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ROBERT PARRY: The Iran-Contra Coverup

by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!

to more on Reagan's shameful legacy

This is what President Reagan had to say as the Iran-Contra scandal was breaking:

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We did not -- repeat, did not -- trade weapons or anything else for hostages. Nor will we.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Reagan in 1986, but his statements changed a few months later.

A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry explains the Iran-Contra scandal:

President Reagan listens to Senators John Tower and Edmund Muskie of the Tower Commission as they explain the Iran-Contra charges, which could have led to impeachment. At the time, most Americans thought Reagan was lying when he said he didn't recall authorizing the illegal operation. Photograph taken in the White House Feb. 26, 1987
ROBERT PARRY: The Iran-Contra scandal came out of a couple of different initiatives that the Reagan administration was following. One was the war in Nicaragua, which had to be done with a great deal of deception surrounding it because Congress had opposed much of that effort. The international community had opposed much of that effort, so the Reagan administration essentially took it underground with the work of people like Elliot Abrams and Oliver North and John Poindexter.

On one side there was an effort to maintain support for the contras, who were engaged in fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. On the other side there was a long-running policy, which we have traced back now to 1981, of secretly helping the Iranian government arm itself. The U.S. policy secretly supported both sides -- both the Iranian fundamentalist government of Khomeini, and the more secular government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Those two policies were running in parallel.

When the financing for the contras became more and more problematic, the Reagan administration decided to use some of the profits from selling arms to the Iranians to help support the contras. So, that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal when it finally broke.

I want to play a tape of Ed Meese, the former attorney general, who made the Reagan administration's admission of what had taken place. He was interviewed yesterday on Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition" on CNN:

EDWIN MEESE: The association or relationship with moderate forces in Iran, and part of the agreement to show good faith was to provide some defensive weapons for them. Separately from that, we had the support of the freedom fighters. When you had some people in the White House that unauthorized -- took some of the profits from the sale of arms to Iran and diverted them to the support of the freedom fighters. That was the problem.

I told the President what happened, and he said, Ed, we have to get this out to the American people as quickly as we can. He called the cabinet first and we had a meeting in which it was revealed to the cabinet. An hour later, he brought in the congressional leaders and presented the whole picture to them, and then at noon, brought the press together, had a press conference, and he introduced the subject and then he was actually entertaining the Supreme Court for lunch that day, and he had to excuse himself to do that, and he asked me, then, to explain the details to the press corps. It was something that he knew nothing about while it was going on in terms of the unauthorized activity, and which he was -- was quick to make sure that all of the facts came out to the public. I think that in itself probably saved his Presidency, at least enabled him to continue to be a successful president over the next two years, which were critical in ultimately our relationship with the Soviet Union and ending the cold war.

Well, that really is not quite true. It is true that Edwin Meese held a press conference in November of 1986, putting forth the basic facts that Oliver North -- and the team he was working with -- had made this transfer of money from the Iran shipment weapons to the contras. What happened after that was simply a coverup to make Oliver North the fall guy and to protect Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush, the Central Intelligence Agency and other entities of the administration that had been deeply involved in this operation.

It took a lot more work by the press, and most significantly, by Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, to break through many, many barriers. Lawrence Walsh, a patrician republican, if you remember, named his book on this topic, "Firewall." The reason he used the title "Firewall" is because a firewall had been built to protect Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and other elements of the administration from the spread of the scandal. We learned later the CIA remained directly involved in these operations, really through to the end. So, it wasn't a case of just Oliver North and a few men of zeal taking action, it was a case of an administration essentially bringing the policy underground and then when it was exposed in part, just replacing it with a new coverup.

The kind of discussion we're hearing over the last few days is more than the discussion of a man who has just died, but it's talking about a rewriting of the historical record. Can you talk about this discussion, whether it is in Central America or whether it's the discussion of President Reagan winning the cold war?

What we have seen here is a continuation in this administration of some of the approaches that became prominent in the Reagan administration.

First, there is the manipulating of intelligence, exaggerating dangers that occurred, both in strategic level with the Soviet Union in trying to present the Soviet Union as much more aggressive and powerful and effective than it turned out to be. It was a country on the verge of collapse. Also, they exaggerated the threats from places like Nicaragua -- Third World countries that were very much on the defensive and presented as threats to the United States.

This was a systematic falsification of U.S. Intelligence that occurred at the CIA. The analytical division of the CIA was virtually destroyed during that period of the 1980's under Bill Casey and Robert Gates. This was very important because before then, there was much more independence within the CIA's analytical division. Afterwards, the CIA basically became a conveyor belt for propaganda.

We have seen that reoccur now with the Iraq situation when again, intelligence was falsified, and the threats were exaggerated, and then policies were put together to respond to those exaggerated threats. As Dr. Chomsky mentioned earlier, some of these people were the same people involved today. And they just continued to follow the same policies.

An important element of this was "perception management," a concept that was put in place during the early 80's. The basic idea was that if you managed the perceptions to the American people about various events, particularly foreign events, that you can taken take actions that would not be supported by the American people, if seen in their full context.

If the people of the United States perceived Nicaragua to be a threat to their security, they would support the sending of weapons and the supporting the contras. If they saw the Sandinistas as being what they were, a struggling little government in Nicaragua, they probably wouldn't. The problem has often been that in the case of these kinds of events, perception management became the role. That's continued today with Iraq.

Reprinted by permission, and edited / formatted for this presentation. The original rush transcript is available at the Democracy Now! website or an audio or video copy of the entire program can be ordered by calling 1 (800) 881-2359.

Robert Parry is a veteran journalist who worked as an investigative reporter for AP and "Newsweek" when his reporting led to the exposure of the Iran-Contra scandal. Parry writes for Consortium News

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