted to this illegal act because the contras had a shortage of supplies. This supply issue was worsened by the House of Representatives, once again, denying aid to the contras and a suspicious House Intelligence Committee investigating North’s activities.
In Chapter 11 to Chapter 15, the author describes the scandal’s leak and its consequences. The destruction of an Enterprise cargo plane and Lebanese newspaper Ash-Shirraa’s publication of the U.S. arms trade with Iran exposed the scandal. In response, Reagan appointed a commission chaired by Senator John Tower, to investigate the revelations. Tower’s commission stated that the scandal represented a “flawed process” within the legal system and a “failure of responsibility” for the Reagan administration.6 Afterward, the congressional Iran-Contra committees, led by Democrat Daniel Inouye and Republican Lee Hamilton, investigated the officials involved with the covert operations, including North and Poindexter. These politically charged hearings allowed North to have “a powerful impact on segments of the public” because of “his appeals to patriotism and higher causes.”7 As a result, North did not receive any penalties by Congress. However, The Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC), led by Lawrence Walsh, continued the prosecutions in an effort to incarcerate the officials and won a lawsuit that imprisoned Poindexter. However, Walsh’s efforts failed because President George H.W. Bush pardoned them.
The author’s thesis is that the Iran-Contra scandal was the result of crimes that the Reagan administration ultimately got away with. The author states that “administration officials simply did not take their legal obligations seriously” and “were clearly aware of the implications” of their actions.”8 The officials withheld diaries and meeting notes to block investigations and often discussed the secrecy of their actions, not their legality. This conduct reflected the administration’s view that Reagan could unilaterally pursue foreign policy objectives that undercut Congress’ authority. Because of this view, “much of the public was disengaged” by the investigation and the OIC investigation was “reduced to legal wrangling with little hope of a satisfactory resolution.”9 The OIC failed to obtain classified evidence at trials and competed with Congress over its mandate. These obstacles enabled Reagan to escape impeachment and Vice President Bush, who won the 1988 presidential election, to continue his political career.
Malcolm Byrne uses a multinational documenting approach which ensures balanced coverage of all sides of the Iran-Contra scandal, not just the U.S. side. He has access to documents needed to accurately describe the issue because the National Security Archive “had a strong foundation of investigative materials to help document what had been taking place in secret for the previous several years” when the Iran-Contra scandal was made public.10 These documents include White House emails and meeting minutes, transcripts of negotiations with Iran, and personal notes obtained from top presidential aides, including North’s notebook. These documents allow Byrne to draw conclusions about the officials’ roles in the affair. Furthermore, Reagan’s charisma influenced the political attitude of the public in the 1980s. Reagan is remembered as a strong leader, which is why the scandal has continued to receive little attention in recent times. Byrne is the only nonparticipant of the Iran-Contra scandal who has written a book-length treatment of the scandal. He benefits from writing it recently in 2014 because he can objectively analyze the controversies of the 1980s and access documents that wouldn’t have been available in the past.
Seth Cantey, a reviewer of the book, praises the book for “[painting] a compelling picture of a scandal with Reagan at its center.”11 He also praises the book’s thorough research and readability. However, Cantey criticizes Byrne for editorializing at times and dedicating only a few pages to the implications of the scandal. Cantey describes the book’s chronological approach, which alternates chapters between the Iran and contra sides of the scandal. Unlike Cantey, David S. Painter, another reviewer of the book, states that “Byrne [deserves] praise for maintaining his objectivity while laying bare a tale of abuse of power, incompetence, and illegal behavior.”12 Painter states the book’s key points: Reagan was the primary player behind the illegal affair and officials misled investigators but were not punished.
Byrne’s book is an intriguing account about the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Reagan was “the driving force.”13 Byrne uses a narrative approach that alternates between the Iran and Contra operations in the first twelve chapters, describes the point when the two operations merged in Chapter Eight, and describes the aftermath of the scandal in the last three chapters. Also, he uses primary sources to show candid exchanges between the president and his advisors. For example, when the president authorized the illegal HAWK shipment, he remarked, “They can impeach me if they want.”14 This comment shows that Reagan was willing to break the law in order to retrieve the hostages. Additionally, the introduction presents the Iran-Contra Scandal in a unique, cold war context, helping the reader understand Reagan’s motivations for supporting controversial freedom fighters such as the contras. During the 1940s and 1950s, fears of communism inspired the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which established the key bureaucracies involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Official secrecy and broad executive powers established during the early Cold War era allowed Reagan to exploit the public’s fear of communism, intensified by the communist takeovers and loss of U.S. allies in the late 1970s, until the end of his presidency. Overall, Byrne’s book helps laypeople understand the complications of the Iran-Contra scandal.
These political events contributed to the development of a larger political trend in the 1980s: conservatism. As a result of Reagan’s landslide victory in the election of 1980, he became extremely popular, so “the [congressional] committees marred their own efforts by making procedural decisions based purely on political considerations.”15 They allowed North to restrict his evidence and set a 10-month deadline for the investigations. The committees made these concessions to prevent the investigations from interfering with the election of 1988 and protect the Democratic Party from scrutiny. Also, “the political landscape had changed substantially as a result of…a complex international environment.”16 Congress’ reformist attitude during the 1970s and Watergate upheaval, changed in the 1980s, when it began accepting a powerful presidency or unitary executive. This change resulted from the rise of the Republican Party, which dismissed attacks on the president as politicized. This defensive attitude was not lost on Reagan’s cabinet members, who wanted to “safeguard the president and the administration from the political fallout” of the Iran-Contra scandal.17 They defended Reagan in their testimonies, pinned the blame on the NSC and Poindexter, and obstructed evidence, like his presidential finding authorizing the HAWK shipment. This plan to deflect Reagan’s criminal charges was typical of the administration’s right-wing officials, who were also Reagan’s trusted confidants.
Byrne presents a solid account of the Reagan administration’s mishandling of U.S. foreign policy in Iran and Nicaragua. He explains that the political attitudes of the public and Congress allowed Reagan to escape punishment for his actions. Byrne ends the book with an important consideration: Reagan’s abuse of power “leaves the way open” for future presidents to “press their advantage as far as politics will allow.”18 In recent years, Byrne’s warning has come true. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush used national security as an excuse for unjust interrogations and wiretaps, repeating the Reagan administration’s unethical behavior.
1. Riedel, Bruce. “Foreword.” Foreword. IranContra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014. Xi.
2. Byrne, Malcolm. IranContra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014. 1.
3. Byrne, Malcolm. 39.
4. Byrne, Malcolm. 107.
5. Byrne, Malcolm. 189.
6. Byrne, Malcolm. 286.
7. Byrne, Malcolm. 297.
8. Byrne, Malcolm. 332.
9. Byrne, Malcolm. 331.
10. Byrne, Malcolm. Xxiii.
11. Cantey, Seth. Rev. of Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Political Science Quarterly Winter 2015: 796.
ANTIPAC. Web. 15 May 2016.
12. Painter, David S. Rev. of Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Journal of American History Sept. 2015: 630. ANTIPAC. Web. 15 May 2016.
13. Byrne, Malcolm. 3.
14. Byrne, Malcolm. 107.
15. Byrne, Malcolm. 279280.
16. Byrne, Malcolm. 279.
17. Byrne, Malcolm. 274.
18. Byrne, Malcolm. 338.