Dear Reader: As journalism chases the perceived diminishing attention span by making everything shorter and shorter, we’re going to head in the opposite direction on occasion – go really deep and thorough on something historical and still of interest. Here’s one such case: a remarkable look at Iran-Contra, a still somewhat-mysterious big scandal of 30 years ago that tells us much about the Deep State, the Military-Industrial complex and America’s will to empire that provides context to so much happening today.
This is the first of a three-part series exploring Iran-Contra and its implications. Part I describes the Reagan Administration’s secret wars and illegal arms deals exposed in the scandal. Part II explains how the constitutional and legal crisis unfolded but backfired politically in the Bush and Clinton years. Part III will survey the era of global insecurity we have entered in the second Bush and Obama Administrations and the role key members of the incoming Trump team played in creating it by immunizing themselves from the consequences of past criminality.
The author, Doug Vaughan, spent years as an investigative journalist covering the Central/South American horrors of the 1970s and 80s. In this series, he draws a throughline from that troubling time to the present cast of characters taking their places in a new administration. It provides background to Donald Trump’s decision to ignore many veterans of the George W. Bush administration while reaching back to those who served Bush’s father and Ronald Reagan, and the pernicious influence of Dick Cheney.
–Russ Baker, Editor in Chief
“Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.” — Claudius1
Thirty years ago the United States government was embroiled in a scandal whose repercussions are felt today in a perverse variation on the idea that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have been repeating Iran-Contra operations in various forms and guises ever since, only now they’re not a scandalous aberration but standard operating procedure of the Deep State.
Illegal wars are now legal. Covert operations are continuous. Only revealing them is illegal.
Thirty years later, every day is Day of the Dead and each night is New Year’s Eve when we make resolutions to do better next time. Where to begin the body count? The scandal itself began dramatically enough, at least in the theater of television if not the cauldron of secret war where it had been simmering, waiting to explode, for years.
The Fat Lady, the Arrow & a Rabbit’s Foot
Let’s return, then, to the unmasking of aged players, the unraveling of ancient plots:
On the night of October 5, 1986, a young conscript in the People’s Sandinista Army named Jose’ Fernando Canales Aleman was on patrol near San Carlos on the Rio San Juan in the hills of southern Nicaragua. Hearing the now-familiar low roar of a big propeller-driven airplane, Canales aimed his shoulder-fired rocket-launcher at the big belly of a lumbering Fairchild C-123K Provider as it swung down to 2,500 feet overhead in the moonlit clouds.
Bwooshh! The Soviet-made Strela (“arrow” in Russian) surface-to-air missile roared off with its characteristic tailing flare, then Boom! exploded near the fuselage of the aircraft. Much to the boy-soldier’s delight and surprise — “shock and awe” were terms reserved for later displays of superior firepower — the big bird burst into flame. Down it came like a wounded duck, crashing into the jungle.
A single parachute popped open. Fluttering down came the lucky survivor. The patrol quickly surrounded him, tied him up and took him to their camp while others searched the wreckage. In the mess, they found 3 bodies with documents identifying the dead pilot as William Cooper; the co-pilot as Wallace Sawyer; the radioman as Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan.
Their lone captive identified himself as Eugene Hasenfus (“rabbit’s foot” in German), a semi-employed construction worker from Marinette, Wisconsin, an ex-Marine and Vietnam War vet. Like his dead companions, Hasenfus had signed on with Corporate Air Services to load and kick cargo out of the Provider for a lousy $3,000 a month. So cheap were his employers, he had borrowed the parachute from his sky-diving brother; it was the only ‘chute on board. A day later, Hasenfus was in Managua with smiling guards of the state-security force facing the cameras as the hapless mug of a two-faced war.2
Call it a lucky shot in the dark: It was inevitable, perhaps, that a soldier someday would shoot down a plane. But because that lone crewman survived, that one lucky shot put the lie to at least seven years of deceptions by the US government: Since the Sandinistas took power in July 1979, reporters had been chronicling the murderous raids by the US-trained and supplied Contras (from the Spanish for counter-revolutionary) on villages along the northern border with Honduras for six years, and the southern border with Costa Rica for four. Most of these reports were widely distributed in Latin America and Europe but ignored by the public or dismissed as Communist propaganda in the US.3
There should have been no surprise because there was ample precedent: The United States government supported mercenaries under William Walker who invaded Nicaragua in 1855 and declared himself president with ambitions to rule all of Central America. But he made the mistake of seizing a railroad from the Vanderbilt interests, who organized a counter-counter-revolutionary expedition to overthrow the usurper, culminating in his execution in 1861.
