“The common ingredients of the Iran and Contra policies were secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law...the United States simultaneously pursued two contradictory foreign policies — a public one and a secret one”- Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair1
“In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not—repeat, did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.” -Ronald Reagan, November 1986
“A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not." -Ronald Reagan, March 1987
Iran/Contra isn't one singular historical conspiracy, but rather comprised of various illicit activities which revolved around a core group of subversive actors and a covert war in Nicaragua.
The 'core of subversive actors' consisted of members and associates of the National Security Council, created under the National Security Act of July 26, 1947. Since the act was passed, the NSC has steadily grown in power and scope under various presidencies. During Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration in the '50s, the NSC became a 'virtual adjunct of the president', and started reporting directly to the executive branch. John F. Kennedy, skeptical of the CIA and other agencies after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, allowed the NSC to begin functioning operationally, evolving from its traditional role as a planning committee.2 Under Ronald Reagan, the NSC expanded with increased staff and scope of operations.
Under Eisenhower, it had been tasked with creating a:
“...virtual Cold War machine against Communism,” and to “create and exploit troublesome problems for international Communism… reduce international Communist control over any areas of the world,” and “develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerilla operations.”3
This directive would be the rational and motivation for the group conducting subversive actions in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration.
* * * *
United States intervention in Nicaragua is nothing new. The U.S. had landed troops numerous times in the country during the 19th century and as recently as 1912, during a period known as the 'banana wars', used military force to directly quell rebellions against American-supported leadership. In 1936 the American-trained head of the Nicaraguan National Guard, Samoza Garcia, forcefully took power in the country by murdering and disposing the former leader Augusto César Sandino, marking the beginning of a lengthy U.S. Supported dictatorship.4
Trouble arose in the 1970's, when a revolutionary communist party called 'The Sandanistas', named after the disposed Sandino, began mounting a series of attacks and sabotage against the right wing Samoza dynasty, including the high-profile kidnapping of Nicaraguan elite at a Christmas party in 1974. The Sandanistas enjoyed wide support from much of the disenfranchised Nicaraguan population, who had become tired of the heavy-handed Samoza rule. One striking example is the 1972 earthquake that struck the Nicaraguan capital Manuga, where Anastasia Debayle, son of Samoza Garcia, exercised emergency powers that allowed him to confiscate most of the international aid that had been directed towards rebuilding the city, instead ending enriching Debayle's personal coffers.5
In 1979, the Sandanista uprising culminated in their gaining full power in Nicaragua. They were helped by the policies of Jimmy Carter, who had withdrawn aid to the Samoza regime after a series of revelations of human rights abuses. Carter originally hoped to remain on good terms with the Sandanistas, who had constructed a defacto socialist government in Nicaragua, and responded by sending them $99 million in aid. After they solidified a pact with the Soviet Bloc in 1980, Carter changed his tune and authorized the CIA to begin subversive acts in the country including propaganda efforts but prohibiting direct conflict.6
In 1980, right wing elements in Nicaragua created the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, FDN, which would become the largest and most organized member of the group that would become known as the 'Contras'. When Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, he stepped up support of the group and expanded the scope of covert action in the country, allowing the CIA to directly arm, fund and train the Contras. In 1983, he signed the National Security Decision Directive 77, entitled “Management of Public Diplomacy Relative to National Security,” institutionalizing public diplomacy. In effect, it was a special planning group within the NSC to coordinate public diplomacy campaigns, the most institutionalized 'public propaganda ministry' in United States history.7 The group used extensive media propaganda and control efforts, with one 14 page memorandum written by Oliver North detailing over 80 specific 'publicity stunts' designed to influence congressional and public opinion before upcoming Contra aid votes.8
When the covert war in Nicaragua became public knowledge in 1982, a group of congressmen led by Massachusetts representative Edward P. Boland tried to end all covert efforts in the country. This was with good reason, as news of the human rights abuses of the Contras became public knowledge. For example, a 1987 Chicago Tribune article noted that the Contras “engaged repeatedly in kidnappings, torture and murder of unarmed civilians.”9
The Guardian would delve deeper into the atrocities of the Contras, describing a particular attack where:
“Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit."10
Americas Watch, a humans rights group, accused the Contras of11:
- targeting health care clinics and health care workers for assassination
- kidnapping civilians
- torturing civilians
- executing civilians, including children, who were captured in combat
- raping women
- indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian houses
- seizing civilian property
- burning civilian houses in captured towns.
