The Bush Administration is turning into one big rehab center for the Iran/contra schemers of the Reagan/Bush White House. The latest case involves retired Adm. John Poindexter, who’s been hired by the Pentagon to head a new agency, the Information Awareness Office. Created after September 11 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it is developing high-tech systems to provide government officials immediate access to new surveillance and information-analysis systems. Its focus, of course, includes terrorist groups.
Poindexter certainly has extensive experience dealing with terrorists. As Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser, he was a key mover in the Iran/contra scandal of the 1980s, when the Reagan White House tried to pull off a secret arms-for-hostages deal with the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran. Poindexter also was one of the few Reagan officials who, according to the available evidence, knew that proceeds from the arguably illicit arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. He later testified that he had deliberately withheld information from Reagan on the diversion because “I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected.”
After the arms-for-hostages deal became public in late 1986, Poindexter “repeatedly laid out a false version” in order to distance Reagan from the most questionable weapons transactions, according to Iran/contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Poindexter, with his aide Oliver North, also attempted to shred and destroy records regarding their Iran/contra activities.
Poindexter was tried and convicted of five felonies, including obstructing official inquiries and lying to Congress. He was sentenced to six months in prison. But he walked. In a two-to-one decision in 1991, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned Poindexter’s convictions on the ground that his trial had been tainted by his immunized Congressional testimony. (North, convicted of three counts, avoided jail for the same reason.) This was escape, not vindication. Since leaving government service, Poindexter, a physicist by training, has been active as a military technology consultant. But the record remains: Poindexter admitted withholding information from his boss, he destroyed government documents and he misled official investigators. Does that sound like someone to entrust with a new government agency?
No problemo for the Bushies. They have happily provided homes to other Iran/contra reprobates. Elliott Abrams, who as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan years supervised contra policy, pleaded guilty to two charges of withholding information from Congress. Today, the fellow who downplayed reports of military massacres in Central America works for the National Security Council, overseeing human rights and democracy issues. (Abrams was pardoned by Bush I.)
Otto Reich ran a State Department office during the Iran/contra affair that “engaged in prohibited covert propaganda,” according to a government inquiry. Now he has Abrams’s old job at State. John Negroponte was US Ambassador to Honduras and facilitated a clandestine quid pro quo deal, under which the Reagan Administration sent aid to Honduras in return for Honduran assistance to the contras, at a time when Congress had banned the Administration from assisting the contras. Negroponte’s embassy also suppressed information about human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military. Negroponte is currently our UN ambassador.
Perhaps the most significant Iran/contra rehabilitation concerns the President’s father: “41” was an Iran/contra ringleader who lied about his role. After the scandal broke, Bush claimed he had not been “in the loop.” But according to documents later released, he had attended high-level meetings on the Iran initiative and had participated in the Administration’s quid pro quo with Honduras. It was only after Bush I was bounced out of office that his personal diary notes–long sought by investigators–became available. His entry for November 5, 1986 (two days after the Iran initiative was revealed by a Lebanese weekly), reads, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details…. This is one operation that has been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak.” That boastful note wins Bush the Elder a top spot in the roster of Iran/contra prevaricators. Yet he went on to become a rather important adviser to a high-ranking member of the present Administration.
There has been one exception to the all-is-forgiven rule at the Bush II White House. In October, Duane Clarridge, a CIA official involved in the scandal who was indicted for lying to Congress, was set to become an assistant in the NSC’s counterterrorism office. But then the White House yanked the welcome mat. In speaking to one reporter, a disappointed Clarridge cited Abrams, noting that, unlike Abrams, he had not pleaded guilty. (Clarridge was pardoned by Daddy Bush before his case could be tried.) Poor guy, he does have a point. Why embrace Abrams–and Poindexter, Reich and Negroponte–but not Clarridge? Was secretly mining Nicaragua’s harbor, a Clarridge initiative that earned a World Court ruling against the United States, worse than shredding, or lying to Congress, or covering up human rights abuses?
So is there anyone left to be rehabilitated? Oliver North has a good gig at Fox News, where he shares his expert opinions on how to deal with terrorists. (Sell them missiles and bring them a nice cake?) Richard Secord, the wheeling-dealing general-turned-arms-merchant who managed North’s secret contra supply operation, may well be seeking business opportunities arising from the war on terrorism. Perhaps retired Gen. John Singlaub could be assigned a mission. Recently, at a conference of conservatives I bumped into Singlaub, who ran the World Anti-Communist League in the 1980s and plotted with North to raise money covertly for the contras from foreign countries. Are you active these days? I asked. “Yes,” he said, adding no more. Same sort of stuff as always? “Yes,” he replied and shifted his feet. Like what? I asked. He stalked off. The man can still keep a secret–sign him up. By the way, Robert McFarlane, Poindexter’s predecessor as National Security Adviser and a co-author of the Iran deal and the contra policy, re-emerged in October as an adviser to an anti-Taliban Afghan fighter who was ambushed and killed during a botched operation. Maybe there’s a spot available for him. When it comes to personnel, Iran/contra is no stigma for the Bush clan. In most instances, it seems to be a mark of honor.