Mark Danner

The New Yorker Comment

With the publication of Oliver North's memoirs and the start of the Colonel's nineteen-city tour to promote it, the Iran-Contra affair completed a five-year journey from tragedy to farce and began its inevitable transformation into "product."

With the publication of Oliver North’s memoirs and the start of the Colonel’s nineteen-city tour to promote it, the Iran-Contra affair completed a five-year journey from tragedy to farce and began its inevitable transformation into “product.” It may well be in this incarnation that the character of the affair is most faithfully presented, for, even as the various legal cases continue their desultory progress through the special prosecutor’s office and the courts, it has become apparent that no prosecutor or judge will ever unearth the “truth” of Iran-Contra. By now, we know a great many facts. We know about the involvement of high officials not only in the White House but in the C.I.A. and the State Department. This fall, thanks to tapes acquired by “Nightline,” we actually heard Colonel North and other Reagan Administration officials bartering arms for hostages with Iranians in Frankfurt and Teheran. And yet with the uncovering of each new fact the truth of Iran-Contra seems to drift further from our grasp. There is no feeling that proper punishment has been allotted, and no sense at all that the affair has come to an end. If one thing is apparent from Oliver North’s strenuous effort to “tell his story,” it is that Iran-Contra continues still.

The packaging of the affair began just over five years ago, on November 25, 1986, when Attorney General Edwin Meese announced at a White House press conference that millions of dollars in profits from the secret sale of arms to Iran had been “made available” to the Contras fighting the Nicaraguan government. Though it soon became clear that much of what Meese said that day was misleading or mendacious, by then it hardly mattered, for he had succeeded in imposing the Administration’s chosen narrative on a very complicated story: a narrative that cast Colonel North as the perpetrator (“the loose cannon on the gundeck of state,” as the Colonel puts it), President Reagan as the detached, trusting, bemused leader who “Just didn’t know” (as he told the now dismissed Colonel by telephone a few hours after Meese made his announcement), and “the diversion” as the single illicit act floating amid an ocean of dubious actions and near-crimes. “This particular detail,” North writes of the diversion, “was so dramatic, so sexy, that it might actually-well, divert public attention from other, even more important aspects of the story, such as what else the President and his top advisers had known about and approved.”

Even today-after we have learned how the President and the Secretary of State and other high officials were involved in secretly soliciting foreign leaders for “donations” to the Contras, in order to bypass Congress’s power of the purse; after we have heard the President’s men dickering secretly with the Iranians (establishing, as North has said, “a price for a human being at five hundred Tow missiles”); after we have been shown that high officials blatantly and repeatedly lied to the public and perjured themselves before Congress-it is the diversion that remains “sexy.” Not the least of the ironies of watching the Colonel pontificate to Ted Koppel or take questions from Phil Donahue’s boisterous audience is that he is still struggling with the Administration’s version of the story. After Time headlined its excerpts from North’s book “Reagan Knew Everything,” North remarked to Donahue, with some peevishness, that this’ news was “not a headline to me,” for he had said much the same thing in his appearance before Congress.

From the beginning, as North now tells it, “the administration’s strategy had been unspoken but unmistakable: this must not become another Watergate.” Reagan officials worked to prune the tangled plots of Iran-Contra down to a single question: What did the President know and when did he know it? They did so not only because they saw that it offered the press a compelling way to organize the story, and offered Congress a dramatic question to investigate, but because they realized that it was a question that could not be conclusively answered by anyone but the President and his closest aides. Failing the discovery of some errant document, Admiral John Poindexter, the nationalsecurity adviser and a man known for his loyalty, was the only person in a position to implicate the President. When the congressional investigating panel asked the Admiral the ultimate question, he of course denied having told the President about the “diversion,” but went on to say, “After working with the President for five and a half years, the last three of which were very close … I was convinced that I understood the President’s thinking on this and that … he would have approved it…. I made a very deliberate decision not to ask the President, so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability for the President.”

