By Robert Parry
- The CIA Protects the Iran-Contra Cover-up
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."
With those words, the scandal that a year later would become known as "Iran-contra" opened a new and dangerous chapter. North, an aide on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff, needed Clarridge's help to assure that Portugal would allow an Israeli plane carrying HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to land in Lisbon. The missiles were then to be transferred to another plane for shipment to Iran.
In his new book, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge sticks to his longstanding story that North misled him about the actual contents on board the plane. Clarridge still insists that North lied in claiming that the shipment was oil-drilling equipment.
Without further checking, Clarridge says 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.
Clarridge's actions, however, touched off a bigger panic inside the CIA. Deputy director John McMahon was furious at the degree of CIA participation in the risky plan, and the spy agency's lawyers ruled that the intervention amounted to a covert operation requiring a formal presidential finding and notification of Congress. Until then, the White House had been trying to conduct its arms-for-hostage swaps with Iran without a finding, without telling Congress, and with the Israelis acting as middlemen.
But without a finding, those arms shipments to Iran also appeared to be a clear violation of the federal Arms Export Control Act, with President Reagan and other U.S. officials inviting potential felony charges. The fact that Israel served as a cut-out in the deal did not change the fact that sophisticated American military hardware was being transferred to a third country without proper approval either by the State Department or the Congress.
So, in secret, Reagan finally signed a finding for future shipments, but still hid it from Congress. Then, in early 1986, the administration began direct deliveries of missiles from U.S. military stockpiles to Iran. The ever-resourceful North started diverting profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, despite a congressional prohibition on either direct or indirect U.S. military assistance.
When the Iran-contra scandal exploded in November 1986, with the disclosure of the arms sales to Iran and the contra diversion, nearly every official in the loop tried to distance himself from the guilty knowledge of those 1985 shipments. Inside the administration, those deliveries -- an apparent commission of a felony -- were seen as a potential impeachable offenses against Reagan.
"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1986, a dense gray fog of amnesia had settled over Washington," Clarridge writes in his memoirs. "All those people who had been delighted to share cocktail confidences [for two years] about what North was up to promptly forgot all about it. The whole city was in denial."
Suddenly, the White House portrayed North as a rogue operative off on his own. Ironically, Clarridge joined the crowd in claiming he was ignorant about key details of North's operation, particularly the fact that HAWKs were aboard the Israeli flight in November 1985.
The administration also managed to divert media attention to the Iran-contra diversion. The legally dangerous 1985 violations of the Arms Export Control Act received only spotty attention, as respected Republicans from Colin Powell to George Bush claimed to know nothing about those shipments. A 1987 congressional investigation largely accepted the administration's cover story.
Only after a much longer investigation did Iran-contra independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh break through the cover-up. In 1991, Walsh's investigators stumbled upon the existence of Pentagon and State Department documents that had been withheld from earlier inquiries. The papers showed conclusively that senior officials knew much more about the 1985 shipments than they had admitted.
Following those discoveries, Walsh brought cover-up indictments against Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, CIA clandestine services chief Clair George and Clarridge. He also concluded that others -- including Colin Powell, Secretary of State George Shultz and Bush -- had understated their knowledge of the 1985 activities, though no charges were filed against them.
The crux of the Clarridge indictment was that the European division chief lied when he claimed not to know that the Israeli shipment contained HAWK missiles. Walsh's case was built on two main pillars: testimony from CIA officer Vincent Cannistraro that he and Clarridge had discussed the Iran weapons shipment prior to the Nov. 22 flight, and evidence that a CIA officer in Portugal had notified Clarridge about the HAWKs on Nov. 23, but that the incriminating cable was apparently removed from Clarridge's file and destroyed as part of the cover-up.
Cannistraro testified before a federal grand jury that on Nov. 19, 1985, North asked him to join a meeting with Clarridge at Charley's Place, a famed CIA watering hole in McLean, Virginia. Cannistraro said the trio discussed North's troubles arranging the weapons shipment to Iran through Portugal. With a phone call from the restaurant to deputy national security adviser John Poindexter, North arranged to bring Clarridge officially into the project, Cannistraro remembered. In his book, however, Clarridge continues to insist that the meeting was primarily social and that "Iran did not come up."
Walsh's investigators also maintained that a senior CIA field officer in Portugal cabled Clarridge on Nov. 23, 1985, with the information that the Israeli shipment to Iran consisted of HAWK missiles. The officer said the cable was sent to Clarridge's private message channel and, according to CIA records, a numbered cable did go out at the time the officer remembered. The cable also apparently arrived at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., according to the spy agency's communications officials.
But when Walsh's team examined a complete file that Clarridge maintained of cables from Portugal that month, "this was the only cable missing," according to Walsh's final Iran-contra report. Clarridge continues to insist, however, that he never received the cable. For his part, Walsh concluded that the cable had been removed from the file and was probably destroyed.
As Walsh's investigation reached its final stage in late 1992, Clarridge's boss, Clair George, was convicted on cover-up charges. The Weinberger trial was to follow in January 1993 with the Clarridge case due in court a couple of months later.
But on Christmas Eve 1992,. with less than a month to go in office, President Bush pardoned Clarridge, Weinberger, George and three other convicted administration officials. Bush's action effectively ended the Iran-contra investigation and protected the six-year-old cover-up.
Spared from facing evidence in court, Clarridge could more easily dispute the case against him in his autobiography.
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