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Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals

Dick Cheney

Project: Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals
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Hamilton and Cheney hold a press conference together about the Iran-Contra Affair investigation on June 19, 1987.Hamilton and Cheney hold a press conference together about the Iran-Contra Affair investigation on June 19, 1987. [Source: J. Scott Applewhite]Future 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), at this time chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, fails to properly investigate Iran-Contra allegations. He learns of press reports indicating that the Reagan administration is illegally funneling weapons and money to the anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, but when the White House denies the story, Hamilton believes it. Hamilton will later acknowledge that he has been gullible, and will say of his political style, “I don’t go for the jugular.” It is during the Iran-Contra investigation that Hamilton becomes friends with Dick Cheney, at this time a Republican congressman. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 33] Cheney is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and so must work closely with Hamilton, including on the Iran-Contra investigation. [PBS, 6/20/2006] Hamilton calls Cheney “Dick” and they will remain friends even after Cheney becomes vice president in 2001 and Hamilton, as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, begins to investigate Cheney’s actions as a part of the Commission’s work. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 33] Hamilton will also fail to properly investigate “October Surprise” allegations (see 1992-January 1993).

Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Dick Cheney, House-Senate Committee

The Reagan administration, reeling from the revelation that it has illegally armed the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986), attempts to conceal its workings in Nicaragua. In a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, joined by CIA officials, assures committee members that the US government is not involved in supplying the Contras. According to the witnesses, the CIA claims it had nothing to do with Eugene Hasenfus, the cargo handler who survived the recent downing of a CIA transport plane and in doing so revealed the existence of the illegal arms deals. Supposedly, the only involvement by US officials was to offer public encouragement. The committee Democrats do not believe anything Abrams or the CIA officials say, but at least one committee member, Dick Cheney (R-WY) offers his support. According to the summary written by the administration staffer taking notes that day, “Mr. Cheney said he found our ignorance credible.” There is far more going on than the committee Democrats know—or than Cheney will tell them. For years, Cheney has been urging Congress to authorize aid to the Contras, but the majority Democrats have been inconsistent in their support. As authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will later characterize the situation, Abrams, a self-described former socialist turned enthusiastic neoconservative, and others in the administration, such as National Security Council staffer Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, have now taken matters into their own hands (see October 5, 1986), in direct violation of US law. Committee Democrats are as yet unaware that Reagan officials such as North have also been negotiating arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, in a covert three-way deal involving Iran, the US, and the Contras (see November 3, 1986). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Contras, Elliott Abrams, Reagan administration, Oliver North, House Intelligence Committee, Lou Dubose, Jake Bernstein, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Eugene Hasenfus, Oliver North