The United States threatened the country by “gunboat diplomacy” throughout the 19th century as a potential route for a transoceanic canal and to guarantee payment of “loans” secured by a lien on customs duties and excise taxes. The US directly occupied the port cities, then took over the country from 1912-25, and 1926-33, triggering an uprising led by Augusto Cesar Sandino. Sandino was executed by the commander of the US-created National Guard, Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled until his son’s overthrow in July 1979 by Sandino’s successors and namesakes, the Frente de Liberacion Nacional Sandinista.4
The Carter Administration had handled the Sandinistas gingerly, withdrawing support from Somoza, as they had the Shah of Iran a year earlier, encouraging economic development — a euphemism for investment of foreign capital — to contain “communist expansionism” and supporting a “democratic opposition” and “free and fair elections” in the name of human rights.5
But the ousted Somocistas had already begun organizing in exile with support from sympathetic governments in league with exiled Cubans from Miami all around the Gulf and Caribbean coasts. The Republican Party’s candidates made their intentions clear during the 1980 campaigns,6 openly calling for “regime change” in both Nicaragua and Iran, starting with economic strangulation of their debt-strapped economies, and psychological warfare using private companies, foundations, churches, pro-business newspapers and labor unions, a model that had worked in Chile in 1973.
A former CIA officer laid out this blueprint in a paper published by the right-wing Heritage Foundation on the eve of Reagan’s election,7 followed afterward by a series of policy papers, journal articles, speeches and a propaganda offensive orchestrated by his National Security Council.8 As in any war, psywar preferred its victims far away, where their screams could not be heard, but the targets of this propaganda were at home, watching TV.
The war had never been confined to words, as the head of the new Nicaraguan government, Daniel Ortega, made clear to the United Nations Security Council on March 25, 1982, when he denounced the US-trained and supplied counter-revolutionary army in Honduras and the Panama Canal Zone, continuous violations of the country’s air space and offshore territory by surveillance and resupply craft, bombing of bridges and ports, even the rendition — kidnapping — and torture of prisoners of this covert war. The US response was not to deny these attacks but to accuse Ortega of “paranoia” based on a guilty conscience 9 — a psy-war tactic today’s social media call “gas-lighting.” There was another motive: the US war on Nicaragua was illegal, not only under international law and the UN Convention, but US law, including the Neutrality Act.
As in any war, psywar preferred its victims far away, where their screams could not be heard, but the targets of this propaganda were at home, watching TV.
The organizers of this not-so-secret war had maintained the fiction that, since Congress banned the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from providing weapons two years earlier, all this mayhem had been orchestrated by a “private” network of supporters while the ever merciful US government had confined itself to providing “humanitarian assistance” to refugees. But, unkicked by Hasenfus inside the cargo bay were, according to the manifest, “60 collapsible AK-47 rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots.” (Others put the take at 70 AKs, 100,000 rounds.) A flight log showed the Provider had left a CIA hive at Ilopango air base in El Salvador, buzzed down the western coast of Nicaragua, swung over the Costa Rican side of the San Juan, only to be hit by the Strela when it crossed the border into Nicaraguan air space to drop its load. It was just another lawless act of war in another illegal, undeclared war made visible by the inevitable collateral damage.10
Echoes in the Garbage Can
News of the downed Provider and Hasenfus captured arrived in Denver thanks to a wire dispatch from the Associated Press on October 8, 1986, hot-handed to me by a colleague over a beer at the Press Club. My primitive online computer bulletin board was already buzzing with rumors confirmed by expensive collect calls from friends in Managua. Between jobs, marriages and stints in Latin America where I had travelled, studied, worked since 1968, I was flogging as a freelance reporter for, among others, The New York Times, mostly chasing Klansmen and Nazis who had gunned down11 a friend, Alan Berg, a radio talk-show host, in June 1984. They had shown up in various fracases with protesters in Denver then hid in their homey bunkers while pumping up each other’s courage in the new online chat rooms like Usenet, where they were so far beyond conservative, or conventional notions of the Right that they took on the moniker alt-right.
Lines converge for events, revealing a pattern: I also was pursuing ties of a local investor to weapons tests in the California desert for the Contras, assembled by a private security firm staffed by veterans of the military and the CIA. And they led me back to my home turf.
A retired Army officer, Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, lived in the mountains near Denver but was seldom home to answer the phone or random knocks on his door. Singlaub had served in World War II with the Office of Special Services (OSS, forerunner of CIA) as a “Jedburgh”, part of a team that parachuted behind enemy lines to organize resistance and sabotage. He worked with the CIA, fought in Korea, and rose to chief of special operations for the military in Vietnam. His Military Assistance Command-Vietnam/Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG) was the hatchery for later “elite” combined-operations like Delta Force. He returned to Korea as commander of Army forces there but was forced to retire by Jimmy Carter when, like his idol and patron Gen. MacArthur, he denounced the commander-in-chief’s effort to reduce the number of troops and nukes on the peninsula as part of negotiations to end that war.
