On This Day

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Doug Mills/AP
Oliver North

On This Day: Iran-Contra Scandal Breaks in Lebanese Newspaper

November 03, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly first published the story of controversial arms sales from the United States to Iran, which was later linked to funding of the Nicaraguan Contras.

Iran-Contra Affair

In late 1986, a political scandal erupted in Washington. Top officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan were exposed for secretly violating American foreign and domestic policy.

U.S. support of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua was revealed to the public after the Nicaraguan Sandinista government shot down a U.S. supply plane on Oct. 5 and captured one of the crewmembers the following day. A month later, on Nov. 3, weekly Lebanese newspaper Al-Shiraa broke the story of U.S. top secret arms sales to Iran.

President Reagan initially denied the allegations, but soon admitted that his administration had made arms deals with Iran to help secure the release of hostages in Lebanon. While investigating the matter, Attorney General Edwin Meese discovered that Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, had funneled $12 million from an arms sale to the Contras.

On Nov. 25, Reagan went on national television to reveal that North, with the blessing of National Security Adviser John Poindexter, had funded the Contras through the Iran arms deal. Reagan said that he had no knowledge of the deal. North and Poindexter both left their positions in the administration.

Reagan formed a commission, headed by former Republican Sen. John Tower, to investigate the matter. The Tower Commission, completed in February, found that Reagan did not know of the deal, though it did criticize him for not being more aware. “Its message was scalding,” wrote Time. “Rarely has a presidential commission so sharply criticized its creator.”

Reagan accepted “full responsibility” for the affair in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on March 4, 1987. “As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge,” he said, “I am still accountable for those activities.”

Reagan emerged largely unscathed by the scandal, however, and exited his second term as president with the highest approval rating since Franklin Roosevelt.

Assessing Blame for the Affair

A joint congressional committee held hearings from May to August 1987, calling North, Poindexter and more than 30 other witnesses to testify. North and Poindexter were later indicted by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh and convicted on charges of obstruction and destroying evidence, but their convictions were later overturned.

Walsh would bring charges against 12 others during his seven-year investigation. In December 1992, his investigation was impaired when outgoing President George H.W. Bush, who had become a target of the investigation for his role in the scandal while serving Reagan’s vice president, pardoned six members of the Reagan administration, most notably Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Reagan’s role in the scandal has yet to be completely explained. The National Security Archive’s Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, authors of “The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History,” wrote in 2006, “From what is now known from documents and testimony … while Reagan may not have known about the diversion or certain other details of the operations being carried out in his name, he directed that both support for the Contras … and the arms-for-hostages deals go forward, and was at least privy to other actions that were no less significant.”

Background: Situation in Nicaragua

Following a policy that sought to push back the spread of communism in Third World countries, President Reagan believed that the communist Sandinista revolutionaries must be removed from power in Nicaragua. In 1981, he secretly supplied the CIA with funds to support the Contras.

When Congress learned of this the following year, it passed laws—specifically the Boland Amendment in 1984—prohibiting U.S. support of the Contras. Unable to directly finance the Contras, the Reagan administration used a third-party source: the funds from the Iran arms sale.

Reference: Iran-Contra Documents


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