Warren Rudman and Daniel Inouye.Warren Rudman and Daniel Inouye. [Source: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images]Both the House and Senate name special committees to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Avoiding Impeachment - The two investigations will quickly merge into one joint, unwieldy committee. Neither Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) nor Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) have any intention of allowing the investigations to become impeachment hearings against President Reagan (see December 19, 1986). They decide to combine the House and Senate investigations in the hopes that the investigation will move more quickly and limit the damage to the presidency. They envision a bipartisan committee made up of wise, sober lawmakers able to prevent the investigation from becoming a witch hunt. Wright will remember telling the Republican minority leadership, “You appoint and we appoint and we can maintain some control.”
Choosing Chairmen, Members - Byrd chooses Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a decorated World War II veteran who had served on the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 7, 1973) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. In turn, Inouye names Warren Rudman (R-NH), a former federal prosecutor, as his vice chairman, promising to share all the powers and responsibilities of the chairmanship with him. According to authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Rudman “would overshadow” the self-effacing Inouye. For the House side, Wright names conservative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) to chair that portion of the committee. Both Hamilton and Inouye have a deep conviction that to accomplish anything of lasting import, decisions must be arrived at in a bipartisan fashion. Wright names several powerful Democratic committee chairmen to the House committee; their responsibilities as committee chairmen will interfere with their ability to devote the proper time and effort to the investigation. House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IN) chooses his members with a very different agenda in mind. Michel, himself a relatively moderate Republican, chooses Dick Cheney (R-WY) as the ranking member of the House investigation. Cheney is well-informed about intelligence and foreign affairs, and, in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, “ruthlessly partisan.” In addition, Cheney will function as the White House “mole” on the committee, alerting White House officials as to the thrust and direction of the investigation and allowing them time to prepare accordingly. Michel salts the House committee with right-wing ideologues, including Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Few of Michel’s House committee members have any intention of pursuing the facts behind Iran-Contra; instead, they are bent on undermining the Democrats on the committee and ensuring that the committee achieves few, if any, of its goals.
Loss of Leverage - From the outset, Wright and Byrd’s opposition to any consideration of presidential impeachment, no matter what evidence is unearthed, loses them their biggest advantage in the proceedings. Not only will committee Republicans feel more confident in pulling the investigation away from sensitive and potentially embarrassing matters, the committee will ignore important evidence of Reagan’s own involvement in the Iran-Contra decision-making process, including recordings of telephone conversations showing Reagan discussing financing the Contras with foreign leaders. Hamilton in particular will be an easy mark for the ideologues in the Republican group of committee members; his biggest worry is whether Reagan “would be able to govern” after the investigation, and his relentless bipartisanship makes him easy for the committee Republicans to manipulate and sway. As for the Republicans, even fellow GOP committee member Rudman will become disgusted with their naked partisanship and their refusal to pursue the facts. “It was obvious that Dick Cheney and others were more interested in protecting the president than in finding out what had happened,” Rudman will later recall. Dubose and Bernstein add that Cheney has another agenda as well: preserving the powers of the presidency against Congressional encroachment.
Cheney's Influence - Cheney has always succeeded in lulling his opposition with his unruffled demeanor. He is able to do the same thing on the investigative committee. “We totally misread the guy,” a Democratic staffer later recalls. “We thought he was more philosophical than political.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 68-69]

Entity Tags: Robert C. Byrd, James C. (‘Jim’) Wright, Jr., Jake Bernstein, Henry Hyde, Daniel Inouye, Contras, Bill McCollum, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Lee Hamilton, Ronald Reagan, Robert Michel, Warren Rudman, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Lou Dubose

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan

The Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigation begin meetings to discuss the logistics of the upcoming public hearings (see May 5, 1987). Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) later recalls that House committee chairman “Lee Hamilton and I bent over backwards to be fair to the Republicans.” Many of the committee Republicans are not predisposed to return the favor. Moderate Republican Warren Rudman (R-NH), the co-chairman of the Senate committee, recalls that deep divides were forming between the committee’s moderate Republicans and the more hardline Republicans led by Dick Cheney (R-WY). “The meetings were very, very intensive,” Rudman will recall. Cheney helps put together the Republican committee members’ staff, and includes a number of hardline Reagan loyalists: the Justice Department’s Bruce Fein; the former assistant general counsel to the CIA, David Addington; and others. Notably, it is during the Iran-Contra hearings where Cheney and Addington form their lasting professional association.
Artificial Deadline - The first battle is over the length of the hearings. Cheney’s hardliners want the hearings over with quickly—“like tomorrow,” one former staffer recalls. Hamilton will recall: “Did I know Dick wanted to shorten it? Yes, I knew that.” Committee Democrats, fearful of extending the proceedings into the 1988 presidential campaign and thusly being perceived as overly partisan, agree to an artificial ten-month deadline to complete the investigation and issue a final report. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that the deadline is “an invitation to the administration to stall while simultaneously burying the committee under mountains of useless information.” When, in the fall of 1987, the committee receives large amounts of new information, such as White House backup computer files, Cheney’s hardliners will succeed in insisting that the committee adhere to the deadline.
Jousting with the Special Prosecutor - The committee also has trouble co-existing with the special prosecutor’s concurrent investigation (see December 19, 1986). The special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, wants a long, intensive investigation culminating in a round of prosecutions. The committee worries that in light of Walsh’s investigation, key witnesses like Oliver North and John Poindexter would refuse to testify before the committee, and instead plead the Fifth Amendment. Rudman and committee counsel Arthur Liman want Walsh to quickly prosecute North for obstruction of justice based on North’s “shredding party” (see November 21-25, 1986). Rudman believes that he can get his Republican colleagues to agree to defer their investigation until after North’s trial. But Walsh declines. Rudman later says: “Walsh might have been more successful if he had followed our suggestion.… But he had this grand scheme of conspiracy.” As such, the committee has a difficult choice: abort the investigation or grant North immunity from prosecution so he can testify. Cheney and his hardliners, and even some Democrats, favor not having North testify in deference to his upcoming prosecution. “People were all over the place on that one,” Rudman will recall. Hamilton is the strongest proponent of immunity for North. “He believed that North had information no one else had,” a staffer will recall. Hamilton and the moderate Republicans are more interested in finding the details of the Iran-Contra affair rather than preparing for criminal prosecutions. The committee eventually compromises, and defers the testimony of North and Poindexter until the end of the investigation. Another committee staffer later recalls, “Hamilton was so fair-minded and balanced that in order to get agreements, he gave ground in areas where he shouldn’t have.”
North Deal 'Dooms' Investigation - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The deal the committee struck with North’s canny lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, doomed Walsh’s investigation and the hearings.” The committee offers North “use immunity,” a guarantee that his testimony cannot be used against him in future prosecutions. The committee also agrees, unwisely, to a series of further caveats: they will not depose North prior to his testimony, his testimony will be strictly limited in duration, the committee will not recall North for further testimony, and he will not have to produce documents to be used in his testimony until just days before his appearance. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 70-72, 77]