As head of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL),12 Singlaub was fronting internationally as a fundraiser and cheerleader for that ostensibly “private” network of right-wing supporters of the Contras, including the Coors brewing clan (patriarch Joseph Coors made an easy touch: he had funded the John Birch Society, was a member of Reagan’s informal “kitchen cabinet” of advisers). The network included outright Nazis, fascists, Latin military dictators, the Moonie religious cult with ties to the Korean CIA that owned the Washington Times, predecessor to the newly formed Fox News as mouthpiece for the Right.
WACL provided a forum for coordinating mercenaries recruited through Soldier of Fortune, the magazine published in Boulder by retired Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown,13 who had worked under Singlaub in Vietnam, running Green Beret A-teams into the countryside to capture, interrogate and kill Viet Cong for CIA’s Phoenix Project. An SoF editor, veteran of MACV-SOG in Vietnam, Operation Menu in Cambodia, and CIA’s Laotian war, George Bacon had been engaged earlier on behalf of CIA-backed warlord Holden Roberto in Angola.14 Another merc, represented by a lawyer friend of mine, had been captured within days of arrival in 1976, tried, and released in 1982. He was not a happy guy and told us why: Like Hasenfus, he had been promised fortune if not fame, and blamed his ignominious capture on the incompetence of his superiors like Bacon, whose name is on a “wall of honor” at CIA headquarters. Another SoF editor and ex-Army Ranger, Mike Echanis, hired out as dictator Anastasio Somoza’s presidential guard and died there when his chopper was shot down on the Rio Sapoa in 1978.15
Singlaub had a direct link to the Reagan White House in the person of Donald Gregg, who had served as CIA station chief in Seoul when Singlaub commanded the Army there. Gregg now served as national security adviser to Vice-President Bush, to whom the management of the Contra war had been delegated. The crusty old general’s old boss in the Jedburghs was Reagan’s CIA Director William V. Casey.
Looking back, none of this was news to anyone who had been paying attention beyond their doorstep, not just reporters with some experience in the region but even to casual travelers, like those many supporters of the Sandinistas — “sandalistas” they were derisively dubbed — college students who went there to study, church groups who put up schools and clinics, but especially those who had come to oppose US policy, based on past experience in the region or testimony from the frontlines by groups like Witness for Peace.16
Most of the public probably didn’t know or weren’t interested because most of the media — which then meant newspapers, an already endangered species at the height of hubris, which provided the news to television and radio, where call-in talk-shows with shock-jocks like Berg or his conservative competitors like Rush Limbaugh were the rage — were not paying attention or playing catch-up or worse, beating the drums for war.
Colorado was hardly unique: Singlaub and Brown set up a “charity” to help the Contras get supplies by small planes and helicopters, run by another retired general in Texas, Heinie Aderholdt, who had been Singlaub’s deputy for air operations at MACV-SOG. There were much larger nodes in Southern California, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, especially where there were concentrations of Vietnamese and H’mong who had worked for the CIA, Cuban exiles longing for revenge against Castro, even Nazi collaborators who had scampered down the Ratlines into the nascent Agency’s embrace at the end of the Good War. Like the Butcher of Riga, Edgars Laipenieks — Olympic hero, coach of track and ski at the University of Denver, recruiter of Soviet defectors in Mexico City, 1968, according to Agency whistleblower Philip Agee.17 Laipenieks had been fingered to me by my dean at the University’s Graduate School of International Studies, Josef Korbel, himself a CIA-sponsored refugee, father of future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and mentor to my classmate, Condoleezza Rice. So, follow the money — if you can find it. But first, follow the men. Privateers maybe, but private? Gimme a break.
I had also done some work for the Washington Post on the escapades of Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil, former CIA contractors who allegedly had gone “rogue” in working for the Reagan administration’s once and future bogeyman, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, in Libya.18
Wilson served in the Army during the Korean War, was recruited to CIA’s Office of Security, then its International Organizations division, subverting labor organizations until 1971. He joined the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) where he applied his specialty — setting up proprietary companies and contractors and recruiting and infiltrating agents for Task Force 157, seconded to CIA for surveillance of Soviet naval operations. He also coordinated logistics for covert operations — moving men and materials for overthrowing governments and waging counter-insurgency wars in Latin America, Africa and the Far East. After helping overthrow the government of Chile in 1973, Wilson had worked with Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord in supplying equipment to the Shah of Iran; he also allegedly set up and trained a secret surveillance and assassinations unit under cover of the Air Force to track, interrogate, recruit or kill opponents.