These were the principle means of waging war. Meanwhile, Reagan called the Contras the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers”.12
The terrorism of the Contras was not simply 'collateral damage' of supporting subversive groups. Rather, evidence shows that it was a deliberate campaign led by the CIA in the vein of Phoenix. In fact, the CIA wrote the training manual for the Contras titled “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare” which, among other activities, advocated for assassinating judges and priests, blackmailing citizens, blowing up public buildings, and firing on dissenting citizens.13
Congressman Boland submitted legislation on December 21, 1982 which would become known as the Boland Amendment. It specifically barred “the use of funds ‘for the purpose of’ overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras.”14
Open defiance was impossible, but the CIA, NSC and the Reagan Administration were dedicated to supporting the Contras at all costs, so they chose various methods of covert defiance by exploiting loopholes in the amendment. As long as the funds going to the Contras were not tagged as being used for overthrowing the Sandanista government, then they could be delivered under the guise of international aid. The use of soliciting third party funding was also left out of the Boland Amendment. Ultimately, the Boland Amendment had no tangible impact on the covert war in Nicaragua.
During the period proceeding the Boland Amendment, the CIA directly assisted the Contra's subversive efforts. One example is the use of air strikes against an airport near Managua. They also placed mines in Nicaraguan harbors in 1984, damaging several ships. The Wall Street Journal, which exposed these covert actions, also revealed the role of Oliver North, a Marine Colonel working on assignment with the NSC, in coordinating the actions, one of the first mentions of a name which would become notorious to the public just a few years later.15
Congress soon realized the ineffectiveness of the Boland Amendment and responded with new legislation that toughened the restrictions on funding the support, known as the Boland Amendment II. It read:
“During fiscal year 1985, no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual.”16
This legislation left two loopholes: first, was the use of third party funds to fund the contras, and the second was that the text explicitly referred to the actions of the CIA, but failed to mention the NSC, using the logic that it was not an intelligence agency, under the Department of Defense, or even covered under the provision of “any... entity of the United States.” This was based on the idea that the NSC was: “the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisers and cabinet officials” and thus exempt.17
This transition of techniques led Oliver North to take on a primary role in Contra assistance.
* * * *
Israel and Iran
Barred from using direct Agency funds for the Contra operations, Oliver North and the NSC began to get creative. One result is the infamous 'Diversion Memo', written by North, detailing a plan to sell arms to Iran, overcharge the country and funnel excess funds to the Contras. This plan was blatantly illegal under Operation Staunch, a U.S. led arms embargo against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war which lasted from '80 to '90. At the outset of the war, the US began arming Iraq, first with 200 million dollars in helicopters, and later escalating to several billion dollars worth of economic aid, the sale of dual-use technology, non-U.S. origin weaponry, military intelligence, Special Operations training, and direct involvement in warfare against Iran.18
The 'Diversion Memo' detailed a plan to work with a retired Air Force General and an Iranian businessman to sell arms to Iran, through the cover of Israel, in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Lebanese militants. Initially, the plan worked relatively well: Israel provided Iran with hundreds of TOW anti-tank missiles and multiple American hostages were released.19 The deal was completed just months after Ronald Reagan famously said: “The United States gives terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals.”20
Although North estimated that $12 million would be raised for the Contras in this manner, only $2 million ever made it to the group, likely because the private actors involved in the Operation were acting with a motivation of profit. As is thematic with American covert operations, the funds were funneled through a 'front organization' called Stanford Technology Trading Group International, as well as using 'proprietary' airlines to transfer the missiles: aircraft owned by the CIA and used in normal operations until needed by the Agency for covert operations.21
The story unraveled in 1986 when two Lebanon reporters broke the story of the secret arms transfer. The revelations sparked the widely publicized hearings in the United States to find the 'truth' of the operations. In 1987 hearings, Oliver North was given immunization from self-incrimination before Congress. Regarding the destruction of documents, he humorously noted: “I would prefer to say that I shredded documents that day like I did on all other days, but perhaps with increased intensity; that's correct.”22
The hearings’ Majority Report concluded that:
“North’s testimony demonstrates that he also lied to members of the Executive branch, including the Attorney General, and officials of the State Department, CIA and NSC.” And also that... “other officials lied repeatedly to Congress and to the American people about the Contra covert action and Iran arms sales, and that he altered and destroyed official documents.”
* * * *
The most shocking revelation of the Contra hearings, which the mainstream media nearly universally failed to report on, was the existence of an emergency preparedness plan known as Rex 84. The only public mention of the plan, known officially as 'Readiness Exercise 1984', was as follows:
Congressman Jack Brooks: Colonel North, in your work at the N.S.C. were you not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for the continuity of government in the event of a major disaster?Brendan Sullivan [North's lawyer, agitatedly]: Mr. Chairman?Senator Daniel Inouye: I believe that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so may I request that you not touch upon that?Brooks: I was particularly concerned, Mr. Chairman, because I read in Miami papers, and several others, that there had been a plan developed, by that same agency, a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered if that was an area in which he had worked. I believe that it was and I wanted to get his confirmation.Inouye: May I most respectfully request that that matter not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I'm certain arrangements can be made for an executive session.
