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Gates & the Iran-Contra Legacy

By Ivan Eland
November 15, 2006

Editor's Note: Official Washington quickly grew tired of the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-to-late 1980s. The tales of money-laundering, arms smuggling and even drug trafficking were deemed too complicated and too troubling for the public to properly comprehend.

So, few of the true Iran-Contra lessons were ever learned. In essence, the White House's abuse of power amounted to a test run for an all-powerful Executive who could override the nation's laws and the Constitution at his whim to pursue foreign policies that few Americans would understand, let alone endorse, such as shipping weapons to Iran, then and now labeled a supporter of international terrorism.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland looks back at that pivotal scandal and what it means for George W. Bush to appoint Robert Gates, an Iran-Contra veteran, to be the next Secretary of Defense:

Most of official Washington has long believed that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld needed to be sacked. Unfortunately it took a major Republican loss at the polls to finally prompt George W. Bush to cut loose a key player from his inner circle.

The removal of Rumsfeld signals that Bush is listening to the voters and elected officials. However, the nomination of Robert Gates—a Bush family crony and former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) under his father’s administration—to replace Rumsfeld will only create new problems for the President.

President Ronald Reagan had to withdraw Gates’ nomination for DCI in 1987 because of Gates’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. By 1991, after the heat had died down on the whole affair, President George H.W. Bush re-nominated Gates for the post, and he was confirmed.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Iran-Contra affair was worse for the Republic than the Watergate scandal. The Nixon administration’s illegal spying and dirty tricks on political opponents and misuse of law enforcement and intelligence agencies were bad. But the Reagan administration’s evasion of a congressional ban on assisting the Nicaraguan Contras (the Boland Amendment) was a knife in the heart of the greatest power the Congress has under the checks and balances of the Constitution—the power of the purse.

Illegal activities get more media and law enforcement attention than unconstitutional actions, but the unconstitutional ones are, by far, the most harmful to the country.

Although Gates was never indicted for the Iran-Contra affair, he was severely criticized for his actions by Judge Lawrence E. Walsh, the Republican Independent Counsel who investigated the Iran-Contra affair. In his report on the scandal, Walsh said that contrary to Gates’ sworn testimony before a grand jury and at a confirmation hearing, “evidence proves” that then-Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Gates knew about the unconstitutional diversion of profits from Iran-bound arms sales to the Contras sooner than he let on.

Lying to a grand jury and Congress is illegal. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that the number two man at the CIA didn’t know all along about CIA’s efforts to support the Contras and malfeasance by government officials in a high-priority covert operation.

Walsh also concluded that the CIA continued to support Oliver North’s diversion of funds to the Contras without investigating or telling his bosses at the National Security Council. Finally, Walsh concluded that Gates participated in two briefings of congressional investigators which helped lull them into falsely believing the CIA was not involved in facilitating private flights to resupply the Contras.

Gates’ role in ignoring Congress’s specific ban on assisting the Contras—one of the most dangerous threats to constitutional government in American history—should not be dismissed as merely “old news.” Apparently, the media and the Democrats are so relieved about getting rid of Rumsfeld that they appear to be doing just that.

In a Nov. 9, 2006 article, the Washington Post touted Gates’ extensive government experience, brilliance, bipartisanship, and pragmatic, consensus-building management style, but included only one sentence in Gates’ biography about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

The newspaper also cites praise for Gates from retired Sen. Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose questions led to the withdrawal of the first Gates CIA nomination in 1987. The Post quoted Nunn as complimenting Gates’ “ability to work closely with Congress on a bipartisan basis,” and noted that he “has a well-deserved reputation on both sides of the aisle for competency and integrity.”

Integrity in the nation’s capital apparently includes looking the other way when unconstitutional acts are being committed—even when those actions threaten the balance of power between government branches and the decentralized system of governance which makes America unique.

Unfortunately, memories are short in Washington, and most transgressions, no matter how bad, fade over time and eventually are forgiven. Even outsiders such as the BBC have already reported that Gates “is widely respected among both Democrats and Republicans in the Congress, and his appointment is expected to be swiftly ratified by the Senate.”

As Congress passes into Democrat hands, it should make a renewed commitment to honesty and integrity in government, and reassert its power against an excessively dominant executive branch. The Senate should reject the Gates nomination.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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