Entity Tags: Oliver North, Jake Bernstein, David S. Addington, Bruce Fein, Brendan Sullivan, Arthur Liman, James C. (‘Jim’) Wright, Jr., John Poindexter, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Lawrence E. Walsh, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Warren Rudman, Lee Hamilton, Lou Dubose

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, John Poindexter, Oliver North

Iran-Contra investigative committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) tells a reporter that former CIA Director William Casey, who recently resigned due to terminal brain cancer (see February 2, 1987), was “one of the best CIA directors the agency had ever had.” Referring to Casey’s inability to testify in the Iran-Contra hearings, Cheney says, “I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the man based on speculation and innuendo (see May 5, 1987), and to do so at a time when he is incapable of defending himself strikes me as in extremely poor taste.” As for Iran-Contra itself, Cheney says, “I think there’s a very real possibility that it’s going to be at best a footnote in the history books.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 70]

Entity Tags: William Casey, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, William Casey

Richard Secord receives whispered advice from his attorney, Thomas Green, during his testimony.Richard Secord receives whispered advice from his attorney, Thomas Green, during his testimony. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Public testimony begins in the joint House and Senate investigations of the Iran-Contra affair. General Richard Secord (see November 19, 1985) is the first witness (see May 5, 1987). [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
'Hero's Angle' - The televised hearing area in Room 325 of the Senate Office Building, built to accommodate over two dozen committee members, their staff, witnesses, lawyers, and television reporters and camera operators, features a series of two-tiered stages. Film director Steven Spielberg will later tell Senate counsel Arthur Liman that from a visual viewpoint, the staging is a terrible mistake; the witnesses appear on television “at the hero’s angle, looking up as though from a pit at the committees, who resembled two rows of judges at the Spanish Inquisition.” Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will note with some sardonicism that the committee’s two lawyers could not have been better choices to play television villains. Liman is “a nasal-voiced New York ethnic with ‘spaghetti hair,’” and House counsel John Nields is “a balding lawyer with long locks down to his collar who couldn’t keep his distaste for the witnesses from creeping into his voice.”
Opening Statements; Cheney Blames Congress, Not the White House - The hearings open with the usual long-winded opening statements from the various committee members. Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY), the leader of the Republican hardline contingent, makes it clear from the outset where he intends to go in the investigation. “Some will argue that these events justify the imposition of additional restrictions on presidents to prohibit the possibility of similar occurrences in the future,” he says. “In my opinion, this would be a mistake. In completing our task, we should seek above all to find ways to strengthen the capacity of future presidents and future Congresses to meet the often dangerous and difficult challenges that are bound to rise in the years ahead.” He then introduces his counter-argument: Congress’s dithering, not the Reagan administration’s clear violation of the law, is the crux of the problem with the Iran-Contra affair. “One important question to be asked is to what extent did the lack of a clear-cut policy by the Congress contribute to the events we will be exploring in the weeks ahead?” Cheney and his colleagues will argue that because Congress had supported the Contras in the past, its decision not to continue that support was an unforgivable breach, “a form of actionable negligence,” in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, that made it necessary for the Reagan administration to establish “a parallel support network as a ‘bridging’ mechanism until Congress could be brought around to a sensible policy.” Oliver North will echo this concept in his own testimony (see July 7-10, 1987), driving committee Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-NH) to retort: “The American people have the Constitutional right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks, or what Oliver North thinks or what I think or what anybody else thinks makes not a whit if the American people say, ‘Enough.’” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 72-75]

