Last modified on June 19, 2021, at 15:05

Iran-Contra affair

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1982.
The Iran-Contra Affair (Operation Black Eagle, later Operation Screw Worm; sometimes called Iran-gate) was the result of an arms deal between the United States, Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras, an anti-communist guerilla group operating against the Marxist government of Nicaragua.

Although the first shipment of arms to Iran did not occur until well into President Reagan's second term, arms had been flown to the Contra's from Bill Clinton's Arkansas throughout Reagan's entire first term. The arms were traded for cocaine, and the cocaine flown back to Arkansas on the return trip and then distributed across the United States.

Later, when trading with Iran commenced, the proceeds from Iran were used to purchase additional arms for the Contras. When these transactions became public a Special Prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was appointed. Walsh then prosecuted a number of high-level Reagan Administration officials. Not generally known at the time, two future Presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, were heavily involved.[1] The matter ended later with President George H. W. Bush pardoning other key players and the election of Bill Clinton.

Boland Amendment

While the foreign policy of the United States is explicitly the purvue of the President, Congress nonetheless retains the power of the purse. President Reagan wished to actively oppose the Soviet and Cuban fomented violence and Marxist revolution in Central America, and their active material support of the communist regime of Daniel Ortega and the Nicaragua Sandinistas. The Boland Amendment however, forbid the use of any US federal funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan communist regime. Sources of funding were sought elsewhere.[2]

CIA Director William Casey masterminded an arrangement through private, non-governmental entities and international arms sellers to raise funds and arm the Contras. A split-off policy followed to sell arms to Iran in its war with Saddam Hussein which Iran was badly losing. Arms sales to Iran also hopefully would improve US-Iranian relations which hit a low and broke off during the Carter administration.

Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas responded to the official foreign policy directive of the United States in support of overthrowing the Sandinista regime by sending contingents of the Arkansas National Guard to Honduras to assist in training the Nicarauguan Contras.[3]

Mena, Arkansas

Main article: Mena airport

The Mena Airport in Arkansas became the logistical point for implementation of US Central American policy.[4] Gross value of the illegally imported narcotics at Mena is said to have reached $100 million per month at its height, nearly ten times its cost of delivery in trade and arms.

On 5 October 1986, a C-123 transport plane delivering weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras was shot down by a surface-to-air shoulder launched missile. Two U.S. pilots and a Nicaraguan radio operator were killed, while Eugene Hasenfus, the "cargo-kicker" survived. The plane was carrying "60 collapsible AK-47 rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots".[5] The plane had been owned by the now deceased Barry Seal, and based in Mena, Arkansas.[6] Hasenfus's captured phone book contained the names of Barry Seal, Oliver North, and Felix Rodriguez[7] which the Sandinista's used to attract American media attention and expose the Mena operation.

Even when Mena's gun-running operation was shut down after 1986, Mena continued to be used for illegal narcotics smuggling into the United States and the profits were pocketed by locals under then Governor Bill Clinton.[8] In 1989 Clinton received petitions from Arkansas citizens demanding he convene a state grand jury and investigate Mena.[9] Winston Bryant made Mena an issue in his successful bid for Arkansas Attorney General in 1990. A year later Bryant turned over state files involving Mena to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, but Walsh did nothing with the reams of evidence.

Bill Clinton: the fair-haired boy

By March 1986, the CIA had already decided to begin extricating itself from Bill Clinton's Arkansas and move the operation to Mexico largely based upon two factors (1) the bust of Clinton's brother Roger and others close to Clinton on cocaine charges, and (2) the looting of cash, which was the government's property, by the Clinton's Arkansas political machine. A general air of sloppiness and corruption pervaded the Clinton end of the operation.

Camp Robinson meeting

A few weeks after the assassination of Barry Seal, a meeting was held in a bunker at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. The participants were Bill Clinton, Clinton's aide Bob Nash, Terry Reed, Felix Rodriguez, Oliver North, resident CIA agent Akihide Sawahata and William Barr[10] who represented himself as the emissary of CIA Director Bill Casey.

Barr spoke directly to Clinton,

The deal we made was to launder our money through your bond business but what we didn't plan on was you and your ***** ******* here start taking yourselves seriously and purposely shrinking our laundry.

The role of ADFA

Barr stated intelligence agencies have the same problem drug traffickers have, laundering cash and finding a bank willing to break the law by not filing required documentation. The bond business gave the state a cash flow that would allow dirty and clean money to co-mingle. The CIA was lacking a dirty banker willing to ignore federal banking laws, but they found it in Governor Clinton's administration. The banker was the Arkansas Development Finance Authority (ADFA), which was created by and directly under the control of Governor Bill Clinton. Additionally, the ADFA paid more than $100,000 in legal fees to the Rose Law Firm, in which his wife Hillary Clinton was partner.

