What We Can Learn From the Iran/Contra Scandal

What We Can Learn From the Iran/Contra Scandal

What We Can Learn From the Iran/Contra Scandal

Leon Neyfakh, the host of the podcast Fiasco, tells The Nation that you can’t separate the policies from the people.


Leon Neyfakh has a habit of accidentally picking the next hot topic.

Prior to launching the Fiasco podcast, Neyfakh hosted Slow Burn for Slate. In its first season, he dove into the Watergate investigation, and the podcast premiered shortly after the first indictments were made in the Mueller investigation. For the second, he examined Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and finished the episode about Juanita Broaddrick’s rape accusation in the middle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

When Neyfakh began reporting on the Iran/Contra scandal, he didn’t realize that it, too, would play into the news. But as the Fiasco team was finishing the podcast, parallels between Trump’s dealings in Ukraine and the Reagan administration’s dealings with the Contras and Iran began emerging. The White House snubbed Congress’s directions for aid money, and independent contractors were brought in to do what government officials couldn’t.

The second season of Fiasco, in which Neyfakh dives deep into the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages program with Iran and secret aiding of a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua, is available now on Luminary.

—Emily Berch

Emily Berch: What inspired you to delve into the Iran/Contra affair right now?

Leon Neyfakh: We decided to cover Iran/Contra for our second season of Fiasco before we even started working on the first—“we” meaning our executive producer Andrew Parsons; another producer, Madeline Kaplan; and myself. The three of us came over to start Fiasco from Slate, where we had covered the Watergate scandal and Clinton impeachment, and Iran/Contra was another big presidential scandal with a hint of impeachment to it, so it seemed up our alley.

But in a strange way—and this is also what happened with the first two seasons of Slow Burn—the events feel suddenly resonant. That happened with Clinton, too. We found out as the episodes were coming out that people were really primed to reevaluate the Clinton presidency and the impeachment scandal. The Kavanaugh hearings were happening right as we were putting the finishing touches on the final episode of the second season when we talked about Juanita Broaddrick.

And in the same way with Iran/Contra, it turned out that it feels timely. I think none of us could have known that Iran would be in the news the way it has been for the past month or so. Certainly, America’s relationship with Iran feels like an open wound again.

EB: Do you think there are parallels between Iran/Contra and Trump’s scandals today?

LN: With both the Ukraine scandal and Iran/Contra, what you have is a White House conducting foreign policy that is being planned and executed through an irregular channel. In both cases you have the irregular channel staffed by people who don’t work for the government. It makes you think about the porous boundary between the government and contractors, and you see the downsides of farming out foreign policy to people who aren’t accountable to voters.

The other interesting parallel is you have the White House defying Congress with regard to foreign policy. In the case of the Ukraine scandal, Congress had set aside taxpayer money to be provided to our allies in Ukraine. The White House acted in defiance of that appropriation and held it back. In Iran/Contra, you have the inverse: Rather than holding back security assistance, they were providing it in defiance of congressional action.

EB: In the first episode, you ask why a story with so many audacious decisions and lies didn’t leave a bigger impact. Do you think you’ve found the answer?

LN: That was one of the motivating questions when we started our research. I think most people our age couldn’t really tell you what happened. The question was “Why?” People really cared at the time. I think the ratings were even higher for those hearings than they were for Watergate. So how do you go from that level of focus to now, where Iran/Contra doesn’t come up that often, even as a point of reference for the ongoing Iran turbulence?

EB: Do you think the Iran/Contra affair would be having an impact on political discourse today if it were better remembered?

LN: People who are at the center of the storm—like in the White House—can look back and see how the people before them dealt with it. Certainly with the aftermath of the Iran/Contra exposures in 1986, we can see the White House mobilizing in a way that was clearly informed by the Nixon White House’s experience. The main thing is, they knew to protect the president from the sharp end of the allegations. Like with Trump, when we saw Bolton’s manuscript being reported, you saw this argument being made that no one knows firsthand what the president was thinking or intending to do. With Iran/Contra, the question became: Did Reagan know about the diversion of funds?

As Oliver North says in his memoir, the diversion [of funds] was kind of a diversion [from the scandal]. People got so obsessed with the question of whether Reagan knew about it ahead of time, that they forgot that it was problematic either way, both morally and legally. Whatever kind of magic was deployed to make the diversion “the thing” that everyone wanted to know about effectively insulated Reagan. As soon as John Poindexter said, “I did it on my own,” that was the end of any impeachment talk.

