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Weinberger, Bushes & Iran-Contra

By Robert Parry
March 29, 2006

On Christmas Eve Day 1992, as many Americans were wrapping holiday gifts or rushing off to visit relatives, the nation’s history took a turn that blacked out key chapters of the recent past and foreshadowed troubling developments in the future.

At the center of that historic moment was former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who died on March 28 at the age of 88. In 1992, he was one of six defendants in the Iran-Contra scandal who received Christmas Eve pardons from President George H.W. Bush less than a month before Bush left office.

If Bush had not granted those pardons, Weinberger would have gone on trial in early 1993 facing perjury and obstruction charges, a courtroom drama that could have changed how Americans perceived key figures from the Reagan administration, including Colin Powell and President Bush himself.

At stake was not only Weinberger’s guilt or innocence but more importantly the legacy of the Reagan-Bush era. Quite likely, too, President Bush would have been caught up in this final unraveling of the Iran-Contra cover-up – and the prospects for his family’s resumption of political power might have been dealt a fatal blow.

The Weinberger trial might have foreclosed the possibility that George W. Bush would ride his father’s reputation to the White House eight years later.

The trial also represented the last best chance to explain to the American people the constitutional conflict that was festering beneath the surface of the Iran-Contra Affair, essentially the President’s assertion of unfettered power to conduct foreign policy even in defiance of laws passed by Congress.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, Ronald Reagan had sought to avoid a head-on clash with Congress by taking his foreign policy underground, using cutouts like Israel to ship missiles to Iran and White House aide Oliver North to funnel supplies to the contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua.

After those operations were exposed in 1986, Congress also tried to avert a constitutional showdown by papering over the illegal presidential actions and accepting the cover story that top officials, such as Reagan and Bush, were mostly out of the loop.

But those unresolved constitutional questions exploded back to the surface after Sept. 11, 2001, when George W. Bush asserted virtually unlimited presidential authority to override or ignore federal law as Commander in Chief. In effect, the younger George Bush was staking out power openly that Reagan and the elder George Bush had exercised only in secret.

The Weinberger pardon also exposed the Washington press corps’ growing aversion to complex topics, like the Iran-Contra scandal’s maze-like trails of government-sanctioned money-laundering, arms smuggling and even drug trafficking.

Rather than hungering for the new evidence that might have emerged from the Weinberger trial, many leading commentators expressed relief that they would be spared from having to puzzle out the Iran-Contra mysteries anymore.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many insiders when he expressed how happy he was that the well-liked Weinberger had avoided a trial. In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen recalled how he had seen Weinberger pushing his own shopping cart at the Safeway grocery store in Georgetown.

“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”

The U.S. news media’s disdain for the complicated Iran-Contra case presaged the press corps’ inability or unwillingness to challenge George W. Bush’s dubious claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction a decade later.

Powell’s Dilemma

Although it’s unclear exactly what would have been revealed if the Weinberger case had gone to trial, the prosecutor, James Brosnahan, once told me that he had no doubt it would have been a major political and historic event.

Among the likely star witnesses would have been Colin Powell, who would have faced the dilemma of risking perjury or admitting that he participated in a violation of the Arms Export Control Act in the missile shipments to Iran in 1985.

Either way, with a tarnished reputation, Powell almost certainly would not have been the trusted figure in 2003 who convinced millions of Americans – including Post columnist Cohen – that there was no doubt that Iraq possessed vast stockpiles of WMD.

The key question, ensnaring both Weinberger and his military assistant, Gen. Powell, was their apparent knowledge of the arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1985, before President Reagan signed a covert-operation finding in January 1986 that officially authorized the Iran operation.

Through the early 1980s, Israel had been interested in trading U.S. weapons to Iran to gain a foothold in that strategic Middle Eastern country. Israeli operatives also suggested that Iran could help the United States arrange the release of American hostages then held by radical Islamic groups in Lebanon.

Carrying the water for the Iran opening inside the White House was national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who circulated a draft presidential order about possible overtures to Iran in late spring 1985.

The paper passed through Weinberger's “filter,” Powell, who – in his memoirs – called the plan “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.”

Weinberger even warned Reagan that the military shipments through Israel were illegal and could constitute an impeachable offense. But Reagan was not deterred.

Though Reagan was declaring publicly “that America will never make concessions to terrorists,” privately he ordered precisely that. At the Pentagon, Weinberger and Powell became key figures in implementing the secret policy.

A Slippery Slope

In July 1985, Weinberger and Powell met with McFarlane about details of the weapons shipments. Iran wanted 100 TOW missiles to be delivered through Israel, according to Weinberger’s notes. Reagan gave his approval, though the White House wanted the shipments handled with “maximum compartmentalization” to prevent public disclosure.

