In Iran Contra's Cold War Shadows: A Correspondent's Murder, a Senator's Anger, a Mercenary's Secret

Photos courtesy San Diego State University Network Television News Archive.

His hands bound, the American stood between two military guards as a Nicaraguan judge approached, stepping over metal debris strewn across the jungle floor.

Pointing to the twisted fuselage of a downed C-123 cargo plane, the judge asked, in halting English, "Is this the craft your Imperialist superiors sent you with weapons to destroy the people’s government of Nicaragua?"

The prisoner hesitated. "I think that's it," he said, then smiled, "but it looked different the last time I saw it." 1

Thirty-two years ago this fall, I stood in the jungle with the judge, the prisoner, and about two dozen soldiers and court officials.

Transported to the site by a Russian helicopter, I was the pool reporter that day for dozens of journalists gathered from around the hemisphere. 

We were covering the trial of Eugene Hasenfus, an American mercenary. His capture while delivering weapons and supplies to anti-Sandinista rebels gave the world its first glimpse of the Iran Contra scandal starting to unravel.

Hasenfus’s attempt at humor failed to hide his fear that he had been abandoned by his country.

“I feel I’m a prisoner of politics right now,” he told me in prison. “Our government doing so many things and this government fighting back. I’m a boat in between, stuck in the waves.” 2

What worried Hasenfus was the fact that every U.S. agency – Central Intelligence, Pentagon, State Department, and White House – denied any connection to him. Yet his boss, William Cooper, the plane’s pilot, who died in the crash, had insisted there was high-level support for their secret arms deliveries.

"When an individual comes across and says this is coming right out of the main, the main room," Hasenfus told me.

"What did that mean to you?" I asked.

"Well, that it was coming out of the White House," he said. 3

Hasenfus was convicted of terrorism-related charges, sentenced to 30 years in prison, and pardoned a month later to return to his family in Wisconsin. The U.S. never acknowledged Hasenfus’s connection to its secret effort to support the Contra fight against its pro-Communist foes.

Seen from the distance of three decades, the Iran Contra scandal rivals Watergate in scope and magnitude of illegal complicity by government officials. 

Yet unlike Watergate, which brought down a president and sent many of his top accomplices to prison, Iran Contra failed to result in substantive punishment for virtually all of its high level perpetrators. 

As an ABC News correspondent assigned to cover various episodes of the scandal (the fights in 1984 over a Congressional ban on Contra funding and the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, as well as Hasenfus’s capture in 1986), I confess: I blew it. So did others.

To be honest, we didn’t grasp the enormity of the conspiracy. Some of the dots were visible, but many were not, and we didn't connect any of them until too late.  

In simplest terms, here's what we missed:

Violating its own embargo on weapons sales and its vow not to pay ransom to terrorists, the United States secretly sold missiles to Iran in hopes of winning freedom for American hostages in Lebanon.

Then, ignoring a strict Congressional ban on funding the Contra rebels, U.S. agents spent money earned from the missile sales to arm these same rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Communist government in Nicaragua. 

To be sure, it wasn't entirely that simple. Nicaragua was, in fact, waging its own clandestine war, supplying rebels trying to overthrow the repressive but pro-American government of El Salvador. Many Americans wanted to blunt what they saw as a Communist threat in Central America.  But the Reagan Administration was unwilling to accept Congressional demands for caution.  

Instead, following a Cold War logic that insisted that Communism must be met with force, the Reagan national security team bullied (and blundered) its way forward.

Where did all this start? For me, it began June 20, 1979. That was the day a Nicaraguan National Guard soldier shot to death Bill Stewart, an ABC News correspondent, at a checkpoint in the capital of Managua.

Bill was on assignment from ABC News headquarters in New York. For at least a year before his death, we shared a small office cubicle, covering stories separately all across the world.

His execution-style murder was captured by an ABC News cameraman and the video smuggled out of the country. It was broadcast in the United States and around the world.

Within weeks, disgusted by this act of gruesome brutality, the United States withdrew support for the regime of Anastasio Somoza, a rightwing dictator facing an armed rebellion by Communist-backed rebels. Within a month of Bill’s murder, the Sandinista rebels took control of the country.

Unnoticed, Bill’s death and the fall of Somoza set the stage for a wider Cold War confrontation over Communism’s influence in Central America.

Five years later, there were clues that a secret war was underway.  One was revealed by newspaper reports that the CIA was secretly mining the harbors of Nicaragua.

On April 13, 1984, I went to Capitol Hill to interview Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As I entered his office, I could see he was angry. Then he smiled and said “I think I’m about to commit news!” 5

Two days later, Anchorman David Brinkley broke Moynihan’s news on his Sunday morning television program.

“Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, angry at what he calls a breach of trust by the CIA,” said Brinkley, “announces that he will resign as Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence.”

Quoting Moynihan, a Democrat, Brinkley said “Had the committee been told about the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors, it would have refused to approve it.” 6

As it happened, CIA Director William Casey had, in fact, mentioned a plan to mine the harbors. But it was only one sentence – 27 words – in two hours of words to a select group of senators.

When the mining became public, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a Republican, denounced it as a violation of international law.

Moynihan resigned his committee post of vice chairman but stayed as a committee member.

Those 27 words quickly blew up under Reagan’s Central American policy. The House refused to fund it. Both houses called on the President to stop the mining as a violation of international law.

While the issue festered behind the scenes, the president’s men and at least one woman -- United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick – continued to press the case in public (and secretly) for executive action against Nicaragua.