Entity Tags: Richard Secord, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Contras, Arthur Liman, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Reagan administration, Lou Dubose, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Steven Spielberg, Oliver North

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, Oliver North, Richard Secord

Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform.Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform. [Source: Cuba Informazione]CIA operative Felix Rodriguez testifies before the Iran-Contra committee (see May 5, 1987). Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and former US Army officer, is notorious for his involvement in the execution of South American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967. Rodriguez also ran covert assassination operations for the CIA during the Vietnam War. Rodriguez’s connection to the White House was through Donald Gregg, the national security adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983). Gregg had helped station Rodriguez at an airport in El Salvador, where Rodriguez could, under the pseudonym “Max Gomez,” manage the Contra resupply operation for Oliver North and Richard Secord (see Mid-September 1985 and November 19, 1985). CIA cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus (see October 5, 1986) told his Sandinista captors that “Max Gomez” was his contact with the CIA. Rodriguez’s testimony is potentially explosive, but committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) has no interest in eliciting any such infomation. Instead, he invites Rodriguez to launch a well-scripted diatribe against allowing the Soviet Union to establish a Communist foothold in Latin America. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 73-74]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Richard Secord, Central Intelligence Agency, Felix Rodriguez, Donald Gregg, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Oliver North

Category Tags: Aid for Nicaraguan Contras, Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, Donald Gregg, Eugene Hasenfus, Felix Rodriguez

Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee.Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifies before the joint House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. During the course of his testimony, he says he does not know if President Reagan had any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). North also testifies that William Casey, the recently deceased CIA director (see May 6, 1987), knew of and approved the diversion of funds to the Contras. North admits that the Iranian arms sales were initially designed to help facilitate the release of the American hostages being held by Hezbollah. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Tour de Force - North’s testimony is a “tour de force,” in the words of authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, that allows Republicans the opportunity to reverse the field of the hearings and go on the offensive instead of defending the conduct of the Reagan administration. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, wears his full-dress Marine uniform throughout his entire testimony with rows of ribbons festooning his chest. Handsome and full of righteous patriotism, he is striking on television, and contrasts well with the nasal, disdainful committee lawyers (see May 5, 1987) who spend four days interrogating him.
Need to Free Hostages Trumps Law - For the first two days, North and House counsel John Nields spar for the cameras. North says that Casey had directed him to create the so-called “Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987), the clandestine organization that supported the Nicaraguan Contras with money, weapons, and sometimes US personnel. North admits to shredding untold amounts of evidence after the operation came to light (see November 21-25, 1986). He also admits to lying to Congress in previous testimony. But all of his actions are justified, he says, by the need to get Iran to free the American hostages. “I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten Americans home for it,” he declares in response to one question about US arms sales to Iran. Senate counsel Arthur Liman will later write, “He made all his illegal acts—the lying to Congress, the diversion [of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Contras], the formation of the Enterprise, the cover-up—seem logical and patriotic.”
Targeting Covert Operations - Nields’s preferred line of questioning—covert operations—makes many committee members uncomfortable. Some House Democrats want to use the investigation to further their own goals of limiting covert actions, and others simply want the truth to be revealed. In contrast, House Republicans are united in opposition to any details of covert operations being revealed on national television and thus hampering the president’s ability to conduct future operations as needed. After the first day of North’s testimony, committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) exults on PBS that North “probably was as effective as anybody we’ve had before the committee in coming forward very aggressively and stating what he did, saying why he did it, arguing that he was in fact authorized to take the activities that he did.”
Leaky Congress Unfit to Know of Covert Ops, North Contends - North echoes Cheney’s position that the question is not whether White House officials broke the law, but whether Congress was fit to consider the question of national security at all. North goes so far as to question the propriety of the hearings themselves: “I believe that these hearings, perhaps unintentionally so, have revealed matters of great secrecy in the operation of our government, and sources of methods of intelligence activities have clearly been revealed, to the detriment of our security.” North’s message is clear: Congress is not fit to handle covert operations or, by and large, to even know about them. Best for the legislature to allow the White House and the intelligence community to do what needs doing and remain quiet about it. North’s contention that Congress has leaked vital national security information is shot down by Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who not only forces North to admit that he has no evidence of his contention, but that the White House, not Congress, is the main source of leaked classified information. Indeed, North himself has leaked information (see July 7-10, 1987). Inouye’s co-chair, Warren Rudman (R-NH) will later say: “The greatest leaks came out of the White House. North and company were the biggest leakers of all during that period.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 75-78] Nields, addressing North’s implication that the NSC has no obligation to tell the truth to Congress, says towards the end of his session with North: “We do believe in a democracy in which the people, not one lieutenant colonel, decide important policy issues, don’t we? … You denied Congress the facts North had admitted to lying about the government’s involvement with the Hasenfus plane. You denied the elected representatives of the people the facts.” [Boston Globe, 7/9/1987]
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).

