WASHINGTON — In newsrooms across the nation, the struggle to coin a name for the mushrooming scandal in Washington goes on. "The Iran Connection" and "the arms deal" were quickly succeeded by "Irangate," "Contragate" and "Olliegate." But none caught on, and more fanciful names are being floated: "Iragua" (a British import), "Teflon Dome" and "Iran-amok." Behind the fruitless search is an obvious but still puzzling question: What is this scandal about?
The somewhat surprising answer is: the contras. Emotionally, the arms deal with Iran seems the center of the scandal. The 1979-81 hostage crisis has made the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a permanent irritant to the U.S. psyche. Ronald Reagan's hypocrisy about "no negotiations with terrorists" compounds the public's dismay. But the fact remains, the Iranian transaction was a sideshow to the secret war in Central America.
In contrast to the improvised Iranian affair, the covert war in Nicaragua was an institutional effort and a high priority in Reagan foreign policy. Not only did it begin earlier than the effort to free the hostages, it involved many more U.S. officials. The idea that Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the former National Security Council official in charge of executing Administration policy, was a "cowboy" who was "out of control" on the contras is increasingly implausible. Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger have written that North drafted a three-page memo, in early 1984, proposing a "private aid" network to fund the Nicaraguan rebels. National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane presented it orally to Reagan, who approved it.
It was not until late 1984 that the White House got into the business of selling guns to Iran. There was no geopolitical design behind it. Reagan's arms deal, it now seems clear, was an ad hoc response to an emergency: the kidnaping of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut. And North always kept one eye on Nicaragua. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III says North diverted from $10 million to $30 million in profits from the arms sales to "the forces in Central America."
Moreover, while the investigation of the Iranian transactions has proceeded quickly, far less is known about the Central American end--and the Administration is less eager to investigate it. Meese has ordered Justice Department investigators to look into North's diversion of the arms sale profits--but none of his other Central American activities. Meese has also slowed the Justice probe into a contra gun-smuggling operation in Fort Lauderdale in March, 1985.
As North carried out the Administration's policy, he was assisted by dozens of government officials. If Reagan and his aides now seem reluctant to come clean, it may be because they have some idea just how shady the execution of that policy was and how many people are implicated.
North proceeded on three fronts: psychological, political and military.
Psychological operations are reportedly among North's favorites--"psy-ops" in the lingo of Beltway strategists. The point is to disrupt the enemy's thinking, goading him into miscalculation.
A classic example was the effort to rattle the Sandinistas right after Reagan's reelection, in November, 1984, by having U.S. jets set off sonic booms over Nicaragua. Administration sources say the sonic booms were North's idea.
A more intricate and widely coordinated "psy-op" seems to have been the 1984 cocaine smuggling sting that snared a Nicaraguan named Federico Vaughn, described by the Reagan Administration as a ranking Sandinista official. Vaughn's arrest meshed nicely with Reagan policy. In a televised speech last March, the President showed pictures of the transaction and declared that "top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking." Nicaragua denied the accusation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration said it had no evidence to substantiate Reagan's charge.
The sting operation has North's fingerprints all over it. A DEA informant and pilot named Adler (Barry) Seal set up a cocaine shipment from Colombia to the United States, using Nicaragua as a transfer point. Like North, Seal was experienced in covert operations, having served in the U.S. Army's Special Operations forces in Vietnam. Moreover, the plane Seal was flying was the same plane shot down in Nicaragua on Oct. 5, carrying Eugene Hasenfus and two other Americans. Phone records of the San Salvador house where Hasenfus's superiors lived show frequent phone calls to North's White House office. Is it sheer coincidence that the same plane was used in both operations?