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An Iran-Contra War Story with Oliver North

Oliver North is a former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who served as a National Security Council staff member during the Iran–Contra affair, a political scandal involving the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran, which was to encourage the release of U.S. hostages then held in Lebanon.

North formulated the second part of the plan which was to divert proceeds from the arms sales to support the Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua (which had been specifically prohibited under the Boland Amendment). Ten days after the story first broke in a Lebanese newspaper, President Reagan appeared on national television from the Oval Office on November 13, 1986, stating that his purpose was “to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship….The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there.”

North is currently the host of War Stories with Oliver North on Fox News.  In these excerpts, Robert Oakley, who was the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism from 1984-1986, and Ambassador G. Philip Hughes, Director for Latin American Affairs for the National Security Council from 1985-1986, give their impressions of this controversial figure in one of the key foreign policy incidents of the 1980s.

Ambassador Oakley contends that Secretary Shultz was unable to stop the operation and notes that the British were upset by rumors they had heard (which were confirmed by bugging they had done of North’s meetings in London). He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Thomas Stern beginning in 1992. Ambassador Hughes was struck by how far and wide North was operating, usually bypassing NSC staff and others. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1997.


“The NSC would frequently go at it alone”

Robert B. Oakley 

OAKLEY:  Let me say a few words about Ollie North, who was my point of contact in the NSC [National Security Council]. I got to know him pretty well. He was fascinating, exasperating, exhausting to work with. He could do more than any other six people could do. He had incredible energy, imagination, initiative, charisma; he was unequaled in his ability to get people to do things his way. Ollie was an exceptional officer.

But, as I said to him several times, he needed to be assisted by people with more seasoning and experience who could keep things on track. Sometimes, he would pay heed to my comments; sometimes he would not. He was a hyper-activist; he always wanted to project U.S. power against terrorism. He would support fighting terrorists with terrorists. Unilaterally, he tried to activate a group in southern Lebanon, using DEA connections – State and CIA would have no part of this scheme. So he tried to work on his own with the Israelis to establish those counter-terrorist group, which would use terrorist methods.

Ollie was always urging more military action. He wanted more strikes against Qadhafi. He wanted to capture terrorists in south Lebanon and Beirut. Ollie was a strong proponent for all sorts of counter-terrorist actions. I opposed the use of force to rescue the hostages in Beirut. Military contingency plans were developed by the Pentagon. These plans were then circulated to a group of people from all interested agencies, including myself.

The formal inter-agency counter-terrorist group did not officially get involved in these plans, but of course many members of the group, in their departmental roles, were involved. In addition to the formal inter-agency steering group, we also had an inter-agency Operation Support Group which met weekly to discuss highly sensitive operational matters. That group included the Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs from DoD, the Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chief of CIA’s counter-terrorism branch, an FBI official, the NSC counter-terrorism officer and myself.

In this meeting, we used to kick around a number of ideas, many coming from Ollie North, most of which were dismissed. For example, I already mentioned North’s idea of a special counter-terrorist force — which this Operations Support group would not endorse, so he went out and tried to create one on his own. There were many very sensitive issues discussed in this group. I thought in general the members of the group were very good – imaginative yet solid.

When Ollie and his boss, [John ] Poindexter, would listen, this group did come up with very sensible, pro-active suggestions to deal with terrorism — not enough to stop the activity in total, but certainly to slow it down and diminish it. Just as useful, was this group’s willingness to say “No” to a number of propositions. As has been discussed frequently, when the NSC did not think that the bureaucracy was giving it enough support, it would frequently go at it alone – not only on counter-terrorism, but in many different areas.

Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary for ARA [the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau, now called WHA], was by far a more enthusiastic supporter of Contra assistance [in Nicaragua] than I was about dealing with Iran. Whatever he and Ollie did to support the Contras was done outside of established channels — partly to avoid established policies. Ollie would frequently come to see me after he had met with Alan Fiers and Abrams; this allowed me to pick up information about the Contra support operation that would not have reached me through the bureaucracy. I became aware of the flow of money and military equipment to the Contras; so, although in bits and pieces, I had a pretty good idea what was going on under what is now known as the Contra-Iran operation.

As time went on, it became obvious that Ollie was withholding more and more information. At one point — in March 1986 — he came to me and said that Poindexter had decided that I had not been sufficiently sympathetic and cooperative and therefore had instructed North to cut me out of the loop. That was personally very helpful because I was able to say that thereafter I knew nothing about Iran-Contra. Before March, I had known something about that operation — not in detail, but I did have a general idea.

