[Three for All] [Mens et Manus]

Iran-Contra: Was the Press Any Match For All the President's Men?  By Scott Armstrong

Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1990, pp. 27-35

[This article is presented here in a format as close to the original printed version as possible. The photographs used are all credited to UPI/Bettman. -- dks]

Scott Armstrong is Visiting Scholar of International Journalism at the School of Communication at The American University in Washington, D.C.; the founder and president of the National Security Archive, a repository of documents; editor of The Chronology: The Documented Day-by-Day Account of the Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Contras; and co-author, with Bob Woodward, of The Brethren, a book about the Supreme Court. From 1976 to 1985 he was a reporter for The Washington Post. He gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of CJR interns Allison Zisko and Dan Sheridan.

Now that the latest chapter of the Iran-contra affair, the trial of John Poindexter, has drawn to a close, several questions haunt me. I am left wondering if that's all there is -- or will there be a final chapter, one that puts the pieces together? I sometimes wonder if, should new revelations emerge -- about George Bush's role in covert and illegal support for the Contras, for example -- the press would even bother to cover the story.

And if it did, would the story get the hit-or-miss attention given to chapter one -- the covert operations while they were still covert?

Or would the press bring to the story the same tenacity it displayed early on in chapter two, which began with Attorney General Edwin Meese's stunning announcement of the diversion of Iran arms-sales profits to the contras and closed with the Tower commission's exoneration of the president -- innocent by virtue of a staff coup?

Or would the coverage become as passive as it was throughout chapter three, months of congressional hearings

Or would the press lose its nerve at key moments, as it did in chapter four -- the 1988 presidential campaign? (Is it not astonishing that after the campaign we seemed to know less about Bush's involvement than we knew a year before?)

Or, worst of all, would new revelations be viewed with the myopia that vitiated chapter five -- the Oliver North trial and aftermath? Where was the press, for instance, when North's attorneys and the independent counsel agreed that the Reagan-Bush administration had engaged in a series of quid pro quos -- economic and military aid to Central American countries in return for military assistance to the contras? At the time, sources close to the investigation said these acts (particularly the misuse of congressionally appropriated funds) were of such magnitude that they should be addressed through articles of impeachment.

As one of the major political scandals of the twentieth century melts into a formless puddle on the floor, I find I am not alone in posing these questions. The band of reporters who have followed the Iran-contra story from the beginning worry that many of their colleagues, not to mention the public, still don't understand what lay at the center of the scandal. Let's take one last look at what we learned about the Iran-contra affair and about the strengths and weaknesses of our collective journalistic performance.

CHAPTER ONE: 1981-1986


William Casey, Director of Central Intelligence

The best traditions of a free press were frequently manifest during the five years of reporting between the start of U.S. aid to the contras and the administration's November 1986 acknowledgement of the Iran-contra affair. Journalists abroad -- both American and foreign -- kept close track of the contra story. Reporters from Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times traveled with the contras and observed them in their base camps. The Washington Post and The New York Times vied to report on the presidential findings that authorized covert actions against the Sandinistas, competing to provide either the first revelation or the definitive follow-up, often correcting the others' account. David Ignatius and David Rogers of The Wall Street Journal provided excellent detail, with several stories about the contras' covert activities and the support they received from the CIA.

During this time it became increasingly clear that Congress had let intelligence oversight become a double entendre. Upset that it had been misled by CIA Director William Casey, Congress sought ways to constrain his enthusiasm for covert actions, sometimes by leaking information about those actions. In a further attempt to assert itself, Congress in October 1984 passed the second in a series of what became known as the Boland amendments -- meant to keep the CIA from running a proxy war in Nicaragua. But before Boland II was even enacted, Casey and his colleagues took covert action off the books, beyond the reach of Congress. The now-infamous "enterprise," run by Richard Secord and Albert Hakim at the direction of Oliver North, was quietly under way.

While major news outlets reported on the post-Boland II assistance to the contras provided by the Honduran and El Salvadoran governments -- the quids -- and on the beefed-up American money, arms, and military support which those governments received -- the quos -- the possible link between the two was left unexplored.