After the fall of the Shah in 1978, Secord and an exiled Iranian partner, Albert Hakim, won a huge contract to supply weapons to Egypt as part of the Camp David accords. But Wilson had been indicted for supplying 22 tons of C-4 explosives to Libya. He also was implicated in the attempted murder of a Libyan dissident in Fort Collins, CO, and the firebombing of a rival supplier’s car in Canada.19
Wilson claimed his work for Qaddafi as an indicted fugitive was an elaborate cover for spying on those same terrorists for CIA and, ever alert to proliferation of what would later be called weapons of mass destruction, he was monitoring shipments of Soviet-bloc military equipment. After years on the run, he had been lured out of Libya by an offer from Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Richard V. Allen, who promised that he would be put in charge of an operation running hit-teams against the Sandinistas, their Salvadoran allies and other Cuban-inspired guerrilla movements under cover of the offshore oil platforms of the Mexican oil company, PEMEX.20
Instead, he was arrested on-board an airplane diverted from the Dominican Republic to the US, was tried, convicted and imprisoned for life based largely on the CIA’s disclaimer that it had nothing to do with him, directly or indirectly since he left the Agency in 1971.21
Eventually, however, his lawyer produced documents that showed no less than 80 meetings between Wilson and CIA officials between 1971 and 1978. His convictions were overturned;22 he was released in 2004, sued the former CIA officials and prosecutors who had withheld exculpatory evidence and presented false evidence, but the case was dismissed because their actions were immune from civil liability. He died in September 2012, deniable and disposable to the bitter end, outliving Qaddafi by a year. And, he maintained, he had been set-up and sacrificed by his old colleagues as a distraction to protect the officially sanctioned channels of illegal arms deals for hostages that funded the Contras.23 Among the casualties was whistleblower Kevin Mulcahy, who had left the CIA to work with the retired “cowboys,” only to find them up to old and supposedly banned tricks, and that he, too, was only a cut-out.24
It made sense: In Libya and Iran, many of those who worked with Wilson and Secord, notably his deputy Tom Clines and henchman Rafael “Chi-Chi” Quintero, were part of a network that had earlier operated under the CIA’s legendary “Blond Ghost”, Theodore Shackley,25 deputy director of [covert] operations (DDO) under George H.W. Bush (DCI, 1975-76) until sacked by Carter in 1978 because Shackley and his boss, Deputy Director Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters, had been implicated in the CIA’s Operation Condor in South America (modelled after the infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam). Condor’s claws reached out to the bombing in downtown Washington that took the lives of a man I had met in Chile, former Chilean Defense Minister and Ambassador Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.26
That domestic-cum-international terrorist act went back to the infamous military coup d’etat organized by the CIA in Chile in 1973, the burglary and wiretapping of Democratic Party offices at the Watergate complex during the presidential campaign of 1972, the Phoenix Program of assassinations of Vietnamese, the “Secret War” that chewed up H’Mong in Laos, assassination plots against Castro, and the US-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, even back to the Nazis who escaped justice and hid with CIA’s help in Latin America then worked for right-wing dictators.
Back, back, back it went until it spiraled around the wormhole to emerge as the present. And there was an unwritten rule for investigating ordinary crimes no less applicable to extraordinary official lawlessness: If they did it before, they’ll do it again. Call ‘em unrepentant recidivists or over-enthusiastic super-patriots, they had been driven under a political rock in the mid-70s but crawled out with an appetite under Reagan.
When the Fat Lady went down, The Times’s national desk asked me to look into the crew’s backgrounds: I found Buzz Sawyer in a yearbook of the Air Force Academy. Cooper had flown for the Air Force even longer. In an old roster of the Air America Association, I found them listed as members, as were the radioman and the cargo-kicker. Air America had been the CIA’s “proprietary”27 — a company set up in 1947 and owned by the Agency for airlifting troops and materiel during the long wars in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, earlier in Congo, later in Angola, the Middle East. Since absorbing the assets of its predecessor, Civil Air Transport (CAT) going back to the 1950s and bequeathing them to a supposedly privately-owned successor, Southern Air Transport (SAT) in the 1970s, Air America had made up to $50 million a year as a profitable company within the Company . By mid-October, reporters were all over SAT’s facility at the Miami airport and digging through the corporate paperwork in Wilmington, Delaware, that showed it had been owned by CIA from 1947 to 1975,28then sold to a former executive of the proprietary, sold again in 1979 to another front-man or “beard” to run airlifts for the Agency. So it was no longer owned outright by CIA, but it worked for CIA as a “private” contractor for profit.29
Contra-dictions: A Milieu of Murder, Mayhem and Lies
It was panic in Spook Town: When Hasenfus’s name appeared on front pages in Nicaragua, then around the world, the White House, CIA, Pentagon and Congress went into damage-control mode based on the principle of “plausible deniability.” The security of any operation required that any participant know only what he or she needed to know; this “need-to-know” rule operated down the line of command but also up. It also invited deception, the truth of a mission’s procedures and purpose to be protected by a “Bodyguard of Lies.” An order could be conveyed by a wink and a nod, never committed to paper unless necessary to insulate oneself from the consequences (after-action reports tended to become “cover-your-ass” or CYA papers).