A state investment bank was capitalized by cash transfusions the CIA was taking great pains to hide. This solved the dilemma of funding the Contras, but no legal way to deliver it directly. The agency was barred by Congress with the Boland Amendment from converting the cash into weapons and training the Contras.

The CIA needed other companies that would be a source of secretly produced weapons which would find their way into the hands of the Contras. Those businesses needed payment to perform these services for the CIA and that cash came to them in an illegal, undetectable manner, through ADFA in the form of industrial development loans.

But the laundry was shrinking. CIA knew Clinton and his people had not abided by Clinton's agreement with the agency. Barr remonstrated sternly,

Our deal was for you to get 10% of the profits, not 10% of the gross...This has turned into a feeding frenzy by your good-ole-boy sharks and you've had a hand in it too, Mr. Clinton. Just ask your Mr. Nash to produce a business card. I'll bet it reads Arkansas Development and Finance Authority... This ADFA of yours is double-dipping. Our deal with you was to launder our money. You get 10% after costs and post-tax profits. No one agreed for you to start loaning out money to your friends through your ADFA so that they could buy machinery to build our guns. That wasn't the deal. Mr. Sawahata tells me that one of ADFA's first customers was some parking meter company that got several million dollars in ... how shall we say it. .. in preferred loans...Dammit, we bought a whole gun company, lock, stock and barrel and shipped the whole thing down here for you. And Mr. Reed even help set it up. You people go and screw us by setting up some subcontractors that weren't even authorized by us. ****, people who didn't even have security clearances. That's why we're pulling the operation out of Arkansas. It's become a liability for us. We don't need live liabilities.

The Clinton machine was caught with its hand in the till. Barr was referring to the CIA's plans to relocate an existing arms manufacturing firm, Iver Johnson Arms of New Jersey, to Arkansas. What the agency hoped would be a secret operation to manufacture untraceable arms for the Contras became an open secret among Clinton cronies. These insiders, having learned what Iver Johnson was really doing, demanded a piece of the action and blackmailed their way into the covert operation. POM, the parking meter manufacturer, owned by Webster Hubbell's father-in-law Seth Ward, leveraged its way into the underground arms-manufacturing loop by manufacturing parts of machine guns without serial numbers so they could not be traced back to the United States government. Hubbell was an attorney with the Rose Law Firm who followed the Clintons to Washington in 1992 and became Associate Attorney General in the US Justice Department.

William Barr rebukes Bill Clinton

Ths total lack of security and intelligence professionalism was why the CIA wanted out of Arkansas. The final loose end that needed to be tied up was the investigation of Bill Clinton's half-brother, Roger and his friends. William Barr told Bill Clinton:

We are all in this together and let's not forget that the vice-president [George H.W. Bush] and Mr. Casey want this operation to be a success. Mr. Seal carried with him a falsely created, high-level profile of a drug runner. All of the cops in the country were investigating a drug operation. They put the police into a position where we could control them. We fed them what we wanted to feed them, when we wanted to feed them. Seal was a diversion. It was perfect until your brother started free enterprising and now we have to shut it down.

It was the arrests of Roger Clinton and Dan Lasater - not the Hasenfus shoot-down months later - that threatened to expose the operation and prompted the CIA to end it. Barr said of the money investigation,

Mr. Meese is intervening right now and there will be no money investigation. The United States Attorney's Office in Little Rock is 'getting religion' as we speak.

Gov. Clinton's reputation as a cad did not go unnoticed by the CIA. Barr ended the meeting with words of encouragement.

Bill, you are Mr. Casey's fair-haired boy ... You and your state have been our greatest asset. Mr. Casey wanted me to pass on to you that unless you ****up and do something stupid, you're No. 1 on the short list for a shot at the job that you've always wanted. You and guys like you are the fathers of the new government. We are the new covenant.[11]

Iran-Contra vs the War on Drugs

The most controversial factor exposed in Iran/Contra is the inherrent contradiction in US policy of allegedly fighting to control the import of illegal narcotics into the United States, while at the same time elements within the US government secretly sought, and some claim continue, to profit or gain from controlling the supply of illegal narcotics brought into the United States. The public debate on drug legalization in the United States is now more than 35 years old. With the creation of the DEA and the War on Drugs in 1974 some thought interdiction and enforcement of distribution and possession violations was the solution. However, law enforcement at all levels, from federal to local, maintained 85% still got through to the end users. Some cited the failure of Prohibition in the 1920s as evidence of the fruitlessness of interdiction and enforcement.