By mid-1985, a few reporters were already on the trail of Oliver North. Alfonso Chardy of The Miami Herald and Robert Parry and Brian Barger of The Associated Press were in hot pursuit. On August 8, 1985, as Congress was lifting the total ban on aid to the contras, allowing humanitarian aid, The New York Times ran a piece by Joel Brinkley and Shirley Christian which stated that an unidentified "military officer who is a member of the National Security Council" had been providing military advice to the contras. Despite some confusion in the article (North was a member of the NSC staff, not of the NSC itself), it showed a clear grasp of North's involvement. Three days later, Joanne Omang of The Washington Post for the first time identified North by name as the NSC point of contact with the contras. The Post article and a subsequent New York Times piece revealed that North's name had been withheld from earlier stories at the request of the White House, which had claimed that publishing the name would endanger North's life.

While a few reporters joined Parry and Barger in tracking North throughout Central America, exotic-sounding theories about an elaborate private arms network seemed to scare away the very papers -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post -- that had earlier exposed the complicated exploits of CIA renegade Edwin Wilson, who had used some of the same personnel that would turn up in the Iran-contra arms network. By and large, news organizations pulled back from reporting on that network, focusing instead on Washington fund-raising for the contras and on contra propaganda efforts in the United States and Europe.

As for the Iranian end of this story, the press showed an ability to pick up pieces but less skill at putting them together. For example, dozens of stories made it clear that the government of Israel was selling arms to Iran; several of them even included claims by Israeli officials that the sales had been approved by the Reagan administration, which continued to proclaim its opposition to such sales.

There were two notable exceptions to the press's failure to ferret out the arms-for-hostages swap. On July 11, 1985, John Wallach, foreign editor for the Hearst Newspapers, reported that the U.S. and Iran had exchanged secret messages in "a mutual desire to improve relations." In September of that year, Wallach revealed other details of the U.S.-Iran relationship and, on November 3, 1986, wrote that the U.S. had been involved in "secret negotiations with Iran" since July 1985. Wallach's articles, published in various cities but not in New York or Washington, went largely unnoticed.

Then there was the case of Jack Anderson's resourceful younger partner, Dale Van Atta. By December 1985, Van Atta had assembled facts for a story about how the U.S. had allowed Israel to ship American arms to Iran in return for release of the American hostages. By February 24, 1986, the reporter had confirmed the details in an interview with President Reagan. Withholding explicit references to the deal at the president's request, Van Atta published glimpses of the arrangement beginning in April 1986. On June 29 he wrote that "secret negotiations over arms supply and release of American hostages have involved members of the National Security Council and a former official of the CIA." On August 11, the Anderson-Van Atta column took the story a step further, stating, "the United States and its Western allies continue to conduct secret talks and cut secret deals with Iran while...Khomeini's terrorist lackeys centrol the fate of three surviving American hostages -- and several Europeans. "

Unfortunately, because Washington journalists take Anderson's column with a grain of salt, and because they failed to link Van Atta's stories with other reports -- such as Wallach's -- they found it easy to dismiss his revelations. Moreover, most Washington reporters never saw a key element of Van Atta's work on Iran in 1985 and 1986, because The Washington Post consistently cut all but the first reference the column made to the death by torture of one hostage, the CIA's station chief in Lebanon, William Buckley. William Casey and others at the CIA had told the Post's Bob Woodward -- incorrectly -- that Buckley might still be alive, and that stories about him could get him killed.

The sad lesson implicit in those five years of sporadically spectacular reporting is that the press corps does not read itself. There was no institutional memory. Break-

Oliver North's electronically preserved memos and mail show that the White House was tracking which reporters were making what advances on the story

throughs by star reporters passed largely unnoticed by peers until months or years after they were first published or aired.

They were not unnoticed by the Reagan administration, however. Thanks to the inadvertent preservation of Oliver North's memos and electronic mail, on the so-called PROF system, the Iran-contra record is now replete with examples of the White House tracking which reporters were making what advances on the story, even reporters from the foreign press. Often the White House was able to keep Iran-contra revelations from resonating simply by denying and trying to discredit stories by such reporters as Wallach, Van Atta, the AP's Parry, and The Miami Herald's Chardy.

