By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend -- Saving Reagan
"We need you, Colin," the familiar voice of new national security adviser Frank Carlucci pleaded over the phone in December 1986. "This is serious. Believe me, the presidency is at stake."
With those words, Colin Powell re-entered the Iran-contra affair, a set of events he had dangerously advanced in January 1986 when he arranged missile deliveries to Iran, while keeping Pentagon colleagues in the dark. [See The Consortium, Sept. 16] But just as Powell played an important behind-the-scenes role in those missile shipments, he would be equally instrumental in the next phase, the scandal's cover-up in 1987-88. His skillful handling of the media and Congress would earn him the gratitude of Reagan-Bush insiders and lift Powell into the upper echelon of Republican powerbrokers.
Powell's actions nearly a decade ago also have fresh relevance today as the retired general steps forward as the popular politician-statesman vouching for Bob Dole's "character and competence." The documentary record -- some of it recently declassified at the request of The Consortium -- reveals disturbing new questions about Colin Powell's own "character and competence," including clear discrepancies in his sworn testimony.
But in late 1986, as Carlucci called Powell in West Germany, the White House needed some cool heads and some steady hands. President Reagan was reeling day after day from disclosures of the reckless arms-for-hostage scheme with Iran and diversion of money to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. After sounding Powell out about his willingness to join the National Security Council staff, Carlucci made sure he could wall Powell off from the scandal.
On Dec. 9, 1986, the White House obtained from the FBI a statement that Powell was not a criminal suspect. The next day, Carlucci asked Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger "to call Peter Wallison, WH Counsel -- to tell them Colin had no connection with Iran arms sales -- except to carry out President's order," Weinberger wrote down. He then "called Peter Wallison -- Told him Colin Powell had only minimum involvement on Iran."
With Carlucci satisfied that his old friend, Powell, could sidestep the spreading Iran-contra stain, Reagan formally asked the general on Dec. 12, 1986, to quit his post as commander of V Corps in West Germany and to become deputy national security adviser. Powell accepted, taking over those new duties on Jan. 2, 1987.
As always, Powell took to his task energetically. To put the Iran-contra scandal behind the White House, he helped draft a limited mea-culpa speech by Reagan on March 4, 1987. The president admitted that the arms-for-hostage deal "was a mistake." But Powell failed to force in some phrasing exonerating his patron, Weinberger, and by inference, Colin Powell.
A Confident General
Powell testified before both the congressional committees and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Under oath, the general asserted that he did not know about the early 1985 arms shipments to Iran through Israel, a key point given the fact that those arms transfers represented a felony under the Arms Export Control Act. He insisted that he did not know that U.S. weapons were being shipped until mid-January 1986 when President Reagan signed a "finding" that made the deliveries legal. The distinction was crucial to Powell's defense of himself and Weinberger.
Powell stuck to his story even as evidence emerged proving that he and Weinberger were reading top-secret intelligence intercepts in September and October 1985 in which Iranians described the delivery of U.S. weapons. The Consortium obtained one of those reports, dated Oct. 2, 1985. It was marked "SECRET SPOKE ORCON" and was signed by Lt. Gen. William Odom, the director of the National Security Agency. The 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 Tehran.
"A large part of the conversation had to do with details on the delivery of several more shipments of weapons into Iran," wrote Odom in the "exclusive" report which went only to top officials at CIA, the NSC and the Pentagon. "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."
When asked about this and other touchy points by congressional investigators on June 19, 1987, Powell 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, 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 from the Iran-contra period, Powell announced that he had destroyed them.
Weinberger offered similar testimony, claiming that he took notes "occasionally, but comparatively rarely" and that they were not "kept in any formal way." Whatever their condition, however, Weinberger's notes were not delivered to Congress or to the special prosecutor. That gap of evidence was crucial in the failure of the early Iran-contra investigations to breach the White House stonewall.
In 1987, the White House cover story -- blaming the scandal on Oliver North and other out-of-control NSC officers -- held, even though North had publicly denounced the official version as a "fall-guy plan." Thanks in no small part to Powell's fencing with his inquisitors, the investigation was blunted, Ronald Reagan's presidency was saved and George Bush could tell the voters that he had been "out-of-the-loop" on Iran-contra.
According to Powell's NSC calendars, also obtained by The Consortium, the general next turned aggressively to another part of his job: trying to win renewed CIA aid for the Nicaraguan contras. To this day, Powell defends the legitimacy of the U.S.-supported contra war, despite a 1986 World Court judgment that the CIA conflict violated international law. The Consortium investigation found that Powell's records at the NSC and at the Pentagon revealed no information about -- or apparent interest in -- longstanding allegations that the contras engaged in cocaine trafficking and committed numerous atrocities against civilians.
In his memoirs, My American Journey, Powell recounted a meeting with contra leaders in Miami. While admitting they were "a mixed bag," Powell wrote that the contra military commander, Col. Enrique Bermudez "impressed me as a true fighter ready to die for his cause. Others were just unregenerate veterans of the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza. ...But in the old days of East-West polarization, we worked with what we had." (Ironically, recent disclosures in federal court records cite Bermudez as the contra leader who gave a green light to massive contra cocaine shipments into the United States.)
After Congress ended its Iran-contra investigation in fall 1987, Powell mounted a counter-attack to restore contra military aid. Although still an active-duty military officer, Powell twisted the arms of congressmen, including one harsh dressing-down of House Speaker Jim Wright in the Oval Office on Nov. 16, 1987.
Then, in January 1988, Powell took his pro-contra case to Central America where he threatened leaders of four Central American nations. Along with assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, Powell warned that the Central American leaders must either back the contras or face the cut-off of U.S. aid. Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark., complained at the time that "these people [Powell and Abrams] are trying every weapon in their arsenal to break up the peace process."
Powell, however, did not succeed in coercing the Central American leaders or the Congress. The contras received no more CIA military funding and negotiations did achieve a peace settlement in Nicaragua, as well as in nearby El Salvador. But Powell had proved himself a good soldier in the Reagan administration's long-running contra battles with Congress.
To his surprise, though, Powell was not quite through with Iran-contra. In 1991, Walsh's investigators stumbled upon Weinberger's long-lost notes which had been filed away in an obscure corner of the Library of Congress. Among those papers was a note from Oct. 3, 1985. It indicated that Weinberger had received information from an NSA intercept that Iran was receiving "arms transfers" -- the point that Powell had tried so hard to obscure.
The belated discovery of Weinberger's diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment for obstruction of justice. The notes also prompted Powell to submit a pro-Weinberger affidavit that stunningly contradicted Powell's own earlier sworn testimony in which he had insisted that Weinberger maintained no "diaries."
In the affidavit dated April 21, 1992, however, Powell argued that he regarded Weinberger's daily notes as a "personal diary" and that it was "entirely possible" that Weinberger would not have understood these personal papers to be within the scope of the Iran-contra document requests.
Though the contradiction was clear, Powell was never held to account. By 1992, Powell was a war hero, having commanded U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf war. So the discrepancy went almost unnoticed. The only threat to Powell's reputation would be the trial of Caspar Weinberger which was scheduled to start in January 1993 and which listed Powell as a prospective witness.
It was time for Powell to call in some chits. He lobbied then-President Bush to pardon Weinberger, an action which Bush took on Christmas Eve 1992. Weinberger thus was spared a trial -- and Powell was saved the embarrassment of public attention over his dubious role in the Iran-contra affair.
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