Barring a national consensus, beginning with the National Conference of State Legislators up to the federal government, legalization is unlikely, and the War on Drugs will remain official policy, despite wide recognition of it as a failure. The flipside of keeping narcotics illegal however, the argument from experience goes, only makes gangsters and criminals rich. Similar to lotteries, which at one time were run by organized crime known as "racketeering", state governments now are involved in the "numbers rackets" and reap the profits.

In the interests of national security, a president would have the legal authority, by executive fiat (ordering prosecutors and customs officials to stand down), to bypass laws on the books in an effort to fight organized crime and take the profit out of illegal narcotic smuggling and distribution. Later "seizure laws" were added under Pres. George H.W. Bush to take down domestic distribution kingpins after they made their sales and converted their drug wealth into cash or other property.[12]

The theory is twofold: (1) Having lost the war on drugs and failed at interdiction, the government itself sought to exercise control of importation, distribution, and profits; (2) a nations intelligence agency needs an off-the-books revenue source that enemies cannot calculate as easily as reading the budget of the United States Government which is readily available to anyone under our blue sky laws.

And economically speaking, drug addicts essentially and effectively were enlisted into supporting the cause of anti-communism.

Iranian involvement

Contra aid had been authorized by Reagan in 1981, and by 1982 Barry Seal began operating out of Mena Arkansas. In late 1982, the First Boland Amendment was passed forbidding direct US aid. It was not until Reagan's second term, beginning in 1985, that sales to Iran were even discussed or considered.

CIA decides to leave Arkansas

Sloppiness, lax security, and plundering the CIA's cash strained the relationship between the CIA and Bill Clinton's Arkansas machine. The arrests in 1985 of Clinton's brother Roger and the head of the money laundering operation, ADFA bond trader Dan Lasater, on cocaine charges caused CIA's decision to leave Arkansas and move the operation to Mexico. The shoot-down of Eugene Hasenfus on October 5, 1986 hastened CIA's exit. Not quite 30 days later a story was leaked to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Shiraa that the US sold arms to Iran. The cover story quicky became a few weapons shipment deliveries over the previous 18 months to Iran funded the Contra supply operation for the past 5 and a half years. Like the shipment of weapons to the Islamic State before the Benghazi massacre, the Uniparty covered up its actions with a politicized Congressional probe.

Ollie North's flight to Teheran

The first direct transfer of arms did not occur until May 1986 when National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and Lt.Col. Oliver North secretly delivered arms and equipment to Teheran with a diplomatic note to the Ayatollah Khomeini from President Reagan along with other gifts. Prior to this direct contact, some weapons had been delivered through Israeli surrogates, in an effort to foster goodwill and relations between Iran and Israel. President Reagan was accused of trading arms for hostages, not arms for cash to support the Contras.[13] Only after the Hasenfus shoot-down occurred did the official story become Iranian arms sales supported the Contra War for 7 years, thus covering up the Clinton's involvement.

US changes sides

Rumsfeld arranges weapons sales to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war; the Contra war was exclusively funded by dope smuggling through Bill Clinton's Arkansas political machine at this time.

This same contradiction in the narrative was revisited in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. A much publicized photo from 1982 of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam was circulated, recalling a time when the US sided with Iraq in its war with Iran. Critics of Reagan and Bush swallowed the CIA Iran/Contra cover story hook-line-and-sinker, that after the US quit supporting Saddam in 1985, a few belated arms shipments to Iran in 1986 had funded the entire Contra War from its beginning 1981, and not the Clinton's Arkansas drug running operation which had been ongoing since 1981.

After the US dropped Saddam as a client in 1985, the first transfer occurred covertly on August 20 of the same year when Israel sent 100 TOW missiles to Iran through an arms dealer named Manucher Ghorbanifar. The US agreed in advance to resupply Israel's stockpile, so the sale was indirect. Subsequently, on September 14, 1985, 408 more TOW missiles to use against Saddam's airforce were delivered. Payment by Ghorbanifar was made through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).[14] As part of the deal, Iran supposedly would use their "good offices" to influence terrorist groups holding 7 American hostages. On September 15, 1985, following the second delivery, Reverend Benjamin Weir was released by his captors, the Islamic Jihad Organization.[15] Ultimately two hostages in total were released, but two more were taken, with net gain of zero being released.

Following the delivery of the shoulder launched missiles to Iran, an assistant to Attorney General Ed Meese found a memorandum written by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North documenting diversion of the proceeds of the sale to aid the Contras. When President Ronald Reagan was informed, he met with representatives of both houses of Congress to disclose their findings; he then asked for the appointment of an independent counsel.[16]

Independent counsel investigation

In the opinion of independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who investigated the affair, under the Arms Export Control Act [17] such sales to foreign powers not deemed under the term of the act friendly are illegal.[18] Payments to the Contras from the proceeds of private sales, while not illegal, in the opinion of critics were considered highly unethical. Later such arrangements were made explicitly illegal by the Boland amendment to the Federal Appropriation Bill. The independent counsel's opinion alleged that the Reagan administration set about misleading congressional inquiries and may have withheld some documents. There is also the issue of whether the work that John Poindexter, Oliver North and other Reagan Administration officials performed in organizing and implementing the project violated the Boland Amendment.