Luckily, the media was able to get more details on the program which was too sensitive to discuss in a public forum. The Miami Herald, in a July 5, 1987 exposé, published the following:
“Some of President Reagan's top advisers have operated a virtual parallel government outside the traditional cabinet departments and agencies almost from the day Reagan took office, congressional investigators and administration officials have concluded.Investigators believe that the advisers' activities extended well beyond the secret arms sales to Iran and aid to the Contras now under investigation.Lt. Col. Oliver North, for example, helped draw up a controversial plan to suspend the Constitution in the event of a national crisis, such as a nuclear war, violent and widespread internal dissent or national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad.” The Miami Herald23 (Emphasis added).
Implementation of Rex 84 would have turned control over the United States to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would act as an 'emergency czar', and turn control of state and local governments to appointed Military commanders, and also included mention of 'assembly centers and relocation camps' to house dissidents. Attorney General William Smith correctly protested that the plan “exceeded its proper function as a coordinating agency for emergency preparedness.”24
It doesn't take reading between the lines to see the immediate intent of Rex 84. The NSA, CIA and other U.S. institutions believed that an invasion of Nicaragua might have been necessary to prevent the spread of communism so close to their borders. Such an idea isn't farfetched: Sandanista policies and their agreements with the Soviet Union indicate that they believed an American invasion was imminent.25 Being just a decade removed from the massively unpopular Vietnam War, an invasion would have prompted widespread dissent, and Rex 84 was the NSC's plan to deal with a domestic anti-war movement.
The investigation described by the Miami Herald had interesting revelations of other activities. For example, it revealed that the 'secret government' stole President Carter's briefing book used in campaign speeches and presidential debates with Reagan, indicating that the structure was in existence before Reagan's inauguration. It noted meetings with Iranian officials to discuss the release the delay of the release of U.S. Embassy hostages until after the election. Lastly, it discussed how certain officials orchestrated leaks to paint Reagan in a positive light, such as the November 4, 1984 election day announcement that Soviet Jet Fighters were on their way to Nicaragua, orchestrated by Oliver North himself.26
* * * *
Chief Counsel of the investigative Senate committee, Arthur Liman, wrote in a memo to panel leader Senator Daniel Inoyue:
“This is the part of the story that reveals the whole secret 'government-within-a-government' operated from the [Executive Office Building] by a Lt. Col. with its own army, airforce, diplomatic agents, intelligence operatives appropriations capacity.”27
As the 'Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair' noted, the United States had an actual foreign policy that vastly differed from their public discourse, and was executed in secret without checks and balances. When Congress tried to stop the covert operations, the agencies involved simply found loopholes to subvert their legislation, going as far as to arm two sides fighting against each other in a war, and to use private actors to conduct illicit activities. Furthermore, Rex 84 shows just how serious the 'secret government' was in exerting hegemony in Latin America.
The term 'secret government' is not an exaggeration. Various investigations, public and private, noted that Ronald Reagan himself may not have been aware of many activities the group undertook. These facts were all revealed in the mainstream media in a short period proceeding the Iran arms sales revelations, yet the public was never able to fully inform itself of the depths of the scandal.
Food for Thought:
- Why was the American public so complacent when the facts of a veritable shadow government were thoroughly revealed in the media?
- Why was there no significant drive for reform of the CIA originating from within Congress?
- How often does the CIA disregard domestic and international law when it interferes with their agenda?
- Why did the CIA find hegemony in Nicaragua to be so important? What threat, if any, did the country pose to the United States?
- Does a modern version of Rex 84 exist today?
- How far will the United States go to suppress domestic dissent the next time they deem a foreign invasion necessary?
Note: This information is also a part of my free eBook, 'Lifting the Veil: An Investigative History of the United States Pathocracy'. If you enjoy this post, please download the book by clicking this link.
1Report hosted at Archive.org
1Report hosted at Archive.org
2Draper, Theodore. “A Very Thin Line: the Iran-Contra Affairs”, 1991, p. 4
3Draper, p. 6
4Brown University, “The Iran/Contra Affair.”
7NSDD77 hosted here at FAS.org
8Foreign Policy, "Iran-Contra's Untold Story." 1988
9Chicago Tribune, “Contras Humans Rights Record Attacked,” January 10, 1987
10ISLA, excerpt available here. The book contains clippings of Latin American political, social and economic news from various English language newspapers. This particular quote is cited as coming from The Guardian.
11Wikipedia Article on the Contras
12PBS, “The Iran-Contra Affair”
13Document hosted here at FAS.org
16The 1984 Boland Amendment (PDF Warning)
18Wikipedia Article on United States Support for Iraq During the Iran-Iraq War
20Chicago Tribune, “President: Terrorists Must Pay,” July 1, 1985
23Miami Herald, “Reagan Aides and the 'Secret' Government,” July 5, 1987. An absolutely fascinating article worth reading in its entirety.