December 19, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
Powell's Iran-Contra Role
Back at the Pentagon, Colin Powell might have felt at ease in the familiar environs. But Washington was indeed about to become "Ground Zero."
In 1984-85, as the Iran-contra storm clouds built, one-star Gen. Colin Powell was the “filter” for information flowing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
After the scandal broke in 1986, Powell managed to escape its consequences, in part, by claiming that much of what Weinberger knew about the secret deals had not gone through that “filter.”
Powell said he knew next to nothing about unlawful 1985 shipments of U.S. weapons from Israel to Iran -- or about illegal third-country financing of the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
But was the general lying?
The documentary record makes clear that his boss, Weinberger, knew a great deal -- and the evidence suggests that so did Powell.
Weinberger was one of the first officials outside the White House to learn that Reagan had put the arm on Saudi Arabia to give the contras $1 million a month in 1984, as Congress was cutting off the CIA's covert assistance through what was known as the Boland Amendment.
Handling the contra-funding arrangements was Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, a close friend of both Weinberger and Powell. Bandar and Powell had met in the 1970s and were frequent tennis partners in the 1980s.
So it was plausible -- perhaps even likely -- that Bandar would have discussed the contra funding with Powell, Weinberger or both. But exactly when Weinberger learned of the Saudi contributions and what Powell knew remain unclear to this day.
The Iran-contra trial of Weinberger for alleged obstruction of justice -- which was set for early 1993 and was expected to include testimony by Powell -- was derailed by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992 when he pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants.
What is known from the public record, however, is that on June 20, 1984, Weinberger attended a State Department meeting about the contra operation. His scribbled notes cited the need to "plan for other sources for $." But secrecy would be vital, the defense secretary understood. "Keep US fingerprints off," he wrote.
In summer 1984, Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned from a foreign visitor about the Saudi money for the contras. Vessey told Weinberger, who gave Vessey the impression of surprise. "I reported it to Secretary Weinberger," Vessey said in a deposition. "His reaction was about the same as mine, sort of surprise first that [Saudi Arabia] would do it."
In 1985, when the Saudis doubled their annual contra gift from $12 million to $25 million, Vessey quickly passed on word to Weinberger again. This time, the record is clear that the Defense Secretary understood that the contribution to buy weapons was part of the larger contra-aid strategy.
"Jack Vessey in office alone," Weinberger wrote on March 13, 1985. "Bandar is giving $25 million to Contras -- so all we need is non-lethal aid."
The Iran Initiative
Meanwhile, the White House was maneuvering into dangerous geopolitical territory, too, in its policy toward Iran. The Israelis were interested in trading U.S. weapons to Iran's radical Islamic government to expand Israel's influence in that important Middle Eastern country. It was also believed that Iran might help free American hostages held by Islamic extremists in Lebanon.
Carrying the water for this strategy within the Reagan administration was national security adviser Robert McFarlane. He circulated a draft presidential order in June 1985, proposing an overture to supposed Iranian moderates.
The paper passed through Weinberger's "filter," Colin Powell. In his memoirs, Powell called the proposal "a stunner" and a grab by McFarlane for "Kissingerian immortality." After reading the draft, Weinberger scribbled in the margins, "this is almost too absurd to comment on."
On June 30, 1985, as the paper was circulating inside the administration, Reagan declared that the United States would give no quarter to terrorism. "Let me further make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists," the president said.
But in July 1985, Weinberger, Powell and McFarlane met to discuss details for doing just that. Iran wanted 100 anti-tank TOW missiles that would be delivered through Israel, according to Weinberger's notes. Reagan gave his approval, but the White House wanted to keep the operation a closely held secret. The shipments were to be handled with "maximum compartmentalization," the notes said.
On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered the first 96 missiles to Iran. It was a pivotal moment for the Reagan administration. With that missile shipment, the Reagan administration stepped over an important legal line. The transfer violated laws requiring congressional notification for trans-shipment of U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to Iran or any other nation designated a terrorist state. Violation of either statute could be a felony.
A Mysterious Meeting
The available evidence from that period suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop, even though they may have opposed the arms-to-Iran policy. On Aug. 22, two days after the first delivery, Israel notified McFarlane of the completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane called Weinberger.
When Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, McFarlane rushed to the Pentagon to meet Weinberger and Powell. The 40-minute meeting started at 7:30 p.m.
That much is known from the Iran-contra public record. But the substance of the conversation remains in dispute. McFarlane said that at the meeting with Weinberger and Powell, he discussed Reagan's approval of the missile transfer and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles.