Compartmentalized operations allowed the Agency to carry out the orders of a president so he could plausibly deny responsibility for unanticipated consequences, mistakes, blunders, even crimes. The assumption that a secret is justifiable is based on a hidden premise that the intended consequences might not pan out, embarrassing the authors, so deception was necessary to preserve secrecy: A lie in defense of a smaller violent act was better than a factual statement of responsibility that might cause a larger and longer series of violent responses, up to war. And there was always the natural human tendency to embellish the successes, blame others for failures, spread rumor and misinformation to muddy the waters, fabricate evidence to hide the truth. And bury the evidence, sometimes by destroying it, sometimes literally disappearing the bodies.
So, escalating violence begets escalating deception until evidence accumulates to visible, palpable, measurable, detectable levels. When the inflatable turd explodes you want to be hiding under your desk or at home in bed with the flu or on vacation, blissfully sipping a cold one. The cell phone was a device out of the Jetsons; radio walkie-talkies were heavier, shorter leashes but unavailable to the ordinary reporter or source. Shoe-leather still counted and computer keyboards had begun to inhabit newsrooms with green glowing screens. Google was not yet a thing, let alone a verb.
Cynics called it the Mission Impossible clause: If you’re caught, we’ll deny your existence. The invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 had been a notable test of this principle: The plans for an invasion and beach landing of more than a thousand troops could not be hidden but distractions and diversions could confuse the defenders. A Times reporter, Sydney Gruson, got wind of the invasion while mucking around Guatemala but management suppressed his story; had it run, the mission might have been aborted. A new President learned of the plot after his inauguration — beyond leaks to favored outsiders by insiders there was no equivalent of the current law that provides for a transition period of cooperation in sharing classified information. Too far along to cancel the plan he inherited, JFK withheld direct US air support because it would make deniability impossible; but that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a mistake never to be repeated. So, Cuban exiles piloted retired Air Force planes with markings painted over, but no one under fire is fooled for long. There was no denying, plausible or otherwise, the bloated corpses all over Playa Giron and prisoners dragged before the cameras, a triumphant Fidel commanding from atop a tank.30
One of the piquant ironies of the Iran-Contra affair was the way secret agents exposed each other, accused each other as frauds and liars in a veritable shit-shower of leaks that percolated up from the bowels of the Deep State.
Not that they didn’t try: Success has a thousand fathers but failure is everywhere an orphan, Kennedy mused. He took the blame anyway but canned the invasion’s planners and executors for, among other blunders, confidently predicting a popular uprising that never occurred. Did they return to put Kennedy in his coffin? We may never know for sure but the incoming administration is almost certainly moving to rescind the law passed in the wake of Iran-Contra that would force the CIA to release in 2017 more than 17,000 pages of material related to the hit that are still considered too sensitive for the public to see 53 years after the assassination and counting.
By the time Iran-Contra brought the old operators together for another go, covert operations had been retooled to make them more secure to preserve deniability in the event of failure — but who would believe it? More and more effort went into deception to hermetically seal any discrete operation. But, the more elaborate the plot, the greater the danger of leaks. And the greater the risk of premature exposure, the more deception required in the planning, especially propaganda to defame and demonize the target in advance, to subvert its popular support and to excite domestic applause for attacking in the name of self-defense. See Congo, 1962, Guyana, 1962, Brazil, 1964; Dominican Republic, Indonesia (500,000 dead in our first great flirtation with Muslim fanatics against alleged communists), the Tonkin Gulf incident that gave LBJ his congressional approval for invasion of Vietnam, 1965; Bolivia, 1967; Chile, 1970-73. Practice made perfect by a long list of casualties abroad that were largely unknown to the oblivious citizen who paid the bills. Whatever the outcome, covert operations worked if they fooled the public.
Now, here was Hasenfus blowing the lid off a nice little war with his big mouth:
“Press Guidance was prepared which states no U.S.G. involvement or connection,” wrote Vincent Cannistraro, director of intelligence programs for the NSC on Oct. 8 to National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane, “but that we are generally aware of such support contracted by the Contras…Elliott [Deputy Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Abrams] said he would continue to tell the press these were brave men and brave deeds. We recommended he not do this because it contributes to perception U.S.G. inspired and encouraged private lethal aid effort.” 31
And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
Perception management was important to Cannistraro because he was more than “generally aware” of the CIA’s management of the Contra war, having directed CIA’s Central American Task Force from 1981 to 1984 before moving to NSC. At that very moment, the old Contra hand knew that the other hand, North, had a “private” Danish ship en route with more weapons for the Contras, purchased by Secord and Hakim’s “private” company through shell companies with profits from overcharging the “private” middlemen who shipped other weapons to Iran.