Entity Tags: William Casey, Warren Rudman, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Arthur Liman, Bush administration (41), Contras, Daniel Inouye, Hezbollah, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Lou Dubose

Category Tags: Aid for Nicaraguan Contras, Arms Sales Profits to Contras, Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, Hezbollah and Iran, US Hostages, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, George H. W. Bush, Oliver North

On the last day of Oliver North’s testimony to the Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee (see July 7-10, 1987), ranking Republican Dick Cheney handles the questioning. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will observe that the questioning is more of “a duet than an interrogation.”
Praise from Cheney to North - Cheney opens by praising North’s handling of the hearings, saying, “I know I speak for a great many people who have been watching the proceedings, because the Congress has been absolutely buried in the favorable public reaction to your testimony and phone calls and telegrams” (see July 9-31, 1987). North has taken to stacking piles of supportive telegrams on his witness table; what he and Cheney do not tell those watching the hearings is that Western Union is offering a half-price special on pro-North telegrams sent to the committee.
Obvious Orchestration - Dubose and Bernstein later write that Cheney and North’s session is so perfectly carried out that it seems scripted and rehearsed, “complete with programmed queries and answers not available to everyone else.” Committee co-chairman Warren Rudman (R-NH) later says, “It was apparent to me that there was coordination going on.” Bruce Fein, the Republican staff’s chief of research, later admits that there was indeed such collaboration, though he says it was nothing more than “coordinat[ing] strategy.” Cheney and North’s duet paints North as nothing more than a guy who wanted “to cut through red tape” to save Nicaragua from Communism. North takes the opportunity to portray the selfless hero: “Hang whatever you want around the neck of Ollie North… but for the love of God and the love of this nation, don’t hang around Ollie North’s neck the cutoff of funds to the Nicaraguan resistance again. This country cannot stand that, not just because of Nicaragua, but because of all the other nations in the world who look at us and measure by what we do now in Nicaragua, the measure of our whole commitment to their cause. To things like NATO, to things like our commitment to peace and democracy elsewhere in the world.”
'Turnaround from Defense to Offense [Is] Complete' - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The two men were now in the zone, a parallel radical-right fantasyland, blissfully ignoring the damage to America’s reputation caused by the administration’s support for the Contras and its willingness to barter weapons for hostages with Iran and Hezbollah.” Cheney and North ignore the World Court’s condemnation of the US mining of Nicaraguan harbors, the Contras’ attacks on civilian targets such as medical centers while refusing to engage the Sandinista forces themselves, which had inflamed outrage in Europe, and the ridicule that Iranian hardliners had subjected US attempts to open negotiations. Cheney’s questioning strategy is so successful that he is able to offer North his remaining time to present a slideshow on why funding the Contras is so important. Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The turnaround from defense to offense was complete.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 75-78, 80]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Contras, Jake Bernstein, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Lou Dubose, Oliver North, Warren Rudman