On June 30, 1986, I wrote a memorandum to the Secretary informing him about what I knew about Iran-Contra. I sent the memo because I was quite concerned; we at levels lower than the Secretary thought the operation had ceased, only to find out that we were wrong. We accepted that the supporters of the operation genuinely thought that they were serving the President’s best interests; furthermore they were under the impression that they could keep the operation secret. However, I was convinced the Administration was headed toward serious trouble.

“I concluded that the Secretary knew and was unable to stop the operation”

What actually provoked the memo was a visit by a British Foreign Office official and Mrs. Thatcher’s National Security Advisor. They came to Washington to discuss what we were doing with respect to Iran. They wanted to know whether we had changed our policy; they had heard that we were engaged is making some deals with the Iranians — supplying weapons in exchange for release of hostages.

The British position was that it had supported us fully:  by allowing us, for example, to use their bases for the bombing raid on Libya — three British citizens had been executed in Lebanon in retaliation and revenge in an operation financed by Qadhafi. The British were upset by the rumors — they had stuck their necks out to support us and felt let down by what appeared to be a change in our and terrorist Iran policy — our rhetoric and our actions did not seem to be in sync. After the departure of the British delegation, I wrote the memorandum.

I don’t know whether he ever read my memo – only the Secretary and probably Charlie Hill and Nick Platt [his executive assistant] would know. It never came back to me and I assume that he read it, but since I didn’t get an answer, I can’t be sure. At the time, I concluded that Secretary Shultz was probably upset by the memorandum — I should have known better than to write a memorandum on such a sensitive subject with which the Secretary was probably familiar.

I concluded that he knew and was unable to stop the operation and that it would continue to the end. That analysis led me to the conclusion that it was time for me to get out of counter-terrorism. Among other reasons I was upset that the British delegation, which I mentioned earlier, had left Washington without being told the truth. They told me what they had heard from Poindexter; when I heard that, I knew that they had been lied to.

As far as Iran-Contra was concerned, even though the NSC was not sharing any information with me, I knew something about what was going on from my friends in the CIA and the Pentagon — they had more information on this matter than I did.

From that, I deduced that the operation was still on-going — not stopped as we had thought. It was not under control and it was clear to me that it would not stop. I also thought that the matter would become public — sooner than later — because if the British had picked up information, so would others. What I did not know at the time was that the British had been bugging Ollie North’s meetings with the Iranians which took place in London.

So they had good information and obviously knew enough to know that Poindexter had not told them the whole truth. I made this point to the Secretary. My memorandum saved my reputation – and probably career – because it was part of the official file and available to the staff of the Congressional Iran-Contra Investigation Committee.

In any case, I felt most uncomfortable about continuing to work in counter-terrorism when one part of the U.S. government was engaged in an activity to which I strenuously objected. Iran-Contra was in flat contradiction to our expressed policies towards Iran and terrorists. I didn’t think it was proper nor did I think the operation would be successful. I don’t think there had been an adequate analysis made of the potential consequences of action.

For example, a letter was written by Reagan to the King of Saudi Arabia, flatly denying that we were providing any arms to Iran. That was not appropriate; we were jeopardizing relationships with friends and allies and at the same time, violating our own policies. Both consequences were huge mistakes and I thought, as I said to the Secretary, that the whole operation would backfire in the near future, then becoming a major domestic as well as international issue.

As reflected in Weinberger’s book, someone in the NSC — probably Poindexter — called Bill Odum — the head of NSA [National Security Agency] — and instructed him to shut off the distribution of intercepts concerning Iran to Defense and State.

According to Weinberger, when Odum told him that the White House had issued instructions, the Secretary of Defense said that “Houses don’t talk”, and told Odum he wanted the name of the official who had issued the order. He further told the NSA chief that since his budget depended on the Pentagon — i.e. the Secretary of Defense — (the NSA budget being part of the Defense budget) unless the order had come from the President personally, he was to resume the distribution — which is what NSA did.

[State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Michael, the third-ranking official at the Department] Armacost and I suggested to Secretary Shultz that he might want to have the State distribution resumed; he said “No.” So we continued to operate in the dark, but Rich Armitage, the Assistant Secretary of Defense, viewed the operation as I did; he kept me advised about information that I didn’t have. That helped me piece together about what was taking place, but we had no influence on North’s operation since we had been deliberately cut out. When the British delegation arrived I managed to put the last pieces in place and then I understood the enormity of what was going on. I knew that no good would come of it.