Another lesson: When deniability becomes implausible, scapegoating is inevitable, opening the valves that control the flow of information. Called on the carpet for the bungled air-resupply operation, Oliver North, who had let it be known proudly that Casey had chosen him as the designated fall guy, laid it off on Singlaub, who would not take the blame for what he regarded as incompetence by rank amateurs, including his former subordinate, the profiteering Secord.32 Besides, the Agency’s fingerprints were all over the debris: Cooper’s little notebook, for example, included phone numbers for a man named Max Gomez in El Salvador; he turned out to be Felix Rodriguez, a career officer with CIA who was coordinating regional counter-insurgency operations out of Ilopango, El Salvador. Rodriguez was notorious as the man who had captured Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 and wore the slain guerrillero heroico’s Rolex as a trophy.33 (Che’s hands had been cut off to send back to identify his fingerprints.)
Hasenfus identified another Cuban at Ilopango as “Ramon Medina”; he was Luis “Bambi” Posada Carriles, who had worked for the CIA since Pigs, then Operation Condor, was convicted for planting a bomb aboard a Cuban airliner that killed 73 passengers in October 6, 1976 (again, just two weeks after the Letelier-Moffitt bombing in Washington by Cuban agents of Pinochet’s Chilean secret police, while Shackley was DDO under DCI Bush). But Bambi escaped from a Venezuelan prison with help from the Agency in 1985 to work with old pal Felix at Ilopango for Secord. Other numbers led back to Corporate Air Services, Secord’s subcontractor which hired pilots and crew for SAT.
And in Hasenfus’s wallet was a business card for Robert C. Owen in Costa Rica. A former aide to Sen. Dan Quayle (later George H.W. Bush’s vice president), Owen was liaison for North to the Southern Front coordinator, an Indiana-born character named John Hull who operated a string of farms as landing strips and air-drops in Ticoland but had a habit of showing up in territory hostile to farming. The CIA had a station chief in Costa Rica, Joe Fernandez, cut from the same Cuban cloth, and a veteran of MACV SOG and Phoenix, Gary Mattocks as liaison to the Contra’s Southern Front. In Honduras, another Vietnam vet, Jim Adkins, advised the main contra force brought together as the FDN. Their identities remained secret for awhile longer because a law passed in 1978 made it illegal to reveal their names. This was indeed, in contemporary military parlance, a target-rich environment for investigative reporting. Long before Google, all you needed was a phone book to be a ghostbuster.
Even the plane had a bizarre and incriminating history: Rebranded as CAS’s tail number HPF821, records of the Federal Aviation Administration were tracked by a radio reporter in Oklahoma City to a broker who had acquired it from another pilot, Adler Berriman Seal, of Baton Rouge. Seal, a convicted drug smuggler, called it “The Fat Lady” for its cavernous hold. He had flown it first in Laos for Air America resupplying Vang Pao’s tribal army 20 years earlier, lugging heroin in the backloads when Shackley was station chief in Vientiane, then took over for William Colby in Saigon when Colby ascended to DCI.
The Fat Man also had flown it in and out of Nicaragua, notoriously in 1984, outfitted by CIA with a hidden camera at Wright AFB outside Dayton, supervised by that same Gary Mattocks, for a sting operation by US Customs. The set-up was arranged by the White House multiagency Task Force on the drug traffic in South Florida under Vice President Bush. The idea was to entrap Sandinistas in the act of loading cocaine on board. But the operation was blown, along with Seal’s cover, by none other than Ollie North, who gave copies of the blurry photos, alleged to identify a Sandinista official (named, inconveniently for me and as commonly misspelled, Federico Vaughan) and Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel on the military airstrip at Los Brasiles, to the Washington Times in an effort to sway Congress to release funds for the Contras. After convictions for drug smuggling in Fort Lauderdale and Louisiana, Seal was gunned down by Colombian hit-men outside his probationary halfway house in Baton Rouge, in February 1985. (One of the hit-men’s lawyers accused North of arranging the hit, gangster style, to preserve his own deniability.)
Now, scrubbed with a new tail number and sent out to shake it, truly the Fat Lady had sung a very different tune from the one North had played for Congress. Reporters and congressional investigators scoured the hills of northwest Arkansas around the regional airport at Mena, where Seal had set up a contra resupply-cum-drug-smuggling operation as early as 1981 under the ruddy nose of the ambitious young governor, Bill Clinton. Contra training and resupply ops continued, even expanded after Seal’s untimely death until 1988. Allegations by participants, notably pilot Terry Reed who claimed he also worked for North and Rodriguez in Mexico,34 plagued Clinton during the run-up to his election in 1992 and, thanks to the enduring half-life of social media, up to the present.