EB: With a global scandal like Iran/Contra, there are so many strands to follow. How did you decide which ones to focus on?

There is always the fun part at the beginning where we try to absorb the entire narrative, or as much as we can, in one big gulp of reading books and committee reports and watching documentaries.

It’s a puzzle. You’re putting together what led to the different events, and along the way you’re finding the people who can help you bring it to life. One thing we always try to do is keep a “cast of characters” and keep them localized to their episodes. So in episode one you meet Kevin Kattke [a contractor for Oliver North], and he doesn’t really come back. In episode two you meet Bud McFarlane [Reagan’s national security adviser], who does come back, but that specific episode is really about him. The third episode is about the US involvement in the Contra war, and you meet Edgar Chamorro, who is supposed to be the public face of the Contras, and we track his story. They’re all self-contained episodes. We try to make them so you can listen to them in any order. I think it helps to listen to them in order, but we want to take you on a journey that’s satisfying within the episodes themselves.

EB: You introduce the podcast with the story of Kevin Kattke, who was a maintenance engineer at Macy’s that Oliver North later described as operating like a “rogue CIA agent.” Can you talk more about why you decided to begin there?

LN: The question of whom to open with is always a hard one, but we got lucky this time in that our first candidate for our opener was the one that stuck. The first episode is a preface to Iran/Contra about the US’s invasion of Grenada, because they were worried it was part of a red triangle in Central America with Cuba and Nicaragua. And my first exposure to it was reading this New York magazine story about this guy, Kevin Kattke, who was this Long Island maintenance engineer at a Macy’s, who was just sort of a hobbyist in foreign policy—a real patriot, anti-communist. And the more I started reading about Kevin Kattke’s involvement at the behest of Oliver North in the Grenada invasion, the more we started to see these themes that his story could allow us to introduce.

For example, that Iran/Contra is a distinctly post-Vietnam scandal where I think a lot of the motivations that drove it can be linked back to how people like Oliver North felt about Vietnam and how Reagan himself wanted to turn the page on Vietnam. It also allowed us to introduce Oliver North’s mindset. He had this rather forgotten invasion of Grenada that I think paved the way for people to accept intervention in Nicaragua more readily than they would’ve otherwise, because they thought we did a good job there.

EB: You had a very emotional interview with Reagan’s national security adviser Bud McFarlane in the second episode, when he talks about how he chose which hostages to exchange for weapons. What did you take away from that interaction?

LN: To me, Bud McFarlane is by far the most interesting person in this whole story, because he did something that’s very rare for people that work in politics: He changed his mind. He was apprehensive about the Iran initiative, but he believed in its goals, and he believed that selling weapons was a plausible way to achieve those goals. And when he saw it wasn’t working, he rather desperately and rather urgently tried to put the brakes on it before ultimately quitting the Reagan administration at the end of 1985. By that point, McFarlane was very disillusioned with the Iran initiative and felt like it was horribly risky and premature and unlikely to succeed. He now feels like if he had stayed by the president’s side, he could have tried harder to make sure it didn’t continue.

You can hear in that interview. He takes on so much of the blame. He feels like he failed his country. And I told him it strikes me that there’s a lot of blame to go around. But he feels like he deserves to carry it. I’ll be curious to hear if listeners agree with him or not.

EB: You talk about that at the end of the first episode, the idea of viewing these governmental officials as people rather than making judgments on their work.

LN: We had a big debate about that line and the idea that the government is “just a bunch of people.” We had this debate about whether we were inviting the interpretation that we were trying to say we’re all just trying to do our best. I hope that’s not how people will take it.

We’re trying to say that even though the things these people do are unfathomably consequential, it still starts with whatever a person has, whether it’s their delusions or insecurities. At the end of the day, you can’t really separate these policies from the people who are enacting them, and I think you really see that with Iran/Contra.

EB: So, what are the lessons of Iran/Contra for today?

LN: What makes this hard to answer is there are certain laws of gravity functioning in Iran/Contra that we just don’t have anymore. For example, you can see Republicans and Democrats uniting in trying to forbid the White House from spending money to help the Contras. Congress felt really strongly that they were not to be messed with on matters of appropriations, and the fact that the White House found its way around that really offended people in both parties in Congress. But you look today, and the White House has fully told Congress to go screw itself on subpoenas and document production. You would expect people in that body to have some allegiance to it and stand up for its dignity. Those dynamics were there in Iran/Contra, but they’re not now. The rules are just so different.

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