By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend -- Iran-Contra Amnesia
In 1984-85, as the Iran-contra storm clouds began to build,
one-star Gen. Colin Powell was the "filter" for information
flowing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. It would be
what knowledge flowed through that "filter" that investigators
would try to determine years later -- a mystery still relevant
as Powell's political star rises and his importance to Bob
Dole's 1996 campaign grows.
When Iran-contra broke in 1986-87, Powell would claim to know
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 made clear certainly that his boss,
Weinberger, knew a great deal.
Weinberger, a close adviser to President Reagan, 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 cut off aid. Like Weinberger, Powell
was a very close friend to Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador
who handled that transaction. Powell and Bandar, who had met in
the 1970s, were frequent tennis partners.
But exactly when Weinberger learned of the Saudi contributions
and what he told Powell are still not clear. On June 20, 1984,
Weinberger attended a State Department meeting on the contras,
and 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.
Over the summer, Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, learned from a foreign visitor about the Saudi money
and passed on word to the defense secretary. "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 his
boss. "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."
Meanwhile, the White House was maneuvering into dangerous
territory, too, in its policy toward Iran. The Israelis were
interested in trading U.S. weapons to Iran to gain a strategic
foothold in that Middle Eastern country -- and to enlist Iran's
help in freeing American hostages in Lebanon.
Carrying the water for the Iran opening was national security
adviser Robert McFarlane, who circulated a draft presidential
order in late spring 1985. As always, the paper passed through
Weinberger's "filter," Colin Powell. In his memoirs, Powell
called the proposal "a stunner" and a grab by McFarlane for
After reading the draft, Weinberger scribbled in the margins,
"this is almost too absurd to comment on." Ironically, on the
same day the Iran paper went out, 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," Reagan declared.
But in July 1985, Weinberger, Powell and McFarlane were actively
meeting on details to do just that. Iran wanted 100 anti-tank
TOW missiles that would 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, a pivotal moment for the Reagan administration. That
missile 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.
Violation of either statute could be a felony and an
The available evidence from that period also suggests that
Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop on the
operation, even though they may have opposed the policy. On
Aug. 22, two days later, Israel notified McFarlane of the
completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane
promptly called Weinberger.
A Mystery Meeting
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 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
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 vaguely. "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
that he did not remember that the first shipment had already
gone and that replenishment had been promised.
This claim of only prospective knowledge would be key to
Powell's Iran-contra defense. But 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
suggested that they knew an arms-for-hostage swap was under way.
According to Weinberger's diary, he and Powell eagerly awaited
hostage release in 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
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 again. Saba
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 answered.
After Weir's freedom, the job of replenishing the Israel
stockpile fell to White House aide Oliver North. "My original
point of contact was General Colin Powell, who was going
directly to his immediate superior, Secretary Weinberger," North
would testify in 1987. But in their later sworn testimony,
Powell and Weinberger would continue to insist that they had no
idea that 508 missiles had already been shipped.
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