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Dick Cheney, Oliver North

Jim Wright.Jim Wright. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]A group of Nicaraguan Contra leaders walks unexpectedly into the office of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and demands a meeting. They want to discuss prisoners being held by the Sandinista government. Wright is perplexed, but agrees to see them.
'Reagan-Wright' Peace Plan - Wright has engineered a peace program between the US and Nicaragua known as “Reagan-Wright,” a program very unpopular with right-wing Republicans both in the White House and in Congress. White House officials such as President Reagan’s national security affairs assistant Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams have attempted to derail the program by trying to persuade other Central American leaders to come out against Nicaragua and thereby undermine the peace talks. But the program has progressed, largely because of Wright’s tireless efforts and the cooperation of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez (who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts). Wright had informed the leaders of the different factions in Nicaragua, Contras and Sandinistas alike, that his door was always open to them.
Enemy in House - Wright does not realize that he has an implacable enemy in powerful House member Dick Cheney (R-WY). Cheney is offended by what he sees as Wright’s encroachment on powers that should be reserved for the executive branch alone, and has devised a campaign to further undermine Wright.
Meeting between Wright and Contras - When the Contra leaders meet with Wright, the speaker has already informed the CIA that its agents who were fomenting civil unrest and provoking the Sandinistas were violating the law. He tells the Contras that they can no longer expect CIA agitators to work on their behalf. When news of the meeting gets back to Cheney and Abrams, they are, in Wright’s recollection, “furious.”
Washington Times Claims Wright Leaked Classified Information - The State Department steers the angry Contra delegation to the offices of the right-wing Washington Times, where they tell the editorial staff what Wright had told them—that the CIA is illegally provoking unrest in Nicaragua. A week later, Wright is floored when a Times reporter confronts him with accusations that he has leaked classified CIA information to foreign nationals.
Security Breach Allegation - Wright’s defense—he had told the Contras nothing they didn’t already know—does not placate Cheney, who immediately calls for a thorough investigation of Wright’s “security breach.” Speaking as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Cheney says Wright has raised serious “institutional questions that go to the integrity of the House, to the integrity of the oversight process in the area of intelligence, and to the operation of the Intelligence Committee.”
Set-Up - An investigative reporter from Newsday, Roy Gutman, learns from State Department sources that Wright had been set up by Cheney and Abrams. State Department officials sent the Contras to the Washington Times with specific instructions to leak the CIA content of their discussion with Wright to the editors. But Gutman’s discovery has little impact on the situation.
Ethics Complaint - Cheney, with House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IL), files a complaint with the House Ethics Committee and demands an investigation by the Intelligence Committee, claiming Wright has compromised US intelligence operations in Central America. Throughout the process, neither Michel nor Cheney give Wright any warning of the complaints before they are filed.
Pressure from Cheney - Looking back, Wright will be more disturbed by Michel’s actions than by Cheney’s. He considered Michel a friend, and was amazed that Michel went along with Cheney in blindsiding him. Michel will later apologize to Wright, and say that Cheney had pressured him so much that he went along with Cheney in filing the ethics complaint without telling Wright. One aspect that Michel does not explain is why, as House minority leader, he would put the stamp of approval of the House leadership on the complaint, raising it to a much higher level than a complaint from a rank-and-file representative like Cheney. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 60-62]

Entity Tags: Washington Times, Roy Gutman, US Department of State, Robert Michel, Elliott Abrams, House Ethics Committee, House Intelligence Committee, Contras, Colin Powell, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Ronald Reagan, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Central Intelligence Agency, James C. (‘Jim’) Wright, Jr.

