The George W. Bush presidency has been one long rehab session for the Iran-contra scoundrels of the Reagan-Bush administration. Many infamous veterans of the foreign policy connivance of the Reagan days have found a home in Bush II. Elliott Abrams–who pleaded guilty to misleading Congress regarding the Reagan administration’s secret support of the contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua–was hired as a staff member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council and placed in charge of democracy promotion. Retired Admiral John Poindexter–who was Reagan’s national security adviser, who supervised Oliver North during the Iran-contra days, and who was convicted of several Iran-contra crimes before the convictions were overturned on a legal technicality–was retained by the Pentagon to search for terrorists using computerized Big Brother technology. John Negroponte–who as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s was the on-the-ground overseer of pro-contra operations there–was recruited by Bush to be UN ambassador, then ambassador to Iraq, and, most recently, the first director of national intelligence. Otto Reich–who mounted an arguably illegal pro-contra propaganda effort when he was a Reagan official–was appointed by Bush to be in charge of Latin American policy at the State Department. Now comes the news that another Iran-contra alum–a fellow who failed a polygraph test during the Iran-contra investigation–is playing a critical role in Bush’s war in terrorism.
James Steele was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine story as a top adviser to Iraq’s “most fearsome counterinsurgency force,” an outfit called the Special Police Commandos that numbers about 5000 troops. The article, by Peter Maass, noted that Steele “honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war in the 1980s.” And, as Maass reminded his readers, that civil war resulted in the deaths of 70,000 people, mostly civilians, and “[m]ost of the killing and torturing was done by the army and right-wing death squads affiliated with it.” The army that did all that killing in El Salvador was supported by the United States and US military officials such as Steele, who was head of the US military assistance group in El Salvador for two years in the mid-1980s. (A 1993 UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the US-backed El Salvador military and its death-squad allies.)
Maass reported that the Special Forces advisers in El Salvador led by Steele “trained front-line battalions that were accused of significant human rights abuses.” But he neglected to mention that Steele ran afoul of the Iran-contra investigators for not being honest about his role in the covert and illegal contra-support operation.
After the Iran-contra story broke in 1986, Steele was questioned by Iran-contra investigators, who had good reason to seek information from him. The secret contra-supply network managed by Oliver North had flown weapons and supplies to the contras out of Illopongo Air Base in El Salvador. Steele claimed that he had observed the North network in action but that he had never assisted it. The evidence didn’t support this assertion. For one, North had given Steele a special coding device that allowed encrypted communications to be sent securely over telephone lines. Why did Steele need this device if he had nothing to do with the operation? And for a time Steele passed this device to Felix Rodriguez, one of North’s key operatives in El Salvador. Furthermore, Congressional investigators discovered evidence indicating that aviation fuel given to El Salvador under a US military aid program that Steele supervised was illegally sold to the North network. (The Reagan administration refused to respond to congressional inquiries about this oil deal.) And according to the accounts of others, Steele had made sure that the North network’s planes, used to ferry weapons to the contras, could come and go from Illopongo.
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When questioned by the Iran-contra independent counsel, Steele maintained that he had limited his actions to providing humanitarian assistance to the contras–an act that would not have violated the prohibition passed by Congress on supplying the contras with weapons. But, as independent counsel Lawrence Walsh later pointed out in his book, Firewall, a lie-detector examination indicated Steel “was not being truthful.” Steele’s name had also turned up in the private notebooks in which North kept track of his various Iran-contra operations. As Walsh wrote, “Confronted with the results of the lie-detector test and North’s notebook, Steele admitted not only his participation in the [clandestine] arms deliveries [to the contras] but also his early discussions of these activities with Donald Gregg [the national security adviser to Vice President George Bush] and the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin G. Corr.”
Walsh’s description suggested that Steele tried to lie his way past investigators as part of a larger cover-up. At the time of the scandal, a significant question was how much Donald Gregg knew about the operation in El Salvador, for Gregg’s connection to the secret, law-skirting contra-support network implicated Vice President Bush, who was running for president and claiming he had been out of the loop on the Iran-contra affair. (George H.W. Bush’s own diaries–which he withheld for several years and did not release until after he had lost his 1992 bid for reelection as president–prove that despite his claim of ignorance he knew about the Iran-contra affair before it became public.) Steele had played the good soldier–that is, he did not tell the truth and kept his mouth shut as long as he could.
Steele escaped indictment and his flunking of the polygraph exam was not revealed until Walsh’s book came out in 1997. But he did have to pay for his participation in the North’s contra scheme. In 1988, the Pentagon sent to the Senate a list of 50 Army colonels who were up for promotion to brigadier general. An a list of proposed promotions to full colonel submitted at the same time included Lt. Colonel Robert Earl, a North deputy who assisted the contra supply effort and participated in the destruction of records after the Iran-contra scandal exploded. Usually such promotions fly though the Senate with no debate. But aides working for Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, noticed Steele’s and Earl’s names on these lists, and Harkin blocked these two promotions. “There is no way any of these people is going to get a promotion” without a congressional inquiry, Harkin told The Washington Post. The Army claimed that it had found that Steele had committed nothing wrong. Obviously, it had not looked hard enough, for, as Walsh later determined, Steele had not told the truth.
But misleading congressional and independent investigators didn’t fully derail Steele’s career. He is once more advising a military unit with a questionable human rights record. Let’s hope that if his actions this time around become of interest to government investigators he is truthful when they come knocking.
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