As it happens, the Iran-contra affair took shape during the first decade in which electronic databases were generally available in newsrooms. A systematic search of the major electronic databases -- Nexis and Dialogue -- would have produced most major pieces of the story. If reporters had taken advantage of the electronic age to build on each other's work, more attention could have been focused not on whether arms had been sent to Iran, for example, but why; not on if the contras had been illegally resupplied after the Boland cut-off, but on how they were being resupplied and what that meant.

Thus, while North, Casey, and their colleagues were keeping track of the press, the press lost track of itself.

1986-MARCH 1987


Attorney General Edwin Meese III

On October 5, 1986, a Sandinista surface-to-air missile crew brought down on Nicaraguan soil a plane involved in the contra resupply network, snaring numerous documents and Eugene Hasenfus, an American mercenary. Reporters began connecting their earlier reporting with the information that suddenly poured out of Central America. Privately funded public interest groups, such as the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, the lnternational Center for Development Policy, the Washington Of fice on Latin America, the Christic Institute, and my own National Security Archive, provided the interpretive threads needed to link Hasenfus to the Reagan White House and its private support network. On a more practical level, they kept the story alive by supplying reporters with new details: phone numbers from the logbooks found in the downed plane and phone records from a safe house in San Salvador that, along with Hasenfus's confession, linked and relinked players in the private contra support system to the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, and, ultimately, to the White House.

Among those closely watching these developments was Manucher Ghorbanifar, a middleman in the 1985- 1986 arms-for-hostages transactions, who insisted he still had not been fully paid for his part in the deal. Ghorbanifar, through intermediaries, warned Casey that if he wasn't paid he would reveal aspects of the deal in the courts. Subsequently, a leak to the Lebanese publication al-Shiraa resulted in a November 3, 1986, story about American officials visiting Iran to discuss trading arms for hostages.

The Hasenfus and al-Shiraa stories galvanized the press. Already aware that there was considerably more than had been admitted to the government's role in the resupply flights on which Hasenfus had been a crew member, reporters gave little credence to a series of White House denials of a scheme to swap arms for hostages. As the pressure built, President Reagan conceded U.S. involvement in the transfer of arms to Iran, but denied any arms-for-hostages deal. Congress summoned Casey and Poindexter to clarify the unreconciled details and the two men lied to the Senate and House intelligence committees. As their versions began to leak out, the press compared details of their testimony with what was independently verifiable. As Attorney General Meese would later testify, this was precisely what he had feared the most -- the press hammering out the details against the anvil of congressional inquiries, the unraveling of two years' of misstatements, including Reagan's, and, thus, possible impeachment of the president. To make matters worse, Secretary of State George Shultz was threatening to go to the Hill and tell more of the truth than his colleagues. Reagan put Meese in charge of damage control.

On November 25, in a dramatic nationally televised press conference, Meese gave the emerging scandal its name when he revealed that some of the proceeds from the sales of arms to Iran had been used to buy arms for the contras. He went on to lay out the principal cover story -- namely, that the Israelis had sold the arms and diverted the funds, and that within the American government only Oliver North was involved with contra aid. The press swarmed over Meese's account, picking apart every inconsistency. Meanwhile. in what Reagan said was an effort to get at the truth of the affair, he appointed his own commission, headed by former senator John Tower.

During the three months in which Washington waited for the Tower commission to issue its report, it was open season on Oliver North. Despite the free-wheeling environment however. the press collectively exercised a new-found discipline: stories in one paper corrected and built upon stories in another. The contours of North s activities in official and off-the-books covert operations began to emerge. Ghorbanifar, Secord, Secord's Iranian partner Albert Hakim, and Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer responsible for financing much of the arms-for-hostages deal

What had been an informed and independent corps of journalists
mysteriously gravitated toward this one limited question: Did the
president know of the diversion?

with Iran, became household names. The methods by which North had been able to tap a private funding network of rich conservatives. as well as the propaganda network he had set up with State Department funds, were revealed. The involvement of the Israelis in a variety of American intelligence activities was documented. Even the identities of the contras' secret funders, including Saudi Arabia, began to surface.

