Contra Gates

The president announced his pick to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense today: former CIA director Robert Gates. Bound to surface in the coming national scrutiny of Gates is his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

One of the great misconceptions of the Iran-Contra scandal is the widely-held belief that when then-Attorney General Meese called a press conference on November 25, 1986, to announce his discovery of the famous "diversion" of funds from the weapons sales to Iran to pay for weapons for the Nicaraguan contras, he was finally revealing the truth of what took place. As Oliver North pointed out in his memoir, the administration had much to gain by focusing on the diversion:

This particular detail 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. And if it could be insinuated that this supposedly terrible deed was the exclusive responsibility of one mid-level staff assistant at the National Security council (and perhaps his immediate superior, the national security adviser), and that this staffer had acted on his own (however unlikely that might be), and that, now that you mention it, his activities might even be criminal -- if the pubic and the press focused on that, then maybe you didn't have another Watergate on your hands after all." 1

The story of the arms sales broke, originally, in al-Shiraa, on November 3, 1986. The Iranian Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, confirmed it in a speech to the Iranian Parliament the following day, adding the details about National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane's delivery of a Bible and a chocolate cake as thank-you gifts for the meeting. At this point, Chief of Staff Donald Regan told the president that the time had come to finally "go public" about the effort. But John Poindexter disagreed and carried the day. The president went forth to assure reporters it was a story that "came out of the Middle East and that, to us, has no foundation."2 Presidential Press Secretary Larry Speakes later admitted that Reagan "knew [this remark] was wrong at the time."3 Six days later, the president changed his story in a televised address to the nation, when he admitted to shipping some missiles to Iran; but he lied once again by insisting that, "taken together, [the missiles] could easily have fit into a single cargo plane." With the crisis continuing to build, Reagan went before the press eight days later, on November 19, and stuck to his incredible story. He perpetuated the falsehood that the United States "had nothing to do with other countries or their shipments of arms to Iran, including Israel."4 By this time, however, Poindexter had already briefed the press about the U.S. negotiations with Israel to provide the weapons, and so the falsity of Reagan's account was transparent to everyone but the president himself.

The pressure for a credible explanation of the affair continued to increase. Congress demanded testimony from CIA director William Casey and Poindexter. It was at this point that the two men joined with North -- and CIA deputy director Robert Gates -- to construct a false chronology of the "enterprise," in order to cover up their illegal deeds and protect their president.

In this document they perpetuated Reagan's earlier set of lies by arguing that no one in the CIA knew that anything but oil-drilling equipment had been delivered to Iran. North further tailored the chronology to suggest that no one in the entire U.S. government had been aware of the truth of the matter, when, in fact, George Shultz had contemporaneous notes proving that he, McFarlane, and Reagan were all fully briefed about the true nature of the shipments. Shultz then queried State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer regarding the extent of his legal responsibility to tell the truth about this, and Sofaer told him that yes, he was legally bound to do so. So informed, Shultz threatened to resign if the chronology was not corrected. Casey died of a brain hemorrhage before he could be asked about the false chronology, but both North and Poindexter later testified that he was aware that the chronologies were deliberately "inaccurate."5

In his own memoir, Gates later noted that "[t]he first ingredient in the Contra time bomb was an administration unwilling to make a major national political issue of Nicaragua and live with the results, yet so committed to the Contra cause that it would thwart the obvious will of Congress and, unprecedentedly, run a foreign covert action out of the White House funded by foreign governments and private citizens." True, but a second ingredient was a CIA willing to go along with it. Let's hope he's learned something about the value of institutional independence in the interim.

Nation media columnist and CUNY Journalism Professor Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, where his blog Altercation recently moved from He is also the author of six books, including When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences and What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News.


1. Oliver North with William Novak, Under Fire, An American Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 2, 7-8.

2. The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, eds. (New York: The New Press, 1993), 305.

3. Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 295

4. Cited in The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, eds. (New York: The New Press, 1993), 304-6.

5. Theodore Draper, A Very Thin Line: The Iran Contra Affairs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991) 490.

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