Poindexter’s self-contradictory answer could not have effectively ended the investigation, however, had it not been for Congress’s eagerness to accept the Administration’s packaging. His qualified denial both liberated the President from the threat of impeachment and liberated Congress from the clearly distasteful duty of impeaching him. It was not only that Reagan remained popular, and so, with an election approaching, congressional Democrats feared a backlash if they attacked him, but that the- issue on which the scandal wag ultimately based-control of American foreign policy-remained a matter of angry controversy that had deadlocked Congress and the Administration for years.

The “secret” and “illegal” aid to the Contras was a product of that political deadlock. Though the Administration ,was deeply committed to the Contras, the public never was, and the President’s handlers were unwilling to put his popularity at risk by launching the sort of full-fledged campaign that would have been required to persuade Americans, and thus Congress, to unequivocally support the cause. Congress, for its part, was too sharply divided to put a decisive end to North’s activities, which, although they violated the Boland Amendments, were an open secret in Washington. (As is often the case, making a policy covert served as a way of removing it from public debate.) If the Administration had contempt for the law, so did many members of Congress. The entire matter was awash in hypocrisy, and the congressional investigation of it, which was touted as an honest effort to find the truth, was in fact compromised from the start. “By allowing the actions of those who had served the administration to be criminalized, the administration itself was able to back away from the real issues involved,” North writes. “This was fine with Congress, and a gift for the press.”

And so, with the political’ issues unresolved, the matter fell to the special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, thereby setting the stage for the final irony: because of the immunity granted to the people whom the Administration and Congress deemed the central malefactors, the hearings themselves have, in effect, made it impossible for Mr. Walsh to sustain a conviction against those people. If North has now been “totally exonerated,” as he claims, it is thanks to Congress; the same is true of Admiral Poindexter, the man who provided the President with his “deniability.” Meanwhile, the special prosecutor continues his work, having won from Alan D. Fiers, the former head of the C.I.A.’s Central American Task Force, and Elliott Abrams, the former Assistant Secretary of State, guilty pleas to charges of “withholding information from Congress,” and having won an indictment for perjury against Clair George, the former No.- 3 official in the C.I.A. All this proved once againas if it still needed to be proved-that the activities known as Iran-Contra were carried on by dozens of officials throughout the bureaucracy, with the approval of the ones at the very top. But, since those who held ultimate responsibility have suffered no judgment or punishment whatever, it’s very hard when Mr. Fiers and Mr. Abrams hold their news conferences on the steps of the federal courts to feel that anything that could be called justice has been done.

That, of course, is the final casualty of the packaging of Iran-Contra: respect for justice, and faith in our government’s ability-or desire-to provide it. Five years later, the whole affair-with its indictments handed up, its convictions overturned, and its leading players now coming forward to tell their stories-has become a matter not of justice but of spectacle. The corruption of our institutions which began when an Administration decided to run a secret and illegal foreign policy, and grew and spread when Congress proved unwilling to assume its responsibility for airing the crimes in their full gravity and punishing those respnsible, has now emerged to make of Iran-Contra’s public face a kind of amoral spy story a confusing tale that in the end hardly touches on right and wrong but feeds a prevailing cynicism that views government as having little to do with either. The exonerated Colonel North, now, a national celebrity, has become a familiar figure on the talk shows, where he coyly encourages speculation that he plans to run for the Senate from Virginia. (“Never say never,” he told Donahue.) George Bush, whose claim to have been “out of the loop” during the affair was shown to be manifestly false, suffered no discernible political damage on his road to the Presidency and now feels free to speak disparagingly of the efforts of Mr. Walsh. Congress, having collaborated in frustrating what might have been a genuine inquiry, has passed no laws to prevent such a usurpation of power from recurring the next time a President finds political opposition inconvenient. As for the people, hav ing deserved the truth, they have instead been offered secrecy, falsehoods, and, finally, a new celebrity for their collection: Colonel North’s book is now beginning its seventh week at the top of the best-seller list.