Then, on February 26, 1987. the Tower commission delivered its version of the scandal, complete with a guide to villains and victims. The nearly 300-page report depicted a clandestine coup d'etat carried out by Casey, McFarlane, Poindexter, and North. The president, the vice-president, Secretary of State Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were all exonerated. Chief of Staff Don Regan was chided for the "chaos that descended upon the White House."

The report served the press well in at least one respect. Many reporters could comment openly on what only a few had pointed out over the previous six years: the president of the United States seemed utterly removed from the day-to-day flow of events: TOWER COMMISSION EXPOSES NAKED EMPEROR! Suddenly, sources who had been denying the obvious joined sources who had been trying to explain it away. The press printed the obligatory "but it is the president who determines the policy direction of the administration" alongside portraits of a disengaged and nearly irresponsible president.



Ronald Reagan, President of the United States

As members of Congress readied themselves for the joint House and Senate hearings on the Iran-contra affair, the press began posing an Iran-contra version of the famous Watergate question: What did the president know and when did he know it? (The newly arrived presidential chief of staff, Howard Baker, happened to be the very senator who had originally posed that question as a softball for Richard Nixon.) The new question was: Did the president know of the diversion of monies from the Iran arms deal to the contras? And to this Baker and his aides felt they had an answer that would hold up under challenge.

Although the Tower commission version had minimized the president's knowledge, a skeptical press seemed to determine that the most extraordinary story it could write was one that proved that the president knew not only about both parts of the Iran-contra story but about the connection between the two. Pundits joined investigative reporters in marshalling "evidence" that this president would or would not have known about such a level of detail as the diversion of funds to the contras. White House sources were suddenly willing to talk about Reagan's detachment and about the departed senior staff members who had supposedly kept things from him -- Regan, McFarlane, and Poindexter.

What had been an informed and effective corps of journalists, independently pursuing the story in the preceding months, mysteriously gravitated toward this one question. Reporters who had covered other aspects of the scandal were forced off the front page.

The Iran-contra hearings themselves, which began in May, 1987, yielded the best and the worst of reporting. In cities that get Pacifica radio, aficianados of the hearings reprogrammed the first button on their car radio to get Larry Bensky's unparalleled coverage. Extraordinarily knowledgeable on his own, Bensky regularly turned to other journalists and experts to provide context. National Public Radio, public television, and a handful of print sources provided coherent daily commentary; the bulk of the coverage of the hearings was undistinguished.

The media paid little or no attention to how the committee's inquiry had been structured. Congress was not about to examine its own role in the affair -- its endless waffling over contra policy, its failure to provide oversight of intelligence activities, and the desire of many of its members to protect Israel and Saudi Arabia from embarrassment. The committee, for its part, ignored the natural chronology of the tale, starting in the middle with the most contentious of all witnesses, Richard Secord. This made a coherent exposition of the events impossible. If the storyline of the Iran-contra affair was going to be laid out intelligibly it would be up to the press to do so.

Instead, reporters concentrated on who was scoring more public relations points on any given day -- the witnesses or the committee members and their counsel. Finally, when Republican members of the committees began to convert the hearings into a debate over the meaning of the Boland amendments, the crowd of investigative reporters that had been pursuing the story the previous fall dwindled quickly to a small band (Bob Woodward, Walter Pincus, Joseph Pichirallo, and Dan Morgan at The Washington Post; Robert Parry, who had moved to Newsweek; Doyle McManus and Michael Wines at the Los Angeles Times; Roy Gutman and Knute Royce of Newsday; Steven Emerson of U.S. News & World Report; Stephen Engelberg and Jeffrey Gerth of The New York Times; James Ridgeway of The Village Voice; Karen Burnes of ABC News; Frank Greve of The Philadelphia Inquirer; David Corn and Jeff Morley of The Nation; David Rogers of The Wall Street Journal; and Miguel Acoca of The San Francisco Examiner). Sifting through new leads uncovered by the hearings, they occasionally linked up the new with the old. But once again most of their colleagues allowed themselves to be distracted, this time by the hearings' grand finale -- the trumpeting of George Shultz's outraged innocence.

