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The Good, The bad, and The Ugly : When U. S. Foreign Policy Becomes Covert

July 12, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

"I came here to tell the truth," Lt. Col. Oliver L. North told the congressional committee investigating the Iran- contra affair last week, "the good, the bad and the ugly." He did just that.

Bad? "I participated," North told the committee, "in the preparation of documents to the Congress that were erroneous, misleading, evasive and wrong."

Ugly? "I did probably the grossest misjudgment that I've made in my life," North said, admitting he falsified documents to cover the illegal gift of a home security system.

Good? Well, when asked if he was the person identified as "Mr. Good" in a coded message, North said, "I was very good."

He was, indeed, a very good operative and a very good witness. What North did was offer a compelling justification for a covert operation. "This is a dangerous world . . . and (the American people) ought not to be led to believe, as a consequence of these hearings, that this nation cannot or should not conduct covert operations." There was one big flaw in North's argument, however. The National Security Council was not conducting a covert operation; it was conducting a covert foreign policy.

There is a difference. A covert operation is an action taken to further an agreed-upon foreign-policy goal. The interception of Arab terrorists escaping from the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking was a covert operation, as was the retaliatory 1986 air strike on Libya. A covert foreign policy, on the other hand, pursues secret objectives. Why should the Reagan Administration pursue a secret foreign policy? Because it couldn't get political support for policies it wanted to pursue.

If the Congress or the American public knew that we were trading arms for hostages--thereby violating our explicit commitment never to negotiate with terrorists--there would have been a political explosion. As for sending military aid to the contras , Congress, with demonstrable public support, had placed severe restrictions on such a policy. The NSC was not "executing" U. S. foreign policy. It was making U. S. foreign policy--and hiding that policy from the Congress, the American public and the world.

"By their very nature, covert or special activities are a lie," North told the committee. And so North helped prepare a false chronology of the government's involvement in arms sales to Iran, thereby, as House committee counsel John W. Nields Jr. put it, "committing the President of the United States to a false story." ("Yes, that's true," North replied.) He helped promulgate the false story that the U. S. government had no connection to the cargo plane piloted by Eugene Hasenfus shot down last fall over Nicaragua. He shredded official documents, including a ledger containing the record of financial transactions to resupply the contras. He helped Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey prepare false testimony to Congress.

All that notwithstanding, North insisted to the committee, "I sincerely believe that I did everything within the law."

North advocated diverting profits from the Iranian arms deal to the contras, a policy that Reagan said raised "serious questions of propriety" when it was revealed last November--and for which he fired North. Last week, however, an unrepentant North said, "I saw that idea of using the Ayatollah Khomeini's money to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters as a good one. I still do."

At one point North explained, "I want to go back to the whole intent of a covert operation. Part of a covert operation is to offer plausible deniability of the association of the government of the United States with the activity. Part of it is to deceive our adversaries. Part of it is to ensure that those people who are at great peril carrying out those activities are not further endangered. All of those are good and sufficient reasons" to do what he did.

Those are indeed good and sufficient reasons for a covert operation. But in this case, it was the objectives and not just the operations that were being kept secret. North claimed that the Iranian arms deal had to be kept secret to save lives. "I put great value on the lives of the American hostages," he explained. "We got three Americans back." The assumption is that the goal--trading arms for hostages--was obvious and unexceptionable. Yet the President himself refused to admit he was carrying out such a policy until he was forced to do so by the Tower Commission report.

North explained that the diversion of funds "was carried out covertly" to ensure that "the United States was going to meet the commitments of the President's foreign policy . . . that our support for the Nicaraguan freedom fighters was going to continue." That might have been the President's foreign policy, but it was not the foreign policy of Congress or, according to the polls, the U. S. public. That's why it had to be kept secret.

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