Rules of the Game: The Iran-Contra Scandal
Everyone who saw the movie Hoosiers fell in love with the true grit and square-jawed earnestness of the kids on the small-town basketball team that goes all the way to the state championship. Now we can watch the real thing on television – Lee Hamilton, the painfully earnest Democratic congressman from Indiana. He is the chairman of the House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, which is now holding hearings with its Senate counterpart on the Iran-contra scandal.
In 1948, Hamilton was a six-three star on the Evansville Central Bears when the team almost walked away with the Indiana state high-school basketball championship. In the last seconds of the Bears’ victory in the afternoon semifinal game, Hamilton tore the cartilage in one of his knees. He then spent three hours on a table in the locker room while a doctor tried to manipulate the cartilage back into place. “Without an anesthetic, I might say,” Hamilton says. “I remember the pain very vividly.”
That night Hamilton tried to play in the final game, but his knee gave out after a few minutes. The Bears lost, 54-42, but Hamilton’s selflessness did not go unrewarded. He was voted the outstanding player of the tournament.
The straightforward virtues of that Hoosier boyhood still describe Hamilton – hard working, honest, fair. The cliché that sports is a molder of men happens in this case to be true. “I grew up thinking, eating, sleeping basketball and neglecting a lot of other things,” Hamilton says. “I had the advantage of very good coaches and teachers who instilled, I hope, a sense of sportsmanship and fair play in me.”
Lee Hamilton is a team player, which is a big part of why until now nobody outside of Washington and the Ninth District in southern Indiana has ever heard of him. During twenty-two years in Congress he has always been an old-fashioned inside man who plods through the detail work and shuns the press gallery. Besides, how many reporters want to do a story about a politician who sounds like a man quoting from a high-school civics textbook? Ask Hamilton for scandalous tidbits on the CIA, and he delivers sober homilies on the importance of democracy and the role of Congress under the Constitution.
“It just seems to me that the essence of democracy is process,” Hamilton says. “I mean that you do your business in keeping with the views of the majority but with due respect for the opinions of the minority. And I believe that how you reach a result is as important as the result you reach. That’s what this country’s about. Democracy is not a result; it’s a process. And I think it is incumbent on us as American citizens to get into our bones the requirements that this process places upon us.”
Hamilton has been making this speech for more than fifteen years, ever since Vietnam, when Congress allowed two presidents to wage war without real accountability, much less a formal declaration of war. “I came out of the Vietnam period with a sense that Congress had failed in foreign policy,” he says. “I was here in the Sixties, and I remember over and over again the testimony [on Vietnam] of Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, of Presidents Johnson and Nixon.” The congressman laughs self-consciously at the memory.
“I believed them for a long time – probably longer than I should have,” Hamilton says. “But I eventually began to get skeptical, and that skepticism increased as we went along. I saw that Congress was too compliant, too passive. We were not as responsive as we should have been to the views of the American people. We accepted too much; we didn’t ask questions that were tough enough. We were overwhelmed by the executive branch. That was a meaningful experience for me.”
Since then, Hamilton has devoted his enormous energy to the task of restoring Congress to its rightful place under the Constitution. Democracy, he believes, does not function if the elected representatives of the people are cut out of the decision-making process. The largest questions of war and peace cannot be decided in secret by a few people.
Hamilton sees the failure of government officials to adhere to the Constitution and the rule of law as the underlying cause of the present scandal. “Among some of the actors,” he says, “there was a profoundly antidemocratic view. Here you have this extraordinary situation where the Congress was bypassed, the secretary of defense was bypassed, where Colonel North was calling up the president of Costa Rica, saying, ‘I’ll cut off your money.’
“Things were done secretly, and loyalties were misplaced. All kinds of things were happening that shouldn’t happen in a democratic society. And the remedy for all this is nothing very radical. The remedy is a return to the traditional and constitutional processes of government.”
But isn’t this new scandal a lot like the old scandals? Hamilton agrees that it is. A president uses the CIA to accomplish in secret what he is unwilling to debate in public. In this decade, Reagan’s willingness to circumvent the will of the Congress involved going to war against Nicaragua. In the Sixties and Seventies, the same presidential arrogance led to similar misdeeds: CIA agents laid the groundwork for our involvement in Vietnam, ran a secret war in Laos, toppled governments in Latin America, tried to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba and spied on American citizens at home and abroad. Congress thought it had reformed the CIA through legislation it passed in the late Seventies. Yet here we are again.
“It tells you we haven’t learned the lesson completely, I guess,” the congressman concedes. “We came through the recent years without adequate over-sight of the intelligence community. That’s got to be improved.” Which is why the Congress itself should not escape scrutiny for its role in the events now unfolding in Washington. So far, public outrage over the Iran-contra affair has focused on the secret derring-do and the apparent law-breaking of the executive branch, but by looking the other way while Ronald Reagan mounted his secret war in Central America, the Congress is also to blame. The war against the Sandinistas began in 1981 as a paramilitary operation involving a few hundred contras; a few months later, and with no public debate, the CIA was fielding an army of 7000. Belatedly, when the killing and destruction could no longer be kept secret, Congress ineffectually raised questions about what was going on.
As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Hamilton was among the few who were let in on the secret venture – and he argued futilely against it. “I never did approve of the contra funding from its inception, even when we were talking about a few hundred people,” he says. “That’s not the way to make a major decision. Presidents, I think, are often tempted to try to conduct foreign policy secretly because they don’t have to deal with the Congress, with the American public, with the media. But if you’re going to make a sustainable foreign policy, you’ve got to be willing to go through the debate and discussion of the constitutional process.”
To avoid scandals like the Iranian arms deal and the war in Nicaragua, Hamilton proposes a simple rule that every administration should follow: “The United States should not carry out any covert action that a fully informed American public would not support.”
Despite Ronald Reagan’s celebrated powers of salesmanship, the American public has never bought his line on the dangers of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Neither did Lee Hamilton. The United States, he believes, could work out a “live and let live” relationship with the revolutionary government – negotiating a regional reduction of military forces and even offering economic aid to promote Nicaraguan development. In any case, the trouble with waging a CIA war is that it promises more than the United States may be willing to deliver.