Oliver North recently became the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The organization’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre, said North “is a legendary warrior for American freedom, a gifted communicator and skilled leader.”
If you are under 40, you might not have heard of him. North was a major figure in a political scandal in the mid-1980s. A Lebanese newspaper revealed that North, as a military aide in the Ronald Reagan administration, arranged the secret sale of weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran and then diverted the proceeds to the anti-revolutionary “contra” rebels in Nicaragua.
Reagan had been elected in 1980 after he claimed that Jimmy Carter was a foreign policy weakling. Just the year before, U.S.-backed dictators in Iran and Nicaragua were overthrown by uprisings of ordinary people from varied backgrounds and political orientations.
In Iran, harsh theocrats would come out on top after the revolution. The new regime also had a right-wing nationalist populism similar to Juan Peron in Argentina. In Nicaragua, the leftist Sandinistas led the rebellion against the Somoza family dynasty and had widespread support among more moderate forces. They carried out an impressive literacy campaign and created a public health system with clinics and hospitals that brought health care to hundreds of thousands of people who had never been to a doctor.
Reagan provided logistical, financial and military support to the Nicaraguan “contras” (counter-revolutionaries) led by former National Guardsmen of the Somoza dictatorship. They conducted a terrorist war whose primary victims were civilians, according to human rights organizations.
In fact, former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner admitted in April 1985 before a Congressional committee that the contras had engaged in numerous acts of “terrorism.” Nevertheless, Reagan claimed the contras were “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.”
Reagan also backed the vicious military regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala, which were fighting leftist rebels. The governments of both countries had paramilitary “death squads,” which conducted “extra-judicial killings” of civilian dissidents.
In the U.S., a large movement arose to oppose Reagan’s interventions in Central America. There were massive anti-war rallies. Many people traveled to Central America to be peace witnesses, to deliver humanitarian aid and to conduct study tours. Sister city partnerships were established. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees poured into the U.S., escaping oppression and war. Americans responded by providing “sanctuary” for them.
Religious organizations and institutions played a crucial role in the resistance. A Reagan aide assigned to discredit the movement complained that “church-based supporters of the Sandinistas have been able to frame much of the public debate on Nicaragua … dominating the flow of information to local churches, parishes and synagogues.” Speaking for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1987, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton told Congress that the U.S.-directed contra war was “immoral, illegal and unwise.”
The Democratic-controlled Congress also pushed back. In particular, they passed the Boland Amendments, which limited U.S. government assistance to the contras.
That was where Oliver North came in. The deal had to be secret since Iran was an enemy. Carter had been humiliated by the hostage crisis, and crowds in Tehran were always seen chanting, “Death to America!”
As part of the deal, the Reagan administration agreed to provide secret battlefield intelligence for Iran’s war against Iraq when the CIA had already provided Iraq with intelligence. In return, the Iranians were to use their leverage over Hezbollah in Lebanon, which had taken seven American hostages. Three of the seven were released, but the group later took three more Americans hostage.
In the summer of 1987, North became a folk hero of the right-wing after he gave six days of televised Congressional testimony. He received thousands of messages of support. He became a sought-after speaker around the country. You could buy Ollie T-shirts, buttons, videos and dolls.
He played the earnest all-American boy. The Congressional Iran-Contra Report noted: “North admitted that he and other officials lied repeatedly to Congress and to the American people about the contra covert action and Iran arms sales, and that he altered and destroyed official documents. North’s testimony demonstrates that he also lied to members of the executive branch, including the Attorney General, and officials of the State Department, C.I.A. and N.S.C.”
North would be convicted on three felony counts of ordering the destruction of documents, aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and accepting an illegal gratuity. But a court would later overturn all three convictions.
There were several investigations (including one by an independent counsel) and the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission. Fourteen Reagan administration officials were indicted, and 11 convictions resulted. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who had been Vice President at the time of the affair.
Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh considered criminal indictments against both Reagan and Bush. That probably wouldn’t have mattered too much to Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming, who was the head of the minority side of the Congressional Iran-Contra investigating commission. Cheney offered them the theory that the Executive (that is, the President) has the unilateral power to do whatever he wants to do. Or as Richard Nixon said after Watergate, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.”
“If ever the constitutional democracy of the United States is overthrown,” Theodore Draper, a political analyst who did a comprehensive study of the Iran-Contra affair, said at the time, “we now have a better idea of how this is likely to be done.”
Now we are facing a much bigger scandal. Some things are different. The Cold War is over. New alliances are being formed. For example, quite a few old American Cold Warriors have become apologists for Vladimir Putin. In a bizarre twist, the NRA is being investigated for laundering campaign contributions from Russians to the Donald Trump presidential campaign.
These are scary and surreal times.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.