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, Dick Cheney

Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) publishes an essay for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), apparently written either by his Iran-Contra commission colleague Michael Malbin or by Cheney and Malbin together, but printed under Cheney’s name. The essay is titled “Congressional Overreaching in Foreign Policy,” and covers what he terms “congressional aggrandizement” of presidential powers.
Congress Has No Place in Determining, Implementing US Foreign Policy - Cheney’s essay bluntly states his belief that Congress has no business interfering in the president’s power to determine and implement the nation’s foreign policy; in general, the essay indicates Cheney’s disdain for the legislative branch of which he has been a member. He writes, in part: “Broadly speaking, the Congress was intended to be a collective, deliberative body. When working at its best, it would slow down decisions, improve their substantive content, subject them to compromise, and help build a consensus behind general rules before they were to be applied to the citizenry. The presidency, in contrast, was designed as a one-person office to ensure that it would be ready for action. Its major characteristics… were to be ‘decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.‘… [T]he legislative branch is ill equipped to handle many of the foreign policy tasks it has been taking upon itself lately.” He writes that while Congress may take upon itself powers to launch military actions or respond to an attack, it is by nature so slow and deliberative, and its members so focused on getting reelected, that it cannot adequately wield those powers: “[T]he real world effect often turns out… not to be a transfer of power from the president to Congress, but a denial of power to the government as a whole.” The only power Congress should have in involving itself in foreign policy, Cheney argues, is whether or not to fund presidential initiatives. “[T]he nation should not be paralyzed by Congress’s indecision,” he writes. [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 59-61]
Cheney Selected as Secretary of Defense - Shortly after the essay is published, President George H.W. Bush names Cheney as his secretary of defense. Cheney was scheduled to give a talk based on the essay at AEI, but cancels it and goes to Washington to begin preparing for confirmation hearings in the Senate. Reporter Charlie Savage will note that the essay may have caused Cheney some difficulties in his confirmation hearings had it had a larger audience. [Savage, 2007, pp. 61]
Former White House Counsel: Cheney's Proposals Unconstitutional, Unwise - In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write of the essay: “Cheney seems to be oblivious to the fact that the type of government he advocates is not, in fact, the government our Constitution provides.… His argument also assumes that a more agile, energetic, and fast-acting chief executive is the better system, but history does not support that contention. Presidential leadership has consistently shown itself less wise and less prudent than the slower but more deliberative nature of the system that we have. It was Congress that forced presidents out of no-win wars like Vietnam. The reason the nation’s Founders empowered Congress was because they wisely realized that a president—like heads of governments throughout history—was prone to fighting wars for his own glory, without seeming able to easily bring those wars to an end.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 88-89]

Entity Tags: Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, John Dean, American Enterprise Institute, Michael Malbin, George Herbert Walker Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Category Tags: After Effects, Dick Cheney

Veterans of the Iran-Contra scandal meet for a “lessons learned” discussion, led by Elliott Abrams. One of the conclusions drawn is that, had they done it right, they could have gotten away with it. For future covert operations, they reportedly agree that they should abide by the following axioms: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the CIA has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office.” [New Yorker, 3/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Elliott Abrams

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Elliott Abrams, Dick Cheney

While on a trip to the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney gives a frank outline of his view of the president’s powers, and refers to an Iran-Contra document as support for this view. In response to a question about his perspective as a veteran of the Ford administration, which the reporter says “arguably was the point at which presidential power had reached its absolute nadir,” Cheney replies, “Yes, I do have the view that over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority, that it’s reflected in a number of developments.” Cheney lists several examples, including the War Powers Act, Congressional budget controls, the limitations placed on his own 2001 Energy Task Force, and numerous steps to limit the president’s power taken after Watergate and the Vietnam War. Cheney then advises the reporter: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran Contra Report in about 1987 (see November 16-17, 1987). Nobody has ever read them, but we—part of the argument in Iran Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective.… I believe in a strong, robust executive authority. And I think the world we live in demands it. And to some extent, that we have an obligation as an administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good a shape as we found them.… I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.” [White House, 12/20/2005]
Nixon Lawyer: Cheney 'Twisting History' - However, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the Iran-Contra document to which Cheney refers “replete with factual and other errors,” a wholesale “twist[ing] of history” that nevertheless “sought to establish extreme standards for presidential powers vis-a-vis Congress.” According to Dean, Cheney believes now, as he did then, “that the Congress—other than writing checks to finance the president’s policies—has no real role whatsoever.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 86-88]
Former Republican Staffer: 'Chasm of Difference' between Then, Now - Former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, who helped Cheney write the minority report and has since parted ways with his old boss, will say there is “a chasm of difference” between Iran-Contra and the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration. “Then it was part of the democratic process,” Fein will say in July 2006. “The way you debate the process, it allows for self-correction. This is the essence, the lifeblood of democracy.” Then, the Reagan administration was forced by a Democratic majority in Congress to disclose at least some details of its inner workings. There is no such disclosure today, Fein says. “They think that democracy ends if you win elections.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 81]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Ford administration, John Dean, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Category Tags: After Effects, Dick Cheney

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