December 19, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
Greasing the Skids
In the next phase of the evolving Iran operation -- the direct delivery of U.S. missiles -- Powell would play an even bigger role.
Indeed, the disastrous policy might never have happened, or might have stopped much sooner, except for the work of Colin Powell.
In early 1986, Powell short-circuited the Pentagon covert procurement system that was put in place after the Yellow Fruit scandal. Defense procurement officials said that without Powell's interference, the system would have alerted the military brass that thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry were headed to Iran, a terrorist state.
But Powell used his bureaucratic skills to slip the missiles and the other hardware out of U.S. Army inventories.
The story of Powell's maneuvers can be found in a close reading of thousands of pages from depositions of Pentagon officials, who pointed to Weinberger's assistant as the key Iran-contra action officer within the Defense Department.
Powell insisted that he and Weinberger minimized the Pentagon's role. Powell said they delivered the missiles to the CIA under the Economy Act, which regulates transfers between government agencies. "We treated the TOW transfer like garbage to be gotten out of the house quickly," Powell wrote in My American Journey.
But the Economy Act argument was disingenuous, because the Pentagon always uses the Economy Act when it moves weapons to the CIA. Powell's account also obscured his unusual actions in arranging the shipments without giving senior officers the information that Pentagon procedures required, even on sensitive covert activities.
Weinberger officially handed Powell the job of shipping the missiles to Iran on Jan. 17, 1986. That was the day Reagan signed an intelligence "finding," a formal authorization to pull arms from U.S. stockpiles and ship them to Iran.
In testimony, Powell dated his first knowledge of the missile transfers to this moment, an important distinction because if he had been aware of the earlier shipments – as much evidence suggests – he potentially would have been implicated in a felony.
A day after Reagan's "finding," Jan. 18, 1986, Powell instructed Gen. Max Thurman, then acting Army chief of staff, to prepare for a transfer of 4,000 TOW anti-tank missiles but Powell made no mention of Iran. "I gave him absolutely no indication of the destination of the missiles," Powell testified.
Though kept in the dark, Thurman began the process of transferring the TOWs to the CIA, the first step of the journey. Powell's orders "bypassed the formal [covert procedures] on the ingress line," Thurman acknowledged in later Iran-contra testimony. "The first shipment is made without a complete wring-out through all of the procedural steps."
As Powell's strange orders rippled through the top echelon of the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Vincent M. Russo, the assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, called Powell to ask about the operation. Powell immediately circumvented Russo's inquiry. In effect, Powell pulled rank by arranging for "executive instructions" commanding Russo to deliver the first 1,000 TOWs, no questions asked.
"It was a little unusual," commented then Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. "All personal visit or secure phone call, nothing in writing -- because normally through the [covert logistics office] a procedure is established so that records are kept in a much more formal process. ... I felt very uneasy about this process. And I also felt uneasy about the notification dimension to the Congress."
On Jan. 29, 1986, thanks to Powell's orders, 1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and transferred to the airfield at Anniston, Ala. As the shipment progressed, senior Pentagon officers grew edgier about Powell withholding the destination and other details. The logistics personnel also wanted proof that somebody was paying for the missiles.
Major Christopher Simpson, who was making the flight arrangements, later told Iran-contra investigators that Gen. Russo "was very uncomfortable with no paperwork to support the mission request. He wasn't going to 'do nothin', as he said, without seeing some money. ...'no tickey, no laundry.'"
The money for the first shipment was finally deposited into a CIA account in Geneva on Feb. 11, 1986. Three days later, Russo released the 1,000 TOWs to the CIA. The first direct U.S. arms shipment to Iran was under way, although the Israelis were still acting as middlemen.
Inside the Pentagon, concerns grew about Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of the missile recipients. Major Simpson told congressional investigators that he would have rung alarm bells if he had known the TOWs were headed to Iran.
"In the three years that I had worked there, I had been instructed ... by the leadership ... never to do anything illegal, and I would have felt that we were doing something illegal," Simpson said.
Even without knowing that the missiles were going to Iran, Simpson expressed concern about whether the requirement to notify Congress had been met. He got advice from a Pentagon lawyer that the 1986 intelligence authorization act, which mandated a "timely" notice to Congress on foreign arms transfers, had an "impact on this particular mission."
Major Simpson asked Gen. Russo, who got another legal opinion from the Army general counsel who concurred that Congress must be notified. The issue was bumped up to Secretary of the Army John Marsh. Though still blind about the shipment's destination, the Army high command was inclined to stop the peculiar operation in its tracks.
At this key moment, Colin Powell intervened again. Simpson said, "General Powell was asking General Russo to reassure the secretary of the Army that notification was being handled, ... that it had been addressed and it was taken care of." Despite Powell's assurance, however, Congress had not been notified.
Army Secretary Marsh shared the skepticism about Powell's operation. On Feb. 25, Marsh called a meeting of senior Army officers and ordered Russo to "tell General Powell of my concern with regard to adequate notification being given to Congress," Russo later testified. Marsh also instructed Russo to keep a careful chronology of events.
Army chief of staff Wickham went further. He demanded that a memo on congressional notification be sent to Powell. "The chief wanted it in writing," stated Army Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell on March 7, 1986.
Five days later, Powell handed the memo to President Reagan's national security adviser John Poindexter with the advice: "Handle it ... however you plan to do it," Powell later testified.
Poindexter's plan for "timely notification" was to tell Congress on the last day of the Reagan presidency, Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the Pentagon memo into a White House safe, along with the secret "finding" on the Iran missile shipments.
While debate over notification bubbled, others in the Pentagon fretted over the possibly illegal destination of the missiles. Col. John William McDonald, who oversaw covert supply, objected when he learned that key Army officials had no idea where the weapons were headed.
"One [concern] was inadvertent provision of supplies to the [Nicaraguan] contras in violation of the Boland Amendment," which prohibited military shipments to the contras, McDonald testified. "The second issue was inadvertent supply to countries that were on the terrorist list. ... There is a responsibility to judge the legality of the request."
When McDonald was asked by congressional investigators how he would have reacted if told the weapons were going to Iran, he responded, "I would have told General Thurman ... that I would believe that the action was illegal and that Iran was clearly identified as one of the nations on the terrorist list for whom we could not transfer weapons."
But when McDonald joined other Pentagon officers in appealing to Powell about the missile shipment's destination, they again were told not to worry. Powell "reiterated [that it was] the responsibility of the recipient" agency, the CIA, to notify Congress, "and that the Army did not have the responsibility to do that."
Then, in March 1986, Powell conveyed a second order, this time for 284 HAWK antiaircraft missile parts and 500 HAWK missiles. This time, Powell’s order set off alarms not only over legal questions, but whether the safety of U.S forces might be jeopardized.
The HAWK order would force a drawdown of U.S. supplies to a dangerous level. Henry Gaffney, a senior supply official, warned Powell that "you're going to have to start tearing it out of the Army's hide."
But the Pentagon again followed Powell's orders. It stripped its shelves of 15 spare parts for HAWK missiles that were protecting U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
"I can only trust that somebody who is a patriot ... and interested in the survival of this nation ... made the decision that the national policy objectives were worth the risk of a temporary drawdown of readiness," said Lt. Gen. Peter G. Barbules.
If there had been an air attack on U.S. forces in Europe during the drawdown, the HAWK missile defense batteries might not have had the necessary spare parts to counter an enemy attack.
Implemented by Colin Powell, the Iran initiative had taken priority over both legal safeguards inside the Pentagon and over the safety of U.S. soldiers around the world.