After six years of magic, President Reagan broke the spell. By deceiving the nation, he and those around him badly damaged his presidency. This traumatic tale is still unfolding, with no end in sight. This is how it developed.
The office that McFarlane vacated--national security adviser to the President--is on the northwest corner of the West Wing of the White House. Henry Kissinger, when he held the job, had turned this office into the power center of American foreign policy.
Like Kissinger, McFarlane's successor, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, was bright. He had graduated first in his class from the Naval Academy and been brigade commander, a double distinction that had not been earned at a service academy since Douglas A. MacArthur graduated from West Point in 1903.
But there were huge differences between Poindexter and Kissinger. The former Harvard professor was a recognized authority on foreign affairs long before he entered the White House; Poindexter was virtually unknown outside the Navy. Kissinger had a large ego; Poindexter was so soft-spoken and self-effacing that one White House colleague said he stood out "like a white goose in a snowstorm."
In fact, with his bald head, round face and glasses, the admiral looked more like an owl.
Although Poindexter was hardly of Kissinger's stature, he was nonetheless a man who appreciated power and liked to use it. He had no objection to the National Security Council's new, operational role. In fact, he liked operational details. Most particularly, he wanted to continue the arms shipments to Iran.
Like the Israelis, the CIA had grown edgy about those shipments. Sources said John N. McMahon, the agency's deputy director, later told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was distressed when he found out the CIA--unbeknownst to almost everyone in the government--had approved of and even helped with the November shipment of obsolete Hawk missiles from Israel.
That shipment, McMahon knew, came close to violating Congress' ban--laid down after Watergate--on CIA participation in foreign covert missions without a written finding from the President that the operation is in the national interest. Just as bad, he knew, Congress had not been informed of the CIA's aid in Lisbon, as the same law seemed to require.
And McMahon knew what could happen to the CIA when it stepped outside legal bounds. Unlike Casey, who had been an intelligence officer in World War II when there were few rules and even less accountability, McMahon had come to power in the CIA after Watergate.
No longer, McMahon had snapped, would the CIA help with the shipment of any embargoed armaments to Iran without a presidential finding. In writing, McMahon said.
So Stanley Sporkin, then CIA general counsel and now a federal judge, wrote the first draft of such a document. It said, according to government sources, that the President found it to be in the national interest for this country to provide arms to Iran as part of an effort to help moderates in the Iranian government, reduce hostility between the two nations and change Iran's policy of sponsoring terrorism.
Those were not the only reasons. During that winter, the families of the American hostages in Lebanon had exerted continuous pressure on the White House. Reagan, one presidential adviser said, had become "terribly, terribly concerned about the welfare of the hostages." It seemed as though the President brought up the plight of the hostages almost every day.
According to some accounts, Sporkin's draft also contained a provision that the arms sales be kept strictly secret from Congress. The law, members of Congress subsequently insisted, required either that Reagan inform key congressmen in advance or that he at least notify Congress in a "timely fashion" after the fact. At the White House, Sporkin's draft was rewritten to specify that Congress should be told in advance. Sporkin, by one account, then wrote a third draft giving the President the choice of whether to inform Congress.
Even as McFarlane was leaving the government in the belief that arms sales to Iran were finished, the President and his top advisers had met Dec. 6 to discuss whether to proceed. Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger registered their objections to any arms shipments to Iran for any reason whatsoever. Others, reportedly including CIA Director Casey and some members of the National Security Council staff, weighed in on the other side.
The President listened. He knew of the earlier National Security Council and CIA papers that had raised the possibility of opening a dialogue with the Iranian "moderates." He considered the hostages and their families. But he did not decide.
A second Cabinet-level meeting was convened Jan. 7. Again Shultz and Weinberger objected. By his own account, Chief of Staff Regan did not promote the arms shipments, although he would tell reporters later, "I did agree to this idea."