“The evidence that Nicaragua is involved in promoting armed insurgency in El Salvador is truly beyond dispute,” Ambassador Kirkpatrick said in a speech. “To portray Nicaragua as a victim in the current situation is a complete Orwellian inversion of what is actually happening.” 7

Suddenly, Nicaragua prepared to sue the United States at the World Court in The Hague. The United States declared that it would not accept the court’s jurisdiction. Miguel D’Escoto, the Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, said “This is a clear manifestation of guilt.” 8

The American Society of International Law went on record opposing the decision. But a leading scholar said the mining was legally justified.

John Norton Moore, a University of Virginia authority on international law, insisted, “When there is an armed attack in violation of the United Nations charter, and the OAS system, then there is a right of defense, and the United States is entitled to respond in ways that are either overt or covert.”  9

Over the years, Congress, the courts and a special prosecutor never solved the riddle of how or whether to restrain and punish illegal acts by powerful members of the Executive Branch.

Who were the suspected perpetrators? When their names surfaced, the roster of officials who planned, carried out, or covered up the operations began at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and spread widely in government

Among them were President Reagan's two prime national security officers, Vice President George Bush’s national security advisor, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Secretary of Defense. A grand jury indicted a dozen people. Five pled guilty.

But high-level officials avoided prison. President Reagan and Vice President Bush claimed they knew nothing of the operations and the staff which ran them. They were not prosecuted. Bush successfully fended off attempts to question him under oath.

Two White House national security officers (John Poindexter and Oliver North) were convicted in trials but appeals courts overturned the verdicts because their immunized testimony to Congress revealing how the scheme worked might have tainted the juries hearing their cases.

Six years later, in his final days as President, Mr. Bush pardoned six defendants, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

This result, argue critics, reflected a disgraceful lack of vigor by Congress and the news media.

"In retrospect," wrote Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for
Public Integrity, "something in Washington had seriously changed,
undoubtedly for the worse. The will and the ability to hold those in power accountable had perceptibly weakened." 10

This failure confused the public and scholars, who still disagree about whether the law was broken.

“We have a horrible problem,” said Professor Robert Taylor, who co-founded the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law.  11

In a 2016 interview, Taylor told me he blamed “an irresponsible Congress seeking to gain partisan benefit from difficult national security decisions.”

Asked if he believed this meant neither President Reagan nor his executive branch aides broke the law, Taylor said “Yes, that’s essentially the view I’ve taken.” 12

Taylor, who served as legal counsel and staff advisor in the U.S. Senate, White House, and Defense and State Departments, cited “the original understanding of the Constitution,” which, he insisted, “has not been amended, so it certainly ought to exist. The problem is almost nobody knows the history.” 13

Not so, would argue Cynthia Arnson, a Congressional staff member turned scholar who published Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America1976-1993.

”Ultimately, the Reagan Administration’s expansive view of the presidency carried within it the seeds of its destruction. Sooner or later the secret effort on behalf of the Contras would be exposed to public scrutiny, because operations of such scale and duration are difficult to keep covert indefinitely,” Arnson wrote, adding:

“Disclosure of the administration’s deception in carrying out Nicaragua policy invited Congress to take drastic measures to restore equilibrium between the two branches, if only to reassert the primacy of law in a constitutional government.”14

In 2014, a new description of Iran Contra appeared, based solely on the scandal and citing documents declassified since Arnson’s study,

Malcolm Byrne, deputy director and research director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, wrote Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power.

After his lengthy study, Byrne offered a sobering glimpse into the future: Iran Contra was not necessarily an aberration, he concluded.

”There will always be the prospect that the necessary conditions will recur,” 15 he warned, suggesting a series of tripwires that might lead to unforeseen consequences.

There could be an international crisis requiring extreme measures, he suggested, a president willing to push the limits of his office, aides willing to carry out the president’s wishes “no matter what,” and a political opposition “unwilling to challenge a popular president.”

An added factor, Byrne argued, would be a corps of journalists “unable to pierce executive branch secrecy,” a key barrier three decades ago.

“Finally,” Byrne wrote, “the inability of Congress and the courts to check the abuses of Iran Contra leaves the way open for future presidents – and their staffs –to press their advantage as far as politics will allow, posing predictable hazards to the broader public interest.” 16

Because of the muddled way Iran Contra ended, it must be admitted that it is difficult to judge what kind of presidential behavior would prevail if a Cold War--style episode arose in the current era.

 

1 Author’s recollection, March, 2018

2 Eugene Hasenfus, “Hasenfus Confesses in Prison to Supplying U.S. Arms,” ABC World News Tonight, Oct 23, 1986, San Diego State University Network Television News Archive, MP4 171, 31:54-35:54 (4:00)

3 Hasenfus, “Hasenfus Confesses…” Ibid

5 Author’s recollection, 2018

6 David Brinkley, “CIA Mines Nicaraguan Harbor; Moynihan Resigns,” ABC News, This Week with David Brinkley, April 15, 1984 San Diego State University Network Television News Archive, MP4 142, 9:41-15:23 (5:42)

7 Jeanne Kirkpatrick,“CIA Mines…”Ibid

8 Miguel D’Escoto,“CIA Mines…”, Ibid

9 John Norton Moore,“CIA Mines…”Ibid

10 Charles Lewis, 935 Lies, The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity, (Public Affairs, Perseus Books, 2014), P. 111

11 Robert Taylor, author interview, June, 2016

12 Taylor, ibid

13 Taylor, Ibid

14 Cynthia Arnson, Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America1976-1993 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, Second Edition, 1993), p. 278.

15 Malcolm Byrne, IRAN CONTRA: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (University Press of Kansas, 2014), P. 339.

16 Byrne, Ibid

John Martin, a retired ABC News national correspondent (1975-2002) and Columbia University adjunct professor (2002-2010), is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
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