On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered the first 96 missiles to Iran. That shipment put the Reagan administration over the legal line, in violation of laws both requiring congressional notification for transshipment of U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to Iran or any other nation designated a terrorist state.

The evidence also suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the know. On Aug. 22, Israel notified McFarlane of the completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane promptly called Weinberger.

When Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base, McFarlane rushed to the Pentagon to meet Weinberger and Powell. The 40-minute meeting started at 7:30 p.m, but the substance of the meeting remains in dispute.

McFarlane said he cited Reagan’s approval of the missile transfer and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles. But Weinberger denied that account, and Powell insisted that he had only a vague memory of the meeting.

”My recollection is that Mr. McFarlane described to the Secretary [Weinberger] 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 a deposition two years later.

In a subsequent interview with the FBI, Powell said he learned at the McFarlane meeting that there “was to be a transfer of some limited amount of materiel” to Iran. But he did not budge on his claim that he did not remember that the first shipment had already gone and that replenishment of Israeli stockpiles had been promised.

Yet, it made little sense for McFarlane to hurry to the Pentagon, after learning of the delivery and the need for replenishment, simply to debate a future policy that, in fact, was already being implemented. The behavior of Powell and Weinberger in the following days also suggests that they knew an arms-for-hostage swap was under way.

According to Weinberger’s diary, he and Powell eagerly awaited hostage releases in the following weeks. In early September 1985, Weinberger dispatched a Pentagon emissary to meet with Iranians in Europe. At the same time, McFarlane sent a message to Israel that the United States was prepared to replace 500 Israeli missiles, an assurance that would have required Weinberger’s clearance.

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, Lebanon. Back at the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in his diary a cryptic reference to “a delivery I have for our prisoners.”

When the Iran-Contra scandal broke more than a year later, Weinberger and Powell pleaded faulty memories again. An attorney for the congressional investigation asked Powell if he had heard of any linkage between an arms delivery and Weir’s release. “No, I have no recollection of that,” Powell said.

Enter Ollie

After Weir’s freedom, Oliver North became the point man for making sure the Israeli stockpiles were replenished.

“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 to Iran.

By fall 1985, however, the covert supply line was on the verge of exposure. On Nov. 22, 1985, a panicky Oliver North called Duane Clarridge, the CIA’s European Division chief, at home. “Look, I got a problem,” North explained. “And it involves Portugal.”

North needed Clarridge's help to assure that Portugal would let an Israeli plane carrying HAWK anti-aircraft missiles land in Lisbon. The missiles were then to be transferred to another plane for shipment to Iran.

In his memoirs, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge said North lied to him about the plane’s contents, claiming the shipment was oil-drilling equipment. Without further checking, Clarridge said he swung into action.

As European Division chief, he first tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Portuguese to let the El Al plane land. When the Portuguese refused and the plane returned to Israel, Clarridge next arranged for a CIA proprietary, St. Lucia Airlines, to pick up North’s cargo in Israel and fly it to Iran, with a stop in Cyprus, on Nov. 24, 1985.

But Clarridge’s actions touched off a panic inside the CIA, where deputy director John McMahon was furious at the degree of CIA participation. CIA lawyers ruled that Clarridge’s intervention amounted to a covert action needing a formal presidential finding and notification of Congress.

Reagan finally signed an intelligence finding authorizing arms shipments to Iran on Jan. 17, 1986, but still hid it from Congress. That same day, Weinberger handed Powell the job of pulling the missiles from U.S. stockpiles and shipping them to Iran via Israel.

Skirting Rules

With Weinberger’s backing, Powell skirted the Pentagon’s stringent internal controls on missile shipments to get the weapons out of the warehouses and into the CIA pipeline.

On 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. “I gave him absolutely no indication of the destination of the missiles,” Powell later testified.

Though kept in the dark, Thurman began the process to move the TOWs to the CIA. Powell's arrangements “bypassed the formal [covert procedures] on the ingress line,” Thurman acknowledged in a later deposition.

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 went over Russo's head and arranged for “executive instructions” to be delivered to Russo for the first 1,000 TOW missiles.

”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, despite the lack of proper orders, 1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and transferred to the air field at Anniston, Alabama.

But senior Pentagon officers were getting edgy.

Maj. Christopher Simpson, who was responsible for making the flight arrangements, later told congressional investigators that Russo “was very uncomfortable with no paperwork to support the mission request. He wasn't going to ‘do nothing,’ 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, Switzerland, on Feb. 11, 1986, freeing Russo to release the 1,000 TOWs three days later. The first direct U.S. arms shipment to Iran was under way, with the Israelis still acting as middlemen.

