WASHINGTON — The actions of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and other officials who led American foreign policy into the disaster of the Iran-Contra affair were a reflection of one of President Reagan's most deeply held and often-expressed convictions--that government is part of the problem, not the solution.
That assessment lay at the heart of the massive report released Wednesday by the two congressional committees after their 10-month review of the Iran-Contra affair. At bottom, the report found, it was the President's own disdain for government and its established procedures--the anti-Washington attitude around which he built his campaign for the White House seven years ago--that fostered the climate in which the affair flourished.
"It became almost a theology for these people that government was muscle-bound, and that for America to be great again, you have to turn to these unorthodox, out-of-government operations," Arthur L. Liman, chief counsel to the Senate Iran-Contra panel, said in an interview.
North, the National Security Council aide who has come to personify the affair, put the prevailing attitude inside the White House succinctly in a December, 1985, message about his new boss, Poindexter.
"My part in this was easy compared to his," North wrote. "I only had to deal with our enemies (inside Iran). He has to deal with the Cabinet."
The committees' report noted that the presidential oath of office prescribed in the Constitution requires that the Chief Executive shall "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." The report then observed: "If the 'take care' clause has any vitality, it invests in a President the responsibility for cultivating a respect for the Constitution and the law by his staff and closest advisers."
In the Iran-Contra affair, the panels concluded, that respect was absent.
Instead, the report charged, a curious "cabal of zealots" carried the President's mistrust of government and preference for private action to the point of creating a secret network, outside the government and answerable to no one, to carry out policies that either had not or could not have been approved within the normal framework of American government.
The Cabinet--the President's top advisers, some of whom protested the Iran arms sales and were then excluded from knowing about them--was as much an enemy as the Iranians, the committees' report suggested. So was the Congress, which was not told of the Iranian arms sales and had already prohibited most U.S. military aid to Nicaragua rebels when the affair unfolded.
In the committees' view, North was but one of "a small group of senior officials (who) believed that they alone knew what was right."
North's commitment to the Reagan view of government had been reinforced by his experience in the American military debacle of Vietnam, as were those of his first White House boss, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane.
Similarly, retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, North's private operative, was a cynical veteran of the Pentagon's bumbling Desert One effort to rescue U.S. hostages from Tehran during the Carter Administration, as were two of his deputies in the affair, Richard B. Gadd and Robert C. Dutton.
Albert A. Hakim, Secord's financial partner, watched a handful of fanatics overwhelm an Iranian shah in whom the United States had invested billions of dollars worth of weapons and cash. Told this summer that he had usurped the powers of a secretary of state by negotiating U.S. foreign policy with the Iranians, Hakim shot back: "I still believe that I have it better than the secretary. . . . I can achieve more, too."
Felix Rodriguez and Rafael Quintero, low-level operatives in the Contra resupply network, lived through the CIA's Bay of Pigs disaster.
By many accounts, William J. Casey, former CIA director and North's apparent godfather, believed the intelligence community was hobbled by post-Watergate legal restrictions that would have been laughable in his days as a World War II spy.
Like their President, Liman said last week, all of these participants in the Iran-Contra affair shared a disdain for what they saw as the lethargy and clumsiness of normal government procedures--disdain rooted in their own unhappy experiences of past years.
In those experiences they saw "the inability of the Pentagon, of established government, to deliver, and so you saw this kind of allusion to Desert One in a number of people," Liman said. " 'Secord can do what the Pentagon can't do, what the CIA can't do. . . .'
'Didn't Agree With Laws'
"Here we had people who acknowledged that they did these things and said that they were justified in doing them because they didn't agree with the laws."
That an Administration which billed itself as the bulwark of democracy would hide its most controversial actions from Congress and the public is ironic indeed, Liman said.