There had been indications of Shultz's involvement in the most constitutionally troubling portion of the scandal -- the use of congressionally appropriated funds to get other countries to do what the U.S. government could not legally do. But the committee had ears only for Shultz's impassioned denunciation of the NSC staff. And [the] press seemed to join committee members in a bipartisan salute to Shultz's unsullied integrity.

The committee's final report came out on November 17. Its gist was that there was evidence of egregious abuses of power by members of the Reagan administration. But doing something about them seemed to be a job for the independent counsel. For its part the press, having blamed everything once again on the National Security Council staff, seemed ready to take a break. Thank God, every wrapup article seemed to sigh, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger would be left to operate the government.



George Bush, Vice President of the United States

In 1988, George Bush, formerly a member of an administration loosely under investigation, became a presidential candidate under direct scrutiny. Yet, remarkably, despite the fact that the committee's report offered a wealth of facts and leads, only a few of the most expert reporters felt confident enough to take on the issue of Bush's role in the affair. Among them were Bob Woodward, Walter Pincus, and David Hoffman, who in the January 7, 1988, Washington Post catalogued Bush's entanglement down to his being in the room when Reagan signed the Bible that would be delivered as a gift to the Iranians.

Other close looks were taken by Malcolm Byrne and Jeff Nason in The Nation and Judy Woodruff in a MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour segment (in which I was interviewed, along with Lee Atwater). These were criticized by the Bush campaign staff as partisan. But the ultimate charge of partisanship was yet to come. This was, of course, Dan Rather's interview with candidate Bush.

CBS producer Howard Rosenberg was, along with ABC news consultant Frank Snepp, one of the most aggressive television journalists to pursue the Iran-contra story. It was Rosenberg who, after staking out Oliver North's suburban house morning after morning, had wondered how North was able to afford an expensive remote-control security gate. His reporting on that detail ultimately led to a criminal charge against North for having accepted a gratuity -- one of the few charges on which the lieutenant colonel was subsequently convicted.

For the Rather interview, Rosenberg and fellow CBS producer Martin Koughan prepared a taped piece reviewing Bush's activities, highlighting claims that he had been "out of the loop" on Iran-contra and that he was "never involved in directing, coordinating, or approving military aid to the contras." It pointed out that Donald Gregg, Bush's national security adviser and a veteran CIA agent, had lied about his involvement in covert Central America policy.

Then came the interview, which was live at Bush's insistence. Bush came out aggressively, eating up air time by answering unasked questions. Rather maneuvered back to the key question: What role had Bush played in facilitating the arms-for-hostages transactions with Iran? The lead-in piece had made it clear that during a trip to Israel in late July 1986, Bush had met with Israeli counterterrorism chief Amiram Nir. The piece pointed out that according to the notes of Bush's aide, Craig Fuller, which first surfaced in the Tower commission report, Nir had told Bush that the arms trade was "an effort to get the hostages out ... the whole package for a fixed price...." Moreover, since he sat in on at least fifteen Oval Office briefings of the president on the arms-for-hostages deal, it was logical to conclude that Bush could not be as ill-informed, even uninformed, about the deal as he professed to be.

Early in the interview, Bush tripped up on a key detail: he claimed that the staff memo summarizing his meeting with Nir showed that the arms-sales deal was an Israeli plan. In fact, the memo makes it clear that it was primarily an American initiative. Rather failed to pick up on this. He had been forewarned by one of his producers about Bush's next move, but still seemed flustered when Bush asked the anchorman how he would like it if "I judged your career by the seven minutes you walked off a set in New York?" -- a reference to Rather's having left minutes of dead air at the beginning of a newscast a few months earlier.

Seconds later, Bush said he had gone along with the arms sales because he wanted to get one particular hostage, CIA station chief William Buckley, "out of there, before he was killed." Yet the record was clear that by the summer of 1985 the CIA and the White House believed that Buckley was dead; by fall they knew it. Again, Rather missed the significance of the slip. He also failed to follow up on the fact that the day after Bush met with Nir a new shipment of arms, which had been on hold, was suddenly approved by the president. And he did not pick up on Bush's claim that he never had an "operational role" in the deal -- a curious defense given the fact that Bush had long claimed to have known nothing at all about the deal before December 1986, and that if he had learned of it, he would have opposed it.