Iran-Contra was a neocon love-child, still-born, thanks to the legerdemain of a Hidden Hand, its creators in the secret services of the State.
In the fall of 1986, however, most reporters were myopically fixated on two merged aspects: the legality of the lethality. Boots were not lethal, Reagan’s amen chorus dutifully sang. The “freedom fighters” couldn’t go shoeless, that would be inhumane. And the guns and bullets were for self-defense, who could blame anyone for that? Hasenfus confessed to illegally smuggling weapons into Nicaragua, naming the CIA as giving his crew’s orders. He only did it for the money. “It’s not my war,” he told 60 Minutes. “It’s not America’s war either.” He was sentenced to 30 years in jail, then pardoned and released on Dec. 17, 1986, “a gift of peace” said then-and-again President Daniel Ortega. The kicker did not get even a half-hearted hero’s parade to welcome him home to Wisconsin because another shoe had dropped far way.
The Hammer, the Bible, and a Cake
The crash of the Fat Lady made the “covert” operation undeniably obvious, but did not stop the denials. It was still doubtful that Fernando Canales’s little Red Arrow would bring down the Contra War, the larger wars in which it was a part, let alone the vast machinery that launched them and the men behind the controls. With Singlaub’s network unwilling to take the blame, it looked like can-do Ollie would have to fall on his sword for the blunder. In fact, when the same plane nearly crashed on a previous mission, the pilot had warned Secord’s men it was not fit to fly. Within days of the Fat Lady’s swan song, another SAT plane crashed in Texas, threatening to further expose the illegal re-supply project.
One of the piquant ironies of the Iran-Contra affair was the way secret agents exposed each other, accused each other as frauds and liars in a veritable shit-shower of leaks that percolated up from the bowels of the Deep State. The bile of personal vindictiveness rose from the muck to stinking heights. For all the public bonhomie, there was no love lost between the president and his loyal servants and the vice-president and his court-in-waiting. As director of the CIA in those critical years of 1976-77, when much of the apparatus went underground, Bush had made himself Jaubert to Philip Agee’s Valjean. He accused Agee of responsibility for the death of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens who had been gunned down by the Revolutionary Organization 17 November. Friendly media organs blared the smear that Agee was a Soviet or Cuban agent, forcing European countries to expel him or deny him asylum.35 In 1982, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), legislation that seemed directly aimed at Agee’s work. Now, CIA’s covert network of shadow companies and contractors was unravelling thanks to the bungling and name-calling and finger-pointing of the operatives themselves, all scrambling to escape the blame and the consequences. The pretense of presidential deniability was a shaky scaffold of lies that threatened to tumble, leaving Reagan and Bush unsupported in the air.
With a cascade of fallout pouring down from all sides during a midterm election, Reagan tried to keep mum, above the fray, disclaiming any connection to the rogue dealings of low-level scam artists. Instead, he flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a meeting with his arch-nemesis, the leader of the Soviet Union, on October 11-12. Unexpectedly by all accounts, Gorbachev proposed rapid nuclear disarmament, replete with all the guarantees of mutual inspection so long demanded by the US To the consternation of his more militant backers, Reagan accepted a freeze on production of nuclear weapons but vowed to move ahead with his fanciful “Star Wars” missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative,36 even though it violated the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and threatened to undo the MAD doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that had kept an armed truce between the nuclear powers. Bolting into this opening on their right, many Democrats in Congress said Reagan had lost his senses at the very moment he had found them, albeit temporarily. He was soon to lose them again in a lapse of memory so grand, it came to characterize his presidency. (After leaving office, Reagan admitted he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but insisted it hadn’t affected his judgment 37 during his tenure.)
Viewed from inside the bunker, constant pressure on the Soviets and their allies seemed to be working and should be intensified, accelerated, petty costs be damned. Besides, the exposures in Central America served to hide the much bigger operations in Africa and Afghanistan. So smitten were the Democrats by the overtures of Gorby, even as evidence was mounting that they had been deceived, seduced and abandoned by Reagan’s team on foreign policy, enough Democrats joined Republicans in a “compromise” that restored $100 million to the Contras, small change in a war budget approaching $500 billion, of which the Pentagon had its own $36 billion in unrestricted funds to spend on covert projects.38
The funds were released October 17, after Abrams and others assured lawmakers that Hasenfus and his crewmates were not CIA employees — true enough, technically, because they were subcontracted by CAS for SAT which was no longer a proprietary but a private contractor, even though the CIA and military were SAT’s biggest clients. For the Sandinistas, their allies in Salvador and mentors in Cuba, Gorbachev’s deal with Reagan signaled not peace but betrayal, surrender. The legalized war continued with greater lethality, but the winding down of Soviet subsidies forced their dependents to become more self-sufficient. They turned increasingly to other available but less reputable means of hard currency,39 including drug deals and kidnappings for ransom that only served to fulfill Reagan’s casting call for them to play the role of bad guys the empire had scripted for them.