The week after the story was blown open by media outlets in the wake of midterm congressional elections after Democrats retook the Senate in November 1986, President Reagan returned to the airwaves to affirm publicly that weapons were transferred to Iran, but he claimed they were not part of an exchange for hostages. In a speech in March 1987, he acknowledged that the arms were in fact exchanged for hostages, saying that "what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages." [19] The Reagan administration cooperated with the investigation, and no wrongdoing was ever proven. Reagan later stated in his autobiography that, "until Ed Meese uncovered North's memorandum, I had not heard a whisper about funds being channeled from the Iranian arms shipments to the Contras, and I would have not approved of it if anyone had suggested it to me....Yes, I believed in helping the Contras; but no one, including the President, is above the law." [20]

Michael Ledeen was an early player in the affair, and eventually arranged for arms sales to Iran though the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar. John Poindexter later resigned, but returned to work under George W. Bush's administration. Oliver North was also a major player in the affair and was called upon to testify before Congress and was questioned for a number of days. His strong answers in the face of Congressional grilling led him to become a type of folk hero at Congress's expense. Caspar Weinberger was indicted, and pardoned by George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush involvement

In addition to the role of future President Clinton, controversy has also focused upon the role of future President George H. W. Bush. The Walsh report noted:

In an early interview with the FBI in December 1986 and in the OIC deposition in January 1988, Bush acknowledged that he was regularly informed of events connected with the Iran arms sales, including the 1985 Israeli missile shipments.2 These statements conflicted with his more extreme public assertions that he was "out of the loop" regarding the operational details of the Iran initiative and was generally unaware of the strong opposition to the arms sales by Secretary of Defense Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. He denied knowledge of the diversion of proceeds from the arms sales to assist the contras.3 He also denied knowledge of the secret contra-resupply operation supervised by North.4[21]

Bush had also failed to produce his private diary in response to the independent counsel's subpeonas.

This also acted as a focal point early into the 1988 Presidential Election, which ironically also ended up humiliating the mainstream media. On January 25, 1988, Then-CBS News Anchor Dan Rather proceeded to do ambush journalism on the then-Republican Presidential Candidate where he, under the pretense of a campaign profile interview, screamed at him about the Iran-Contra affair and that it made America look like a hypocrite to the world in an attempt at publicly embarrassing the candidate. However, Bush did not flinch and instead calmly retorted "It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your whole career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?", referring to an incident Rather was involved in several months beforehand where Rather, irritated at having his newscast held up by a tennis match in Miami, Florida, walked off the set to complain to his bosses about the assignment while the news segment was still ongoing, resulting in six full minutes of a blank screen. It resulted in several journalists, themselves of the left such as 60 Minutes co-host Mike Wallace, ABC's Sam Donaldson, and then Time editor and later Obama official Richard Stengel, condemned Rather for his behavior, with their conceding by a significant margin of 42 percent to 27 percent that Bush won that encounter, and that Rather was considered rude in a similar poll, which stated that 51% considering him rude, and only 38 percent thought otherwise.[22]

On December 24, 1992, Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other government officials accused of Iran-Contra crimes. Following the pardon, then-President Bush refused to be interviewed further about the topic.

In popular culture

Mena has been the subject of several films, notably

Further reading

See also



  1. The Boss Hogg List
  4. ; see also Bill Plante & Michael Singer, Still a Strong Scent on the Mena Trail, Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, 5/3/94.
  5. Timothy Lange, Daily Kos, 27 December 2009, Blast from the Past. Gene Hasenfus: December 1986
  7. Felix Rodriguez, a legendary figure, is known as Che Guevara's assassin. According to 60 Minutes producer Leslie Cockburn, Rodriguez persuaded the Medellin Cartel to contibute $10 million to aid the Contras.
  9. Clinton Turned Blind Eye to Arkansas Contra Connections, High Times, May 1992, p. 21
  10. Barr served at the time as Chief Counsel for the CIA airline Southern Air Transport, later as Attorney General under George HW Bush.
  11. Terry Reed & John Cummings, Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA, Shapolsky Publishers, 1994
  15. luence "Excerpts from the Tower Commission's Report", January 26, 1987.
  16. An American Life, The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan, pg. 530
  17. [1]
  20. An American Life, The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan, pg. 542