27 June 2012
The Iran-Contra Scandal
Barely a decade removed from the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the United States would learn of another political scandal, the Iran-Contra affair. The Watergate scandal had the rock solid evidence of the arrests related to the break-in at the Watergate complex, and the audio tapes of the President recording conversations, Iran-Contra was littered with false statements, recants, and shredded documents. The Iran-Contra affair is not one scandalous incident, but rather two covert operations started under Reagan's administration. In the beginning, these two operations were independent of each other, but eventually became linked though funds received from the sale of arms to Iran for hostages and then given to the Contras fighting to overthrow a Marxist government in Nicaragua. The scandal began with Nicaraguan politics.
After the Marxist Sandinista regime took over Nicaragua in 1979, the government was faced with a growing communist threat to US interest in Central America. When President Reagan took office in 1981, he was vehemently determined to halt the spread of communism, especially in Central America (Arnson 8). Seeking to bolster US prestige and military power, Reagan took a tough stand against communism in the Western Hemisphere. In Nicaragua, he gave the Central Intelligence Agency the approval to help organize and aid a group of Contrarevolucionarios or Contras who were in opposition to the Sandinista regime (Arnson 6).
Congress, unwilling to fight in another country's war after the devastating loss in Vietnam, began restricting the use of government funds for rebel guerrillas in Central America. The CIA, concerned that soon Congress would cut off the funding for their program, began to stockpile arms for the contras (Walsh 18). Their fears were realized when Congress enacted the second Boland Amendment which stated: No funds available tot he Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose of which would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual (Arnson 167-8). The Reagan administration interpreted the Boland Amendment as not covering the activities of the National Security Council (NSC). The NSC was established in 1947 with the explicit purpose of advising the President on all matters relating to national security. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the NSC was given a small staff that ultimately grew and turned into a vital arm of the presidency. As years went by, the NSC staff began controlling the policy-making output of both State and Defense Department, as well as the activities of the CIA (Draper 11). When the CIA was banned from acting in Nicaragua by the second Boland amendment, President Reagan surreptitiously bypassed Congress and employed his NSC staff instead. National Security Council staffer Oliver North became the central coordinator supplying aid to the Contras.
After Reagan's reelection in 1984, he began an additional covert operation. This time, it was the effort to release seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by a radical Islamic group called the Hezbollah. The operation included trading arms for hostages, which clearly violated the Arms Export Control Act, the National Security Act, and stated US policy not to deal with terrorists (Walsh 43). Iran, in the middle of a war with Iraq, was desperate for weapons. Many Iranians approached US officials offering t help free the hostages in Lebanon in exchange for arms. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane was approached by Israeli intermediaries and was persuaded to ask the President about negations with the Iranians. Reagan approved a shipment of 96