Iran-Contra: In a Nutshell, What’s Known to Date With AM-Contra Hearings Bjt
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Great Scandal of 1986-1987 first saw light in the pages of a weekly magazine published in Beirut. The magazine reported the improbable fact that the United States had delivered spare parts and ammunition to its intractable enemy, Iran, the land of the despotic Ayatollah Khomeini.
That startling report, on the first weekend of November 1986, was compounded by the speaker of Iran’s parliament who said his government in September had arrested and expelled a special envoy sent by President Reagan. The envoy: former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane.
Skip westward to Lebanon that same weekend and another newsmaking event, the freeing of American hostage David Jacobsen by his Shiite Moslem kidnappers. There was immediate speculation that the two events were linked.
The Khomeini curse, which had brought Jimmy Carter’s administration to heel, was about to afflict his successor, too.
Now, six months later, the story will be laid out in public, with coongressional hearings.
The country reacted with shock when it became clear last fall that the United States had played footsie with a regime that regarded America as ″the Great Satan,″ and that seven years earlier seized the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage.
The White House said its ban on arms sales, imposed by Carter in 1979, was still in effect. Ronald Reagan went on television to tell the American people that he had undertaken 18 months of secret diplomacy with Iran and sent small amounts of weapons to improve relations, not to ransom American hostages.
″We did not - repeat - did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages,″ the president said. And in a news conference six days later, he denied that the U.S. had condoned arms shipments to Iran by other countries - a statement that the White House press office quickly said was in error.
ABC News took a poll and found that most Americans thought Reagan had been untruthful. It was a harsh judgment, repeated in coming months, on a president who had enjoyed unequalled popularity.
On Nov. 25, Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese III appeared in the White House press room. An Associated Press dispatch told the story:
″President Reagan’s national security adviser resigned today and a key aide was fired after the White House learned that up to $30 million received from the secret sale of weapons to Iran had been transferred to U.S.-backed Contras fighting the Nicaraguan government.″
The president told reporters, ″I was not fully informed″ of the Contra connection.
The national security adviser was Navy Adm. John Poindexter, who had taken over the post from McFarlane. The aide was Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Marine, who had been the chief White House contact with the Contras.
Newspapers jumped on the story with an aggressiveness not seen since the Watergate scandal and new details were unearthed daily. The arms shipments, through Israel, coincided approximately with the release of the Rev. Benjamin Weir and the Rev. Martin Lawrence Jenco, too. And what has been shown is that North was a central player in the program to secretly sell the weapons and helped manage a host of private individuals who were raising money and arming the Contras.
North was driven by twin motives: Getting aid to the Contras after Congress had cut off military aid, and freeing the hostages.
While there are a lot of details of how the operations worked, a lot of facts are missing.
It is known how the weapons got to Iran and how they were financed by middlemen like Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar. And how North recruited operatives like retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord to handle many details of arming the Iranians and the Contras. Secord’s company, Stanford Technology, employed several people such as Albert Hakim and Robert Dutton to work out arrangements.
There were people in this country, not in government, who were interested in helping the Contras because they feared the spread of communism in Central America.
One of them was Carl Channell, known by the nickname ″Spitz″, who used North and his influence to solicit contributions for the Contras from wealthy donors. Channell last week became the first person charged with a crime, defrauding the government, and he pleaded guilty. He named North as his co- conspirator.
Investigators are looking for evidence that the desire for profit may have motivated some of the players.
It was apparent that North wielded authority, far beyond that of a middle- level Marine officer. But he wasn’t talking. Neither was Poindexter. Thus, both career military men were cast in the uncomfortable position of having to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that they refused to testify because they might incriminate themselves.
That committee had started an investigation early. Reagan jumped in by appointing a commission headed by former Sen. John Tower to gather facts for the White House. Judges picked lawyer Lawrence Walsh as an independent counsel to handle criminal prosecutions. And each house of Congress established special fact-finding committees.
In this respect, as in many others, the Iran-Contra probe paralleled the process that took place in Washington 14 years earlier in the Watergate investigations.
How much profit was generated from the sale of arms? Where did the money go? The estimates are that $10 million to $30 million needs to be accounted for - and perhaps more.
Was this program sanctioned by the CIA? By its director, William Casey, who may not be able to testify further because of brain cancer? The president, who has denied knowing anything about it?
What was the mechanism by which that money was transferred to the Contras? A Swiss bank connection is sure. But how did it move? What was the Israeli role? Israelis have acknowledged they facilitated shipping weapons to Iran, but it is unclear how much, if any, money they received.
Who ran this operation? North and Poindexter? North alone with Poindexter’s knowledge? Was the CIA running it? Who was North taking orders from? The vice president? The president?
And the old Watergate question resurfaces. What did the president know and when did he know it?