The next day the press played the story as a major confrontation but paid scant attention to the substance of the interview. Bush was portrayed as a clear victor over the aggressive anchorman. A few days before, it had looked as if George Bush had both feet locked in concrete. Who could imagine a presidential campaign in which a determined press corps would not wrestle a presidential candidate to the mat to get some clear answers? And if the press corps could not, surely the emerging Democratic candidate would. Who could imagine not pursuing such a thing?

Encouraged by this p.r. victory, the Bush team resorted to the strategy of simply asserting that any questions about Bush or his role were essentially partisan. During a presidential campaign this strategy succeeded as it might not have otherwise. The Bush team stonewalled. Apart from David Hoffman's work in The Washington Post, the press did not make a serious effort at examining the vice-president's role in the affair.

During earlier stages of Iran-contra, the press had sought the interpretive assistance of public interest organizations. Now, with few exceptions, it eschewed similar help. The "Secret Team" theory offered by the Christic Institute had proven useful when the institute was identifying -- largely accurately -- the network of individuals that North and Richard Secord had employed in their various operations. Less useful were the imaginative interpretations subsequently offered by the institute, making North, Secord, et al. part of a cabal that had grown out of World War II espionage, that financed itself with Southeast Asian drug smuggling, and that maintained elaborate secret facilities throughout the world.

Similarly, the "October Surprise" theory, most conspicuously proferred by former White House aide Barbara Honegger, initially asked a useful question: Given that some individuals connected with the 1980 Reagan campaign had made contact with Iranian representatives, and given that the Iranians held on to the hostages in the occupied U.S. Embassy until Carter's loss was assured, did the Reagan team promise to provide arms to Iran in return for delaying the hostage release? But a subsequent and more elaborate version of the October Surprise scenario was so poorly documented that the date of an alleged George Bush secret rendezvous kept changing as each old date was disproved by campaign film footage, newspaper clips, and schedules.

Afraid to be associated with these increasingly wild theories, most of the press backed off. By the time of the presidential conventions, reporters began to also shut out virtually any coherent interpretation of the Iran-contra affair. Without pegs on which to hang new facts, editors fell back to retrospectives about Bush's involvement in the scandal. Each new version was more watered-down than its predecessor.

The perversely protective rules of campaign coverage were taking effect: any story about Bush's involvement in the Iran-contra affair would have to contain increasingly serious charges as the election grew nearer. By the last week in October no story short of a confession by Bush would have been able to find its way into the media.

On November 30, 1988, the most likely vehicle for reporting on Bush's involvement in the Iran arms deal -- Amiram Nir, who served as the point of contact with Israeli intelligence for both George Bush and Oliver North -- was killed in a Mexican plane crash. Thereafter, even investigative reporters seemed to lose interest in the already well-documented set of facts about Bush's involvement.

FEBRUARY 1989-MAY 1989


Lt. Col. Oliver North, aide to the National Security Council

The North trial, which got under way on February 21, 1989, was covered by scores of reporters gathered for a spectacle. Some were familiar with the lran-contra story, others were skilled at covering trials; few were both. The Iran-contra aficionados tended to judge evidence as new or significant not in terms of its role in proving the case against North but on the basis of whether it advanced the overall Iran-contra story. But the way this trial unfolded defied the easy advancement of the plot. The prosecutors and the jurors had to be untainted by the immunized testimony provided in the earlier hearings. This meant that much of the early part of the trial was a recapitulation of details the public had already heard. Coverage fell off quickly.

By the time the newsworthy disclosures came, the trial reporters had taken over. The news came in the form of defense exhibits, particularly a stipulation between North's lawyers and the federal prosecutors. This summary of classified documents demonstrated that people at the highest levels of government, including then Vice-President Bush, had entered into quid-pro-quo deals with Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and other countries. Here was Oliver North's own defense attorney asserting that monies appropriated by Congress for one purpose had been used by the executive branch for another purpose -- to support the contras -- without Congress's knowledge. A series of potentially impeachable acts had been allegedly committed with the knowledge and approval of a former president and the participation of a former vice-president who was now president.

