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.
Ten miles from the Alamo, where the Texas Hill Country stretches out flat for its eastward run to the Gulf of Mexico, warehouses with cream-colored stucco walls and maroon Spanish-style roofs line the single operational runway at Kelly Air Force Base. The architecture is 1930s neo-Spanish, but the warehouses are filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the American arsenal; and the cargo jets that lumber down Kelly's runway deliver the weapons to the far corners of the world.
It was here, within a month after National Security Adviser John Poindexter locked the President's secret directive into his safe, that the first direct shipment of missiles for Iran was assembled on pallets, then loaded--90 tons in all--aboard a pair of aging Boeing 707s. The well-traveled planes belonged to Southern Air Transport, a firm long accustomed to undertaking missions with no questions asked.
Southern Air Transport, based in Miami, was the property of the CIA until 1973, when its role as an arm of intelligence operations became so broadly known that the spy agency moved to sell it. More than a decade later, the company still had close ties to the agency. So it was that when the CIA got the assignment to deliver arms to the Iranians, it called upon Southern Air Transport. Secrecy was essential, and Southern Air could deliver--both the freight and the secrecy.
At the same time, Southern Air had begun playing a major role in Oliver North's effort to supply the contras in Nicaragua. After Congress banned military aid to the contras in 1984, North began speaking to and consulting with groups viewed as potential supporters of the contra cause. He also flew down to contra camps in southern Honduras to give the rebels assurances about the aid he was helping to organize.
"I've got a commitment to those guys," North's colleagues said he vowed to them after he returned to Washington. "I told them I'd come through for them."
The aid did come, but there was never enough. Honduras secretly provided help, but its government was strapped for funds and worried that greater involvement could make its territory a battleground for opposing forces in another country's civil war. "We don't want to become the Lebanon of Central America," one Honduran army officer said.
El Salvador and other Central American countries also helped, but spottily.
By late 1984, Singlaub, the retired American major general, was actively soliciting funds among conservatives not only in the United States but also in other countries. Even Singlaub's efforts met limited success. "Most of the people I talk to either believe that the United States government is funding the freedom fighters in some covert fashion or soon will be," he complained with apparently unintended irony during a later interview. "It's hard to convince people that when Congress cut off the funding, the support really stopped."
The other problem facing the contras was getting their supplies into the battle zones. They began sending small "task forces" deeper and deeper into central Nicaragua to resupply their troops, but their officers said it sometimes took three weeks to carry the materiel on foot and by burro.
To help solve that problem, North introduced contra leaders to Richard Secord, 54, a retired Air Force major general.
During his tours in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and a stint as chief adviser to the Shah's air force in Tehran in the 1970s, Secord had become a specialist in covert operations, a man with a wealth of military and intelligence contacts whose methods were coolly efficient. In particular, he built a reputation as the best clandestine airlift organizer in the United States, perhaps in the world.
Secord would become deeply involved in the contra effort and, later, in the mechanics of the Iranian arms- contra cash arrangement.
To carry out the covert contra supply operation, Secord and others tapped a fraternity of pilots and other operatives with ties to the CIA: men such as Bill Cooper, who had been chief pilot for a now-extinct CIA cargo airline that flew supplies into Laos during the Vietnam War; Buzz Sawyer, an Air Force Academy graduate who left the military in 1974 to become a contract pilot flying arms into Angola, Afghanistan and other hot spots, and Gene Hasenfus, a husky ex-Marine who had worked for the same CIA airline in Southeast Asia and who had honed a dangerous and back-straining specialty. He was a "cargo kicker," the crewman who packs the parachutes and arranges cargo in proper order, then pushes it out the back of the plane at the right time for a precise drop.