Then came what looked like a lifeline: On November 2, a hostage in Lebanon, David Jacobsen, was released. On November 3, a small-circulation magazine in Beirut, al-Shira’a, told another part of the hidden tale: Arms shipped to Iran for the release of hostages held by Hezbollah. The article described a hush-hush trip of Bud and Ollie, supplicants bearing a Bible and a cake in the shape of a key, to Teheran to meet with the Ayatollah’s favorite nephew back in 1985. On November 4, Democrats retook control of the Senate and announced they would open hearings in the next session. They hired a small army of investigators to gather ammo, much of it piling up in reporters’ notebooks or lying in court files of defendants who had been rolled up to protect the officially sanctioned channel.
Reagan Oz-like said, “Pay no attention to that rag in Beirut.” So, off we went: Over the next few weeks, reporters around the globe pieced together the puzzle of arms deals for hostages. A rug-merchant’s Mutt’n’Jeff routine with names like Manucher Ghorbanifar, a wraith-like, goateed Iranian fixer and his roly-poly Saudi sidekick, Adnan Khashoggi, would become household, thanks to the televised hearings to follow. In the shadows, the man who referred naïve Ollie North (codename: “Hammer”) to these cagey if smarmy flimflammers, lurked the Blond Ghost himself, Theodore Shackley, retired former chief of CIA’s covert operations.
Following the money, reporters unearthed four flights by SAT planes to Iran and a series of transactions through a latticework of front companies and their bank accounts in Panama, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, many of them using the facilities of the Bank of Commerce & Credit International, BCCI already tainted by purchase of banks in the US through top Democrats, Jimmy Carter’s former Treasury Secretary Bert Lance and former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. Forensic accounting and North’s own handy flowcharts showed profits from those sales had been laundered illegally into operations Congress had refused to fund. The glowering visage of Ayatollah Khomeini, grim reaper incarnate, was the other side of the Iran-contra coin staring back at affable showman Ronnie Reagan.
On November 13, Reagan returned to the teleprompters to accept responsibility at least nominally for the arms-for-hostages deal but flatly denied any knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras. The take on those four SAT-shipped deals was $42 million, the tip of a proverbial iceberg; below the surface, bobbed another $1 billion or more.
The relentless pulling together of all these loose ends emanating from Iran-Contra slowly tightened into a noose around the small group of beleaguered intelligence operatives and military aides in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building linked by subterranean tunnels to the White House.
On November 24, 1986, Attorney General Ed Meese confirmed what reporters had been saying for months, some for years:
The Reagan Administration had sold weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages held by its allies in Lebanon, including the CIA’s station chief there. And he acknowledged that proceeds from the arms sales had been diverted to buy weapons for rebels coordinated by the CIA to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua. Both sets of acts — weapons to Iran and funds for the Contras — violated explicit laws passed by Congress.40
Finally, on November 25, 1986, Reagan was forced to issue a reluctant mea culpa, a televised address in which he admitted sending arms to terrorists. In his “heart of hearts”, he assured us, he never intended that. But even here was a greater dissimulation: by “terrorists” he meant not the Contras whom he likened to “our own Founding Fathers”[!] but the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi’a allies, for whom US weapons had been embargoed as illegal since protesters detained US embassy personnel in 1979.
One of the great sidebars to the Iran-Contra Affair is the story of hundreds of weavers, mostly young and very old women, who were handed huge piles of paper strips salvaged from the embassy’s shredders. Painstakingly assembled and stitched together by the weavers, translated and decoded into 79 thick volumes, these secret cables and reports revealed why there was little exaggeration in the hostage-takers’ characterization of the embassy as a “nest of spies.” But they were never published in the United States; fittingly, the information released and widely publicized by the hostage-takers is held hostage to the laws of secrecy for classified information.
The hostages themselves had been released the day Reagan swore the oath to uphold the law and the constitution, after which arms shipments resumed immediately and illegally. Some of us had always suspected a quid pro quo and worked backward through the participants and the paperwork of these shipments toward that possibility.41 But going forward, Iran desperately needed these weapons to defend itself against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, also armed by the US. The stalemate cost a million lives but forced both countries to pump oil, sold well below the OPEC-set price, breaking the producer-nations’ cartel and enriching US oil companies that refined and distributed the products. Nicaragua was always a disposable sideshow to this larger game.
With each new revelation, Reagan’s cloak of invisibility gradually unraveled as he shed advisers, subordinates, disposable helpmates who had covered for him. This time, he accepted the resi