The networks and papers gave the story a one-day run, and that was more or less the end of it. Even news organizations that had provided excellent trial coverage up to that point -- National Public Radio, MacNeil/Lehrer -- seemed oblivious to the significance of the revelations. Legal specialists, such as Tim O'Brien of ABC and Nina Totenberg of NPR, fixed on the color at the expense of the political and foreign policy implications. The New York Times seemed to downplay the trial, as it had the hearings.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike complimented the Post's George Lardner, Jr., for accurately capturing the subtleties of the struggle over what classified information could be used and for connecting trial testimony to the Irancontra narrative. Walter Pincus, David Hoffman, and Joe Pichirallo of the Post fleshed out the story of the various quid pro quos. Again, Pacifica's Larry Bensky provided exemplary daily wrap-ups.

After the verdict had been delivered on May 4, 1989 -- North was found guilty on three minor charges, including receiving gratuities -- reporters got another chance to sum up. Few could handle the sweep of information. The Washington Post and CBS, already accused by the White House press office of overplaying the significance of the North trial's revelations about Bush, began to understate the same information in their summary stories. Other organizations, including The New York Times, tended to confine any meaningful post-verdict analysis to their op-ed pages. At ABC, the story was consigned to Nightline, whose reporter Brit Hume considered the Iran-contra story to be, as he told me off-camera, "a nonstory." The publication that did comprehend the constitutional ramifications of the North trial is one not found on ever corner newstand. It was left to Theodore Draper in The New York Review of Books to put the trial in perspective.



While the North trial should have provided all the fuel that was necessary to keep the journalistic inquiry running, the press seemed to lose interest, perking up briefly only when some key Iran-contra players were nominated for high-level posts in the new administration. When Donald Gregg, Bush's choice to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was being considered, a few news organizations highlighted the implausibility of some of Gregg's explanations about his former boss's activities. (At one point, Gregg maintained that a career White House secretary must have written "resupply of the Contras" on a Bush meeting agenda when Gregg had told her the meeting was devoted to "resupply of the copters." Not contras in Nicaragua, but helicopters in El Salvador, Gregg claimed, was the subject of the gathering.)

Neither of the other two presidential appointees who would have been aware of the circumstances of the quid pro quos pinned down in the North trial -- Richard Armitage (nominated as Secretary of the Army, he later withdrew) and John Negroponte (ambassador to Mexico) -- were seriously examined by the press. The congressional committees dealing with these confirmations, as well as other committees dealing with appropriations for Central America, began to examine the loose ends of Iran-contra but soon determined that there was insufficient public interest to warrant sustained public scrutiny.

Since the North trial I have talked to more than a dozen of the reporters who have methodically tried to connect the

If there is one area in which reporters should carry on without the peg of
an official investigation, it is when constitutional principles appear to
have been violated

dots to fill in the Iran-contra picture. Almost to a person, these journalists expressed frustration with three groups of players. The first two -- the independent counsel and the joint congressional committee -- were faulted for not pursuing the most obvious trails of evidence: the violations of law that occurred as the Reagan administration gave American assistance to third countries in return for acts and favors which Congress had either forbidden or would have forbidden had it known of them. These reporters rejected the independent counsel's position that his authority extended only to clear-cut criminal prosecutions and that such matters as the quid pro quos and off-the-books government activities were subjects for impeachment inquiries. Similarly, they were dismayed by Congress's unwillingness to seriously confront the violations of the Constitution, particularly since Congress generally explained its inaction by saying it could not justify moving further given the lack of general public or even press interest.

But their strongest complaints were reserved for their peers -- Admiral John Poindexter, National Security Advisor those editors and colleagues who treated the subject of constitutional violations as academic or, worse, as trivial, precisely because Congress had not responded with outrage.

As we have seen, one lesson of the Iran-contra affair is that reporters should pay considerably greater attention to each other's reporting. The more significant lesson, I believe, is that in a constitutional democracy the press is responsible for holding the various branches of government accountable under the Constitution. In covering this scandal, the press largely failed to do so. Why?

