Attention is fixed elsewhere, but it is worth taking a moment from clicking 538 to consider that we are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the Iran/Contra scandal. On October 5, 1986, a young Sandinista soldier named José Fernando Canales Alemán fired a SAM-7 surface-to-air missile and brought down a C123K CIA supply plane. Of its crew, only Eugene Hasenfus survived, parachuting into the jungle. “What now, Rambo?” a Sandinista asked him after he was captured a day later. Hasenfus had previously flown CIA missions in Laos and Vietnam, in the CIA’s infamous Air America program. In Nicaragua, he confessed that he was part of a clandestine network that was illegally supplying arms to the Ronald Reagan–supported Contras, flying out of Ilopango, El Salvador, and dropping weapons caches at arranged spots.
Then, a few weeks later, on November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly newspaper, Al Shiraa, was the first to report the other side of the story: that key Reagan administration officials—including Robert McFarlane, then Reagan’s national security adviser, and Vietnam veteran and Charismatic Catholic Col. Oliver North, an NSC staffer—had visited revolutionary Iran and worked out an arms sale with representatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Follow-up reports initially presented the operation as a bid by the White House to open a back channel with Tehran to negotiate the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon. But then it was eventually revealed that the profits from off-the-books arms sales to Iran, which included the participation of Israel, were used to purchase the weapons that Hasenfus and others were passing along to the Contras. Congress, in 1982 and 1984, had prohibited the United States from providing military aid to the Contras, so this was a work-around.
The operation was, a government source told Time, “run out of the West Wing” of the White House by a group of ideologically committed staffers—nearly all, like North, ultramontane right-wing Christians—who called themselves “the Cowboys.” “It was a vest-pocket, high-risk business,” said the source.It soon became clear that the doings of the Cowboys could no longer be kept secret, so Oliver North and his boss, John Poindexter (who had replaced McFarlane as national security adviser), spent a weekend in the bowels of the White House shredding documents and deleting e-mails en masse. When North’s shredder overloaded from the volume, his secretary, Fawn Hall, smuggled documents in her boots to another machine.
Over the course of the next few years, a presidential commission headed by John Tower, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, and multiple House and Senate committees, including one headed by then-Senator John Kerry, revealed various aspects of the conspiracy. Heroic front-line investigative journalists, among them Robert Parry, Peter Kornbluh, Alfonso Chardy, and, later, Gary Webb, uncovered even more details.