But inside the Pentagon, concerns grew about Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of the mysterious recipient.

Simpson told Congress 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 a terrorist state, 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 “timely” notice to Congress, had an “impact on this particular mission.”

Simpson took the issue to Russo, who obtained another opinion from the Army general counsel that congressional notification was required. The issue then rose to higher levels, to Secretary of the Army John Marsh. Though still blind about the shipment's destination, the Army high command wanted to stop the strange operation in its tracks.

At this key moment, Powell intervened with Russo.

“General Powell was asking General Russo to reassure the secretary of the Army that notification was being handled at the level higher than an outside-of-Department-of-Army, and that it had been addressed and it was taken care of,” said Simpson. In fact, Congress had not been notified.

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.

Army chief of staff Wickham went even further. He demanded that a memo on congressional notification be prepared and sent to Powell.

“The chief wanted it in writing,” recalled Army Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell on March 7, 1986. Five days later, Powell handed that memo to Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter and suggested that he “handle it ... however you plan to do it,” Powell testified.

But Poindexter's plan was to notify Congress only on the last day of the Reagan presidency, on Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the memo into a White House safe, along with the secret “finding.”

Mysterious Destination

While the notification debate bubbled, others in the Pentagon fretted over a possibly illegal destination for 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,” 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, 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 for missiles, this time for 284 HAWK missile parts and 500 HAWK missiles. But 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” and jeopardize U.S. readiness.

But Pentagon officials again followed the orders from Weinberger’s military assistant. They stripped the 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,” commented Lt. Gen. Peter G. Barbules.

The Iraq Tilt

As the Reagan administration stepped up its military shipments to Iran, Weinberger began pressing for other military equipment to go to Iraq, which was then engaged in a bloody war with Iran. Throughout the conflict, Weinberger had favored a U.S. “tilt” toward Iraq.

Two notations written by Weinberger on Jan. 6, 1986, describe discussions between Weinberger and Powell about shipments of Italian Agusta-Bell helicopters to Iraq.

”Saw Colin Powell - re Italian Agosta [sic] helicopters,” Weinberger scrawled, “try to let them sell to Iraq.” According to the notes, Powell returned later that day with a response. “Colin Powell,” Weinberger wrote in a barely legible hand, “all to add [unreadable] 110 million to get Italian helicopters.”

Though the precise context of the Weinberger-Powell discussion was unclear – and neither man would clarify the meaning – the notes fit with other evidence showing that Weinberger and other top Reagan administration officials were working to ship military equipment secretly through third countries to Iraq.

Reagan administration officials have admitted sharing military intelligence with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but have denied arranging weapons shipments, which would have required notifying Congress.

Without that notification, any significant military shipment of U.S-designed equipment would have been illegal, even if arranged through a third country.

Agusta, a helicopter manufacturer partly owned by the Italian government, built aircraft from the designs of the U.S. company, Bell-Textron, a major Pentagon contractor, so American approval would have been required for any military transfer.

For his part, Powell made a timely exit from the Washington scene before the Iran-Contra scandal blew up.

Having implemented the Iran arms transfers and fended off Army complaints, he departed the Pentagon on March 16, 1986. Powell took command of V Corps in West Germany, ironically troops whose air defenses had just been compromised by the drawdown in HAWK missiles and spare parts.

Exposure

The Iran arms sales were finally exposed in November 1986, touching off the Iran-Contra Affair. Yet the initial investigations by a special presidential commission and a joint House-Senate committee failed to get to the bottom of the scandal, in part, because Weinberger hid his diaries from investigators.

Then, in 1991, investigators working for Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh stumbled upon Weinberger's long-lost notes filed away in a corner of the Library of Congress.

Among those papers was a note dated Oct. 3, 1985, indicating that Weinberger had received information from a National Security Agency intercept that Iran was receiving “arms transfers.”

The belated discovery of Weinberger's diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment for perjury and obstruction. His trial was scheduled to start in January 1993, with Powell listed as a prospective witness.

If he testified, Powell would have been maneuvering through a legal mine field created by his unlikely claims of ignorance about the illegal Iran weapons in 1985. If evidence emerged demonstrating what seemed most likely – that Powell and Weinberger both knew about the 1985 shipments – Powell could have faced questions about his own credibility and possibly charges of false testimony.

So, in late 1992, Powell joined an intense lobbying campaign to convince President George H.W. Bush to pardon Weinberger.

The President had his own reasons to go along. Bush’s insistence that he was “not in the loop” on Iran-Contra had been undermined by the Weinberger documents, damaging Bush’s reelection campaign when they were released only days before Election 1992.

So, on Christmas Eve 1992, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants.

The pardons effectively brought the Iran-Contra probe to a close and, in so doing, altered the course of American history.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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