Fatigue and boredom were certainly factors. So was the relationship between the press and the Congress. When Congress fails to act as an anvil, the hammer of the press flails harmlessly in the air. "If neither house of Congress cares, why should we?" went the typical Washington journalist's refrain.

The fervor with which serious journalists pursued Watergate was missing. For a time, that story was pursued by only a handful of journalists, but once evidence of serious constitutional violations was revealed by prosecutors, the rest of the media began to follow every trail, incrementally and relentlessly, until the story was told. This was not so in Iran-contra. Here, the press seemed to share, rather than challenge, Congress's willingness to pass the buck.

The recently concluded Poindexter trial provides a perfect epilogue. Once again, fundamental constitutional questions raised by the trial were virtually ignored by the media.

A highlight was the videotaped testimony of Ronald Reagan. Yes, the former president said, he did recall the 1984 meeting at which George Bush brought up the subject of third-country assistance and admonished all present that such aid would be permissible "provided that you didn't offer a favor or quid pro quo to someone in return for their helping the [contras]." Reagan made it clear that he understood Bush's point. "[We] must not make any promise of something we would do for them in return for that....No, we couldn't -- we couldn't offer a quid pro quo."

Minutes later, however, Reagan said that in early 1985, faced with "a possibility that Honduras was maybe going to back away from supporting the contras," his national security advisers "agreed that we should make an approach to the Hondurans which emphasizes our commitment to their sovereignty and provides incentives for them to persist in aiding the Freedom Fighters." Reagan went on to testify about his personal involvement in this and one other quid-pro-quo chain.

These admissions would have brought impeachment to the lips of journalists in the late fall of 1986. Yet The New York Times, for example, barely touched on the remarks in the next day's story and failed to include them in seventy-three inches of excerpts.

Elsewhere in his testimony, Reagan framed the legal and constitutional criteria by which he apparently expects to be judged. Repeatedly the former president said that he had told his aides not to break the law and that he had never authorized them to lie to Congress. At the same time, he said he saw nothing wrong with Poindexter's statements to the congressional committees -- statements which were clearly false, lies for which Poindexter was convicted in April. Listening to these two seemingly contradictory positions over and over again, it finally struck me that Reagan seems to perceive Congress as a debating forum in which the laws are merely the winning propositions, subject to further debate, rather than the body that is the source of the nation's laws within a constitutional system. Oddly, this also seems to be the view of many reporters, whose contempt for Congress is exceeded only by their own uncertainty about where constitutional responsibilities lie.

If there is one area in which reporters in America should feel compelled to carry on without the peg of an official investigation it is when fundamental constitutional separation-of-powers principles appear to have been violated. It would be unreasonable to expect reporters to lace their stories with references to the Constitution. But it does not seem unreasonable that allegations of constitutional breaches should motivate journalists to pursue their investigations to the very end. Were not the allegations of executive quid pro quos outlined by the cumulative evidence precisely this type of deliberate and knowing breach of Congress's power of the purse? Were not the actions that took national security George Bush, Vice President of the United States off the books violations of other congressional prerogatives? Do not secret agreements between the U.S. and foreign powers constitute a form of unratified treaty? Are these not, taken singly, more than sufficient reason to keep alive full-scale inquiries in the major newsrooms across America? Taken together, do not these allegations amount to a newsworthy alteration of our constitutional system?

The managing editor of one major metropolitan daily refuses -- like the late Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan -- to vote in any election for fear someone may ascribe to him a partisan motive. While I don't agree that journalists lose their franchise on election day, I can comprehend the position. What I cannot comprehend is the corollary belief that seems to have gained credence throughout the Iran-contra affair -- that the media must cede constitutional questions to virtually any other major institution in our society. Have newspaper and broadcast editors declared stories that invoke basic constitutional questions too complex, too tough to handle? Is clarifying the facts surrounding those questions necessarily partisan? Have news organizations come to believe that they cannot fairly report on the government if they have to take a stand on what our Constitution means?

June 27, 1995 Ideas? Questions?   Let us know! [HTML Hit Counter]