If that is true, Weinberger and Powell were in the middle of a criminal conspiracy. But Weinberger denied McFarlane's account, and Powell insisted that he had only a fuzzy memory of the meeting without a clear recollection of any completed arms shipment.
"My recollection is that Mr. McFarlane described to the Secretary the so-called Iran Initiative and he gave to the Secretary a sort of a history of how we got where we were that particular day and some of the thinking that gave rise to the possibility of going forward ... and what the purposes of such an initiative would be," Powell said in an Iran-contra deposition two years later.
Congressional attorney Joseph Saba asked Powell if McFarlane had mentioned that Israel already had supplied weapons to Iran. "I don't recall specifically," Powell answered. "I just don't recall." When Saba asked about any notes, Powell responded, "there were none on our side."
In a later interview with the FBI, Powell said he learned at that meeting that there "was to be a transfer of some limited amount of materiel" to Iran. But he did not budge on his claim of ignorance about the crucial fact that the first shipment had already gone and that the Reagan administration had promised the Israelis replenishment for the shipped missiles. To have admitted that would have been to admit being part of a criminal conspiracy.
This claim of only prospective knowledge would be key to Powell's Iran-contra defense. But it made little sense for McFarlane to learn of the missile delivery and the need for replenishment, then hurry to the Pentagon, only to debate a future policy that, in reality, was already being implemented.
The behavior of Powell and Weinberger in the following days also suggested that they knew an arms-for-hostage swap was under way.
According to Weinberger's diary, he and Powell eagerly awaited a release of an American hostage in Lebanon, the payoff for the clandestine weapons shipment to Iran. In early September 1985, Weinberger dispatched a Pentagon emissary to meet with Iranians in Europe, another step that would seem to make little sense if Weinberger and Powell were indeed in the dark about the details of the arms-for-hostage operation.
At the same time, McFarlane told Israel that the United States was prepared to replace 500 Israeli missiles, an assurance that would have required Weinberger's clearance since the missiles would be coming from Defense Department stockpiles.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Israel delivered the second shipment, 408 more missiles to Iran. The next day, one hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was released in Beirut. Back at the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in his diary a cryptic reference to "a delivery I have for our prisoners."
But when the Iran-contra scandal broke more than a year later, Weinberger and Powell would plead faulty memories about the Weir case, too. Saba asked Powell if he knew of a linkage between an arms delivery and Weir's release. "No, I have no recollection of that," Powell answered.
After Weir's freedom, the job of replenishing the Israel missiles fell to White House aide Oliver North who turned to Powell for logistical assistance.
"My original point of contact was General Colin Powell, who was going directly to his immediate superior, Secretary Weinberger," North testified in 1987. But in their later sworn testimony, Powell and Weinberger continued to insist that they had no idea that 508 missiles had already been shipped via Israel to Iran and that Israel was expecting replenishment of its stockpiles.
Powell stuck to that story even as evidence emerged that he and Weinberger read top-secret intelligence intercepts in September and October 1985 in which Iranians described the U.S. arms delivery.
One of those reports, dated Oct. 2, 1985, and marked with the high-level classification, "SECRET SPOKE ORCON," was signed by Lt. Gen. William Odom, the director of the National Security Agency.
According to Odom's report, a sensitive electronic intercept had picked up a phone conversation a day earlier between two Iranian officials, identified as "Mr. Asghari" who was in Europe and "Mohsen Kangarlu" who was in Teheran.
"A large part of the conversation had to do with details on the delivery of several more shipments of weapons into Iran," wrote Odom. "Asghari then pressed Kangarlu to provide a list of what he wanted the 'other four planes' to bring. ... Kangarlu said that he already had provided a list. Asghari said that those items were for the first two planes. Asghari reminded Kangarlu that there were Phoenix missiles on the second plane which were not on the first. ... [Asghari] said that a flight would be made this week."
In 1987, when congressional Iran-contra investigators asked about the intercepts and other evidence of Pentagon knowledge, Powell again pleaded a weak memory. He repeatedly used phrases such as "I cannot specifically recall." At one point, Powell said, "To my recollection, I don't have a recollection."
When asked if Weinberger kept a diary that might shed more light on the issue, Powell responded, "The Secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary. Whatever notes he kept, I don't know how he uses them or what he does with them. He does not have a diary of this ilk, no." As for his own notebooks, Powell announced that he had destroyed them.