© 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, June 16, 1991, p. M2.
Theodore Draper is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and author of numerous books.
What was most significant about the Iran-Contra affairs was the takeover of governmental policies by a few
strategically placed insiders infatuated with their own sense of superiority and incorruptibility.
How could this happen? An excerpt:
The questions that arise most forcefully from a study of the Iran-Contra affair are: How could a handful of little-known officials take virtually complete control of American foreign policy in areas of major concern? How could they operate in total disregard of Congress, outside the purview of the two departments most concerned, State and Defense, and indeed of almost the entire structure of the government?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of covert operations. When the National Security Council staff took over the Iran-Contra affair from the Central Intelligence Agency, it practiced the same rules of covert activities, but with even greater powers of concealment. The national security adviser, unlike the director of the CIA, did not have to be confirmed by Congress and did not have to testify before congressional intelligence committees. The execution of both affairs was concentrated in one man, Oliver L. North, responsible only to one man, National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane or John M. Poindexter. By using outside accomplices, such as Richard V. Secord and Albert Hakim, who did not have to report to any official agency, North's operations were largely impervious to the normal reach of government. North's methods resembled those of a private rather than a public way of doing business, since Secord and Hakim were beholden only to him. As Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger observed: "I think any of these things that attempt to run private operations of this nature become private governments, is totally wrong and I would be totally opposed."
The accepted rules of covert operations were made to order for North's purposes. Compartmentation, deniability, secrecy were the watchwords of these operations.
The CIA's national intelligence officer for counterterrorism, Charles E. Allen, noted, "This was the most compartmented effort under way in the U.S. government at that time." Those not in the compartment made it their business not to know. Alan Fiers, chief of the CIA's Central American task force, candidly admitted, "we remained in the status of willful ignorance" about the flight of which Eugene Hasenfus had crashed. (Hasenfus handled cargo on a Contra resupply plane shot down by a Sandinista missile in October, 1986.)
This self-contained system was made all the more hermetic by Poindexter, who was obsessive about secrecy. He was asked: "Admiral, did you also want to keep what your plans and operations were relating to the Contras secret from people in the NSC and in the White House?" He replied: "Yes, I did." Poindexter did not want to discuss North's pro-Contra activities even with William J. Casey, because the CIA chief had to testify before congressional committees.
According to Weinberger, however, Poindexter was encouraged in this mania for compartmentation by President Reagan. "It was a very small narrow circle of people who needed to know," Weinberger explained about the transfer of arms to Iran, "and it was deliberately kept small because of the considerations the President continually emphasized that it was necessary to make sure that very few people knew about it."
To keep others in the government from knowing what was going on, putting information and instructions in writing was forbidden -- as much as possible. "I was often cautioning Col. North about putting things in writing about his operational activities, especially with regard to the support for the Contras," Poindexter declared.
The CIA's head of station in Lisbon testified that cables were missing "because of the nature of the channel used. It is outside and is designed to be outside the records-keeping system."
At some point in 1985, North said, a decision was made not to put documents "in the system." According to Susan Crawford, the Army's general counsel, the Army's handling of the weapons that it delivered to the CIA for transfer to Iran "was highly sensitive. There was to be no paperwork on the activity."
Thousands of relevant documents survived mainly because they were unexpectedly rescued from the machines that sent and received messages. North shredded hundreds of documents, but even he did not get them all.
"I assured Adm. Poindexter, incorrectly, it turns out," he ruefully testified, "that all of the documents that pertained to the residual funds being used to support the Nicaraguan Resistance had already been destroyed."
Above all, covert operations prized "deniability" or, as it was often termed, "plausible deniability." Since such operations were inherently dangerous, politically or otherwise, it was not enough to carry them out; ideally, they were set up in such a way that they could be disavowed if they miscarried.
The idea is probably as old as the existence of rulers and no doubt will be with us for as long as there are governments. But it clearly sought to enable the U.S. government to disclaim responsibility with respect to other governments, not to keep the entire U.S. government in such ignorance of what was done in its name by subordinate officials that responsible government officials would not even know what to deny.
Yet this was the reason Poindexter gave for why he had not told Reagan about the diversion scheme:
"Now, the reason that -- frankly, as Col. North has testified, I thought it was a neat idea, too, and I'm sure the President would have enjoyed knowing about it. But, on the other hand, because it would be controversial -- and I must say that I don't believe that I estimated how controversial it would be accurately -- but I knew very well that it would be controversial, and I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected, and at the same time we would be able to carry out his policy and provide the opposition to the Sandinista government."
Poindexter's motivation, then, was largely political: He sought to protect the President from domestic "controversy," not foreign enemies.
North used "plausible deniability" as a justification for employing Secord in his operations: "We were trying to provide a plausibly deniable link directly back to the U.S. government; and it was accepted that he could provide that kind of deniability. The effort was made, in other words, that the hand of the government of the United States was not showing in this action."
Mere denial, then, may not be enough. Plausibility must be built into the denial to make it successful. The assumption is that the government is doing something it cannot afford to do openly or admit afterward.
By their nature, covert operations make it possible to put the good name or best interests of the country in such jeopardy that the only way to escape from the cost of failure or exposure is the ability to deny that they ever happened or to put the blame on someone else.
The least measure that can be taken in a democratic system to control the danger of playing with such fire is that the highest political authority should be responsible for permitting such operations and for maintaining control over them.
Unauthorized and uncontrolled covert operations put the covert operators in a position to jeopardize the entire government, or even to take its place. Such covert operations become indistinguishable from government by junta or cabal.
© 1991 by Theodore Draper. Reprinted with permission from Hill & Wang. All rights reserved.
*BOOK REVIEW: A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs, by Theodore Draper,
is reviewed on Page 5 of today's Book Review section.