The Iran-Contra Affair: Faded in Time, but not Forgotten

Today’s post was written by Lynn Nashorn, textual processing and accessioning archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Called many names from the Iran-Contra Scandal to the McFarlane affair (after National Security Advisor under President Ronald Reagan Robert McFarlane) to simply Iran Contra, the Iran-Contra affair involved United States officials illegally funding Central American rebels and violating an arms embargo on Iran while it was at war with Iraq.

In 1981, following the Sandinistas’ rise to power the previous year, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of State in conjunction with former members of (former Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza’s) National Guard formed the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN) or Nicaraguan Democratic Force to assist and largely fund Somoza and his “Contra” supporters’ efforts to return him to power. Although the FDN did not succeed in regaining power for the Somoza regime, the U.S. spent several hundreds of millions of dollars on military aid to FDN, and Reagan himself once stated, “I’m a contra too.”

            In efforts to rein in the U.S. government’s assistance to the Contras, the United States Congress passed a series of three legislative amendments between 1982 and 1984 collectively called the Boland Amendment. Proposed by Massachusetts Representative Edward Boland, the amendment banned the use of federally appropriated funds to provide military support “for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua.” However, the Reagan administration chose to narrowly read the first amendment as only applicable to intelligence agencies and continued to fund Contra military efforts through the National Security Council (NSC) until Congress closed that loophole in subsequent amendments passed in 1984 and 1985.

the 3 men are standing, Reagan has a look of surprise on his face, Calero smiles, North is standing in background
President Reagan in Robert McFarlane’s office with Adolfo Calero (Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance (Contra) leader) and Oliver North, Apr 4, 1985 (NAID 75854005)

            However, in August 1985, it came to light that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, an employee of the NSC, used funds from weapons sales to the Khomeini government of Iran, which was under an arms embargo, to continue to fund the Contras. The Reagan administration justified the Iranian arms deal by arguing that it was part of a larger plan to obtain the release of seven American hostages held by Hezbollah, a paramilitary group linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Lebanon.  Yet, the U.S. arms sales to Iran dated back to 1981, well before the hostage siege in Lebanon.

Reagan and 3 other men standing at the corner of the resolute desk in the oval office looking at a paper he holds in his hands
President with Caspar Weinberger George Shultz Ed Meese and Don Regan in the Oval Office discussing the President’s remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Nov 25, 1986 (NAID 75855169)

            It remains unclear how much President Reagan knew about the arms deal and its funding of the Contras. Records of his Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger imply that Reagan knew about possible hostage transfers in Iran and the sale of Hawk and TOW missiles to “moderate elements” in Iran. In the same set of notes from December 7, 1985, Weinberger also indicates that Reagan wanted to flex his strength as president by freeing the hostages (National Security Archives). However, on November 13, 1986 in a televised speech, the President stated that the arms deal occurred but denied that the U.S. traded arms for hostages.

            In December 1986, the administration assembled a three-person Tower Commission to further investigate the Iran-Contra affair comprised of former Senator John Tower of Texas, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcraft. The same month, United States Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Walsh was appointed as Independent Counsel to launch a probe of probable criminal activities of government officials involved in the scandal.

Reagan at a conference table with his hands folded, sitting inbetween 2 other men
President Reagan receives the Tower Commission Report in the Cabinet Room with John Tower and Edmund Muskie, Feb 26, 1987 (NAID 75855305)

The Tower Commission report published on February 27, 1987, found that CIA Director William Casey, a supporter of the Iran-Contra Agreement, should have handled the operation and alerted Reagan to its risks, and also informed Congress of the agreement as required by law.  However, the report states that Reagan did not know the full extent of all the programs involving Iran-Contra.  Unfortunately, Reagan administration officials impeded their investigation and the investigation by the Independent Counsel by destroying and withholding large amounts of records pertaining to the Iran-Contra affair.  Still, even with the aforementioned record gaps, Walsh’s investigation led to the indictments of over 20 government officials including then Secretary of Defense Weinberger, and obtaining eleven convictions. On March 4, 1987, President Reagan again spoke to the nation in a televised address and took responsibility for Iran-Contra in part saying “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.”

Reagan seated at the resolute desk looking into a camera that is out of shot
President Reagan Making an address to the Nation on the Iran-Contra Controversy in Oval Office, Mar 4, 1987 (NAID 75855325)

In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, Oliver North and Reagan’s National Security Advisor John Poindexter’s convictions were overturned on technicalities. President George H. W. Bush, who served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, later pardoned all other officials indicted or convicted as part of Iran-Contra in 1993, shortly before the Independent Counsel issued its final report.  Walsh saw the pardons as an implication of guilt on Bush’s part writing in his autobiography, that the pardons simply fit into a pattern of “deception and obstruction” involving senior Reagan administration officials and Iran-Contra. In 1991, Oliver North co-wrote Under Fire: An American Story about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, and in 1994 he unsuccessfully ran as the Republican candidate for Senate against Virginia Democrat Chuck Robb. President Reagan died in 2004, Caspar Weinberger died in 2006, and President George H. W. Bush died in 2018, and Iran-Contra faded from public discourse.  However, North and Walsh’s memoirs, several books on the affair, and the wealth of records relating to Iran-Contra and the investigations that followed keep the memory of the scandal alive today.

2 thoughts on “The Iran-Contra Affair: Faded in Time, but not Forgotten

  1. “U.S. officials illegally funding” various things through weapons sales is a time honored tradition, occurring under the radar. These things happened before Oliver North, and after, continuing up to today, including weapons sales to Ukraine the last decade, and using Ukraine as a transfer depot for further illegal weapons sales to other parts of the world (including Javelin missiles). This sort of thing did not go away after Oliver North. It has expanded. These things happen regardless of politics. It is not about the red or blue, it’s about the green money.

  2. I’m wondering what ever happened to the “Iran Contras?” Did they disband? Form another group? Are they still active today?

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