Rules of the Game: The Iran-Contra Scandal - Rolling Stone
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Rules of the Game: The Iran-Contra Scandal

Does Congress have the guts to go after Reagan?

Lee Hamilton, Iran-Contra Hearings

Senator Daniel Inouye (L), chairman of the Senate committee holding hearings on the Iran-Contra affair, talks with House committee chairman Lee Hamilton in Washington, DC, July 13th, 1987


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.

“The question that is not answered by the Reagan administration is, What are we willing to do?” Hamilton says. “If what we are doing is insufficient, if $100 million won’t get the job done, how many more millions of dollars are you going to pump in?” Or will the United States finally have to send in the marines rather than accept failure and international embarrassment? “Funding the contras is not, as the administration states, an alternative to intervention,” Hamilton says. “It is an avenue to intervention.”

When Congress first became alarmed, in 1983, about the administration’s support for the contras, Hamilton was among those who led the efforts to end it. The first attempt was a bad joke: Congress declared that the CIA could keep its war going as long as it didn’t intend to overthrow the Sandinista government. Reagan and CIA chief William Casey happily complied, with a broad wink to the contras. “Keep in mind,” Hamilton says, “that by the time the president informed us, the whole process was tilted in support of the action; a momentum had built up that was very hard to turn around. It was very hard for us to say no at that point. And the fact is, we haven’t said no except in one case.”

That was in late 1984, after it was learned that CIA mercenaries had mined Nicaraguan harbors and bombed industrial facilities – clearly ignoring the assurances the CIA had given Congress as to its intent (not to mention violating international law). About the same time, the CIA’s infamous field manual for the contra army was exposed, revealing in undeniable detail the terrorist tactics that were being used against the Sandinistas. An angry Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which cut off money for weapons and ordered the CIA to stay out of the war. Hamilton counts it as a great accomplishment – an unprecedented congressional decision to stop a covert. CIA paramilitary operation already fully under way. Nothing like it had ever happened before.

Yet, as Hamilton acknowledges, Congress evaded the hardest decision. Unwilling to take the political heat for actually stopping the war, Congress cut off money for weapons but provided the contras with $27 million in so-called humanitarian aid. In his newsletter to constituents, Hamilton lamented the compromise: “Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach. We will now be helping the contra army to march.”

The result of congressional waffling is now clear, told and retold every day on the front pages of newspapers across the country – the secret hustling of money and arms by Ollie North and a shadowy network of CIA operatives while the president himself cheered them on.

On one level, of course, it’s not fair to blame Congress if the executive branch decides to break the law. But Congress is implicated in the scandal because its own leaders, including Lee Hamilton, failed to pursue the tough questions in a timely fashion.

Ollie North, after all, was not exactly a secret around Washington. The local gossip was rich with lurid stories about his secret management of the contras at least a year before the scandal broke. The Washington Post, the Miami Herald and The New York Times had already reported some of the story. Yet Congress pretended not to know.

Indeed, Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause, made several formal requests to the House and Senate intelligence committees asking for an investigation in 1985. The committees consulted Robert McFarlane at the National Security Council. On his assurances that North was doing nothing illegal, they declined to go further.

“The committee was impressed by Mr. McFarlane’s willingness to discuss this matter and his response to our questions,” Hamilton wrote to Common Cause in November of 1985. “He told the committee that he had conducted a thorough review of all the allegations that had appeared in the press about Colonel North. I judge the committee is willing to accept those responses barring new evidence that might contradict them.”

Congressman Hamilton was had. So was Congress. Last year, lied to and intimidated by a popular president, Congress reversed itself and again unleashed the CIA in Nicaragua – providing $100 million more for the war. Perhaps this year Congress will at last be sufficiently embarrassed by events to listen to public opinion instead of the CIA and the White House.

“Yeah, we made a little progress, then we slipped back,” Hamilton says. “I can understand the cynicism. I can understand the doubt. But you’re dealing with very controversial questions, and it’s hard to get a majority.”

Hamilton, in fact, worries about the same questions of covert war and congressional responsibility on other fronts. The CIA, for instance, is now active in Angola, providing weapons and money to UNITA, Jonas Savimbi’s rebel army, a commitment that effectively aligns the United States with South Africa. “Aiding UNITA is funding a war, one of the powers of Congress enumerated in the Constitution,” Hamilton says. “The president should not be able to circumvent a public debate in Congress on a significant foreign-policy decision by calling this aid by a different name.”

Hamilton is likewise bothered by the clamor to help “freedom fighters” in Cambodia – insurgents who are mostly under control of the Khmer Rouge, the same folks who slaughtered 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s. In Afghanistan, though everyone seems to enjoy seeing the Soviets shoved deeper into the quagmire, the Afghan rebels we support are not exactly Jeffersonian democrats. Among other things, they prefer to assassinate captured Soviets rather than take prisoners of war. It’s not merely a question of moral principle. Hamilton continues to wonder if Americans realize what we may be getting ourselves into.

“There isn’t any magic remedy,” Hamilton says. “The remedy is for Congress to be much more aggressive and alert in not permitting funding for these kinds of operations. . . . I think there’s no substitute for vigilance and aggressive oversight.”

Maybe so, but I wouldn’t count on it. I think it’s possible to admire Lee Hamilton’s dedication to democratic ideals – and at the same time doubt whether his moderate, centrist approach will succeed in curbing abuses by the executive branch. The congressman is uncomfortable with absolutes, and so he doesn’t believe Congress can write a law prohibiting covert action or even the paramilitary operations he generally opposes. There might be instances, he insists, where the CIA ought to be free to do those things.

The history of the last thirty years suggests, however, that basic principles can’t survive in the shadows. If the Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, you can’t let the president and the CIA do it secretly on certain occasions. Again and again, presidents of both parties have used the leeway implicit in the CIA charter to take the country to war without the congressional resolution demanded by the Constitution.

I do not think earnest congressmen like Hamilton are going to stop a Ronald Reagan, William Casey or Oliver North by merely promising to be more vigilant. Any aggressive president will naturally be tempted to use the CIA to get around political debate. Why argue openly with opponents and stir up domestic controversy when you can fashion foreign policy in secret? Why consult with Congress when you can keep its members in the dark, then later – when they seem unwilling to continue a war already under way – impugn their patriotism because they won’t support a policy they had no hand in shaping?

Until Congress summons up the courage to insist on the rule of law and to strip the CIA of its exotic powers to fight proxy wars, these periodic scandals are bound to occur. When government officials are allowed to run wild, they swiftly develop a taste for it. Soon they are trampling truth and law. A Constitution with loopholes doesn’t work.

In This Article: Coverwall, Ronald Reagan


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