WASHINGTON — Nov. 19, 1984. The day's news was sensational: a natural gas explosion that killed more than 250 in a Mexico City shanty town; a meeting between Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi and terrorist Abu Nidal; the bombing of an abortion clinic in Washington.
Nobody noticed what happened in Hamburg, West Germany. It was there that two retired spies--one American, one Iranian, chatted fatefully about American hostages in Lebanon.
Forty-two months later, no one yet knows with assurance whether that actually was when and how the Iran- contra affair began. The scandal has grown as sprawling as any in U.S. political history. To most, it is even more confusing.
Today, Congress and the public will begin a summer-long effort to unravel the Administration's secret military aid programs to Iran and to contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Scandal's Strands Converge
But Nov. 19, 1984, is as good a place as any to start tracing the threads. The scandal's strands--terrorism, Middle East politics, Central American revolution--converged then. So did many of the government officials and businessmen later identified as key figures in the affair.
--Oliver L. North, the counterterrorism expert at the White House National Security Council, was embarking on an important new task. Congress had banned further U.S. aid to the contras, and North was charged by his boss, Robert C. McFarlane, with keeping the contra army alive until U.S. aid could be restored.
North "was the focal point for the Administration on Central American policy during that time frame," a top CIA official told the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) last winter.
--McFarlane, as President Reagan's national security adviser, had another headache. That summer, he had asked the CIA for a hard look at the internal political situation in Iran, deemed a strategic nation because of its size, wealth and location between the Soviet Union and Middle East oil fields.
In October, the agency returned a bleak prognosis: When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, a Marxist government would probably assume power in Iran. The United States appeared powerless to influence political events there.
--The previous March, William F. Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, had been kidnaped by pro-Iranian terrorists. The agency was frantic to retrieve him.
Buckley's capture began tightening the political and emotional screws on Reagan. Cable News Network reporter Jeremy Levin had been kidnaped in Beirut days before, and six more Americans would be taken hostage by the following June.
Into that cast of players stepped a catalyst on that Nov. 19.
He was Manucher Ghorbanifar, once an official of SAVAK, the secret police of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and now an arms broker and deal-maker passing through Hamburg. He was introduced to ex-CIA officer Theodore Shackley, a consultant and friend of NSC and Pentagon officials who would later surface in the Iran affair.
Shackley later told the White House that Ghorbanifar had "fantastic" contacts inside Khomeini's Iran. He said that Ghorbanifar might be able to free hostages held by pro-Khomeini forces and help repair relations with the regime or its successor. The State Department, told of the news, played down Ghorbanifar's usefulness; the CIA called him unreliable.
But for much of the next two years, the unreliable Iranian would be the sole channel for U.S. overtures to the ayatollah. Ultimately, he would also be a key to the apparent diversion of millions in Iranian weapons payments to the contras.
His closest counterpart in the United States was North.
From wherever his White House approval came, the charismatic marine, armed with a dual mandate to battle terrorists and Central American communists, was increasingly valuable. At the end, he would be indispensable. Not even John M. Poindexter, who succeeded McFarlane as national security adviser in December, 1985, could follow instinct and dismiss him.
Contra Pipeline Threatened
Congress' October, 1984, ban on U.S. aid to the contras threatened to wipe out a CIA-controlled supply pipeline for the contras that had been in operation since December, 1981. But there was disagreement over whether the ban, which covered U.S. agencies involved in defense or intelligence, covered the NSC, a part of the White House.
The NSC's North is reported to have drafted a plan in the spring of 1984 to fund the rebel army privately. Whether the plan was ever implemented, a private network began to emerge that summer, run by ex-CIA and Pentagon officers, some with links to North.