Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment

During the nineteen-eighties,while Iraqis and Iranians killed one another by the hundreds of thousands in a struggle for supremacy in the Persian Gulf, the United States maintained a vigilant neutrality-or so Americans were assured by the governments they elected.

During the nineteen-eighties,while Iraqis and Iranians killed one another by the hundreds of thousands in a struggle for supremacy in the Persian Gulf, the United States maintained a vigilant neutrality-or so Americans were assured by the governments they elected. But a half-dozen years ago, thanks to the revelations of a Lebanese weekly, that story began to break apart, and gave way to a scenario in which close aides to the President had been secretly shipping planeloads of missiles to Iranian mullahs, slipping off to Iran under forged passports to barter for American hostages, and directing a group of “private” operatives to conduct a covert foreign policy wholly beyond the knowledge or reach of Congress. Now the Iran-Contra narrative has itself begun to yield place to another, in which-even as Colonel Oliver North was undertaking his fruitless journey to Teheran-American military couriers were making weekly flights to Baghdad to carry top-secret satellite photographs to Iraqi officers; American allies in the region were transshipping American weapons to Iraq; and the United States was directing billions of dollars in government-guaranteed loans to Saddam Hussein’s regime. After Iraq finally defeated Iran, and even after evidence began to emerge that the Iraqi regime had illegally diverted American agricultural loans to buy weapons, United States support went on growing, until the moment when Saddam’s troops crossed the border into Kuwait and the entire American effort in the Gulf collapsed.

The story has become so well known that one risks overlooking how utterly strange it is-how strange that the United States, in a region crucial to its interests and those of the entire industrialized world, would follow policies that were by turns reckless, erratic, and amateurish, and that ended in the debacle of an unnecessary war. At the root of these policies, however, is a struggle that is not at all strange to American history: the struggle between the executive and the legislative branches over what America’s role in the world should be and which of them should determine it. What all the Gulf initiatives had in common, in varying degrees, is secrecy of a type that Americans have learned to recognize, at least since Vietnam: secrecy intended to conceal American actions not only from the people but from the rest of the government-most particularly, from Congress. Not that Congress has been entirely shut out; rather, it is the series of laws that Congress passed intending to prevent such abuses, combined with the determination of successive Presidents to find a way around those laws, that has given much of America’s recent foreign policy its capricious and imprudent cast. If the story of American behavior in the Gulf proves anything, it is that during four decades of the Cold War the means by which our government formulated and carried out its most sensitive foreign policy were severely compromised by an institutionalized mistrust between the executive branch and Congress-a mistrust now embodied in a series of ineffective statutes that invite abuses rather than eliminate them, and in a penchant for secrecy on the part of the executive branch which has come to border on obsession.

Most of the statutes involved were enacted by Congress after Vietnam, in an attempt to close the enormous loophole that had been written into the National Security Act of 1947, which accorded the Central Intelligence Agency the legal right to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” The near-transcendental vagueness of this clause was intentional; it was meant to form the heart of a national-security system flexible enough to allow the country to prosecute a “cold war”-that is, to continue its ideological struggle by all sorts of means (including paramilitary engagements, guerrilla uprisings, and terrorist campaigns) short of declared hostilities. And for a quarter of a century, by exploiting this loophole, the C.I.A.-with the general approval of the President (though he customarily retained his “deniability” by giving no written or other specific authorization)-mounted numerous quasi-warlike operations abroad, including, most prominently, successful coups d’�tat in Iran and Guatemala and assassination attempts in the Congo and Cuba.

Now, almost two decades after the defeat in Vietnam, the system of accountability fashioned by Congress lies in ruins. Executive-branch officials became increasingly adept at exploiting those loopholes that had been written into the various oversight laws, and, where there were no loopholes, at creating them, thereby weakening those laws further; indeed, the executive’s ingenuity in escaping Congress’s strictures helps explain the curious shape of the most controversial policies of the last decade. To avoid congressional intelligence-oversight committees, for example, the Reagan Administration conducted many of its most sensitive operations not through the C.I.A. but through the National Security Council-which had been established as a body that would limit itself to advising the President-and, when necessary, hired “subcontractors” to do the legwork. To avoid the requirement of the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act that the President give the committees timely notification of covert operations, the Administration simply treated the word “timely” as an enormous loophole in itself. To escape the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which says that a President can commit troops to hostilities for no more than sixty days without the approval of Congress, Presidents learned to fight their wars very rapidly, as in Grenada and Panama, or else-since the resolution says nothing about clandestine wars-very covertly, as in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Angola. To circumvent Congress’s most important power, that of the purse, both the Reagan and the Bush Administrations managed to funnel billions of dollars to Iraq through untouchable programs in the Agriculture Department and the Export-Import Bank. When Congress explicitly cut off funding for the Contras, high officials of the United States government, including the President himself, encouraged the “private” contributions of foreign heads of state to keep the guerrilla group going.

The Iran-Contra hearings, which exposed many of these abuses in detail, might have served as the occasion for drafting legislative solutions-by shoring up the War Powers Resolution, for example, which has come to seem worse than useless. Instead, the hearings, in failing to lead to any such action, did little more than demonstrate, at the very time they were exposing the misdeeds of an executive branch that had got out of control, the congressional lack of will that had made those misdeeds possible.

Two months ago, when the man upon whom Congress dumped the problem, the independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, won an indictment of Caspar Weinberger on five felony counts, the news that the former Secretary of Defense had been indicted for making false statements, perjury, and obstructing a congressional inquiry was greeted like the latest tired episode of a long-running serial whose readership had mostly died out. Some Republican congressmen actually denounced Mr. Walsh for taking too long and spending too much. It is a sign of what we have come to expect of our government that so little outrage was expressed over the scenes depicted in the indictment: scenes of the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretaries of State and Defense, among others, being coaxed by the Attorney General of the United States, the nation’s highest law-enforcement officer, into agreeing on a “cover story” meant to conceal from Congress and the public what the Attorney General himself conceded might have been a crime.

The least that can be said about these scenes, if they took place in the way the indictment outlines, is that this is not how the system is supposed to work. In fact, the first argument for a new national-security act, designed for a post-Cold War world, is a practical one: the national-security policy-making apparatus, which was constructed for another age, is broken and needs to be fixed, in order to restore true consultation between the executive and the legislative branches; to return secrecy to its proper role, as a tool for supporting stated American policies rather than as a means of undermining them; and to insure that both branches play a part in any decision to commit Americans to hostilities abroad. For better or worse, the Constitution does not confer on the executive sole power over the country’s foreign policy; when a President behaves as if it did, the result tends to be policies that are ill-conceived and corrupt. And corruption abroad, as the last six years have shown, invariably leads to corruption at home.

“It is not a crime to deceive the American public, as high officials in the Reagan Administration did for two years while conducting the Iran and Contra operations,” Mr. Walsh declared after winning his indictment. “But it is a crime to mislead, deceive, and lie to Congress when [it] seeks to learn whether Administration officials are conducting the nation’s business in accordance with the law.” This is what happened during Iran-Contra, and it may well prove to be what happened during the years of support for Saddam Hussein. The risk, in the end, is not only that Americans will find themselves fighting more unnecessary wars but that they will find themselves less able to discover what really led to them-and less inclined, in the aftermath of future “victories” like the one over Iraq, to try to find out.