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Iran-Contra: The Public Lessons of Covert Actions

March 20, 1988|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA."

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The indictments of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and two colleagues in the Iran-Contra affair last week proves there are some things a U.S. President still can't do: One is to fight a secret war without the support of the people and the consent of the Congress; another is to call off the investigators when they begin to prowl the White House grounds. The special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, insists the investigation isn't over--in other words, future indictments could edge closer to the Oval Office, or reach out to the Central Intelligence Agency, or both.

The big surprise in these indictments is that they were issued at all: No other government in the world seems to share our capacity--and willingness--to start the grinding mills of the law when a President embarks on a secret adventure in the name of national security, one that the people in Congress assembled have forbidden.

There is a money angle to the crimes charged against the four--North, Poindexter, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord and his business partner, Albert A. Hakim. All are accused of fraud--selling U.S. military equipment to Iran for roughly $30 million and then divvying up as much as $18 million in profits as they saw fit. Just where the money went is still unknown. But it seems pretty clear that the two chief defendants, North and Poindexter, weren't in it for the money--at least not personally.

The problem was a congressional ban on funding the Contras. The solution dreamed up--by whom is still in question--was a black-market gunrunning operation using medium-tech weapons looted from U.S. arsenals by bookkeepers' slight of hand. Whether these operations to support the President's policy constitute crimes, and whether the defendants were legally guilty of carrying them out, is still to be determined in court. Lawyers say the case is perfectly designed for the law's delay, and the whole process from trial through appeal will take the legal equivalent of forever. The affair, already about 16 months old, will be with us for a long time to come.

Can the legal fate of North and company still stir the curiosity of what George Orwell used to call "the big public"? Probably not. Keeping track of the details is like trying to memorize a baseball encyclopedia--a kind of dementia as harmless as it is rare. During his congressional testimony last summer, North seemed to convince the public that he was a little gung-ho maybe, but a good guy. Any obvious attempt to railroad him into prison as a fall guy might have prompted a general outcry. But that was last summer. A band of prosecutors that take 14 months to clear their throats is hardly a lynch mob. My guess is that North convicted would look like a guy who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar as the lights went on--even if he was only passing out cookies to his buddies in the fight for freedom.

But the Iran-Contra affair qualifies as a genuinely big deal even if the public has quit hearing everything but the bass drum in the rhythm section. For one thing, the bass drummer may be warming up for a few mighty bars. There are many unanswered questions about the roles played by President Reagan and Vice President George Bush, who have had only the nicest things to say about the heroism, patriotism and self-sacrifice--underline "self-sacrifice"--of North and Poindexter. Other high officials, including former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and Atty. Gen. Edward Meese III, have been mentioned as possible defendants. The late William J. Casey may yet appear as an unindicted co-conspirator, and some of his colleagues at the CIA also have an educated cause for concern.

However the case turns out, it has already made its mark on the history of the Constitution and the presidency. It is scrawled all over the history of the Reagan Administration. Ronald Reagan's war against the Sandinistas dates back to his first year in office, but the bitterest struggle was not in the Nicaraguan boondocks. It was the fight between a President convinced it mattered a great deal whether Nicaragua was run by a government that Moscow could count on in a U.N. vote, and a Congress convinced the folks back home had quit worrying, even caring, who ran those parts of the world where it isn't safe to drink the water.

Reagan says he didn't know about the illegal parts of the operations by his assistants and the skeptics have so far failed to prove he did. But it's pretty clear no historian will make sense of Reagan's Administration without considering his Central America policy, and the various schemes included in the Iran-Contra affair, as part of a seamless whole. There is no way Reagan can "escape" the episode; it's the mighty Matterhorn in his corner of the Alps.

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