“What struck me about all of this was both how far Ollie was operating”

Ambassador G. Philip Hughes

HUGHES:  [A]cross the hall [at the NSC] there was this guy, Ollie North, who had his own office and who had his own involvement with Central America. His involvement fundamentally extended to and revolved around the Contra program. To give you an idea, very soon after I signed on to the NSC staff, Ray was gone on some trip. I was told by Ray Burkhart that National Security Advisor John Poindexter was going to go on a familiarization trip to Central America. I did not have the impression that this was Ray’s or our office’s initiative, though I was too new to have been part of it. Ray was going to be away and I was to go with Poindexter on this trip. I was pretty well briefed on Central American issues overall but not quite at the level of operation and detail that this trip was going to involve.

Then very strange things started happening. The trip was going to be a 24-hour trip. We would fly down to Panama and overnight at Quarry Heights [Military Reservation]. The next morning Poindexter would have a meeting with President Noriega in which he was to read the riot act to Noriega.

His script was to tell the Panamanian military that they needed to get back in the barracks and stop running the government, hold elections and open the political process to democracy again. He was pilloried for that meeting because the press made out that he was conspiring somehow with Noriega and that the agenda of the meeting was to somehow solicit Noriega’s cooperation in funneling aid to the contras. Quite the contrary was true as my understanding of the meeting was. Though I didn’t attend, I know what he was briefed to do. I know what the purpose was and I know what he reported after he came out of his private meeting with Noriega.

Then we were to fly in sequence to Costa Rica, Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and home all in one day. We spent a couple hours on the ground in each place. We did that agenda. We followed that script. In Costa Rica we had a meeting with the U.S. embassy and some people from the government at the…Hotel on the outskirts of town. In San Salvador we met at the airport. In Honduras it took place at Palmerola which was an air base that we had put up for the contra supply effort. In Guatemala it was also at the airport with General Kia and then we came home.

Ollie North did the trip book for this. It turned out Ollie North had planned the agenda and lined up the CINCSOUTH’s [Commander in Chief, Southern Command] plane to take Poindexter all along the way. Ollie North had worked out with his military all the logistical details. Ollie North had picked the people who would be seen in each country.

He had set this whole thing up. He had also orchestrated with CINCSOUTH that in between each of the short hops from one country to the next, 30-minute flights or whatever, a different CINCSOUTH briefer came up to brief Poindexter on some aspect of Central America from a very, what I would call military one-sided, sort of military slant, intelligence community point of view. I would say even not just a military point of view but a CINCSOUTH point of view which was different even than the viewpoint that you found in the Pentagon.

What struck me about all of this was both how far Ollie was operating, how wide his brief was, how wide his ambit was, how far he was operating, I thought, outside of the ambit of his responsibilities and how in a sense unfair it was. Not to appear naive, but I really believed that the role of a staffer was to present to his boss, if we’re talking about an orientation briefing and that’s what this was supposed to be, John Poindexter’s, the brand new National Security Advisor’s orientation briefing.

He was taking Bud McFarlane’s place. Bud resigned as I recall in December and John took over then. So this was in January of 1986 as I recall that we did this trip. Maybe it was not January of 1986, maybe it was earlier. I’d have to go back and check. In any case, I always thought that the role of a staffer, especially an NSC staffer, was to make sure that a relevant range of view was presented to his boss so that his boss could make his own evaluation.

It was also the staffer’s job to tell the boss what he thought. Making sure that the State Department’s view, the intelligence community’s view, the military’s view or viewpoints and all were reflected to my boss was part of the job. And also it was an obligation to tell him what I thought. Whether I thought this person was right or why I thought that view was wrong. In this case it was just a one-sided sort of single viewpoint briefing. At least that was my interpretation. It was got up entirely by Ollie and run, in the way it was prepared, completely around the Latin American staff of the NSC. We literally were along for the ride.

Q: You were sucking your thumb most of the time.

HUGHES: Exactly. It was sort of emblematic of how fractured the NSC’s approach to Latin America was and how out of control Ollie was.

Q: When you were there, were you sort of told, “Don’t mess with Ollie” or people shrugged their shoulders and saying, “He’s doing his thing and don’t ask”?

HUGHES: It was more like the latter. People shrugging their shoulders — “He’s doing his thing.” Ollie was extremely entrepreneurial. He just took it upon himself to do certain things. He was the hardest working, burning the most midnight oil, was probably the most creative, was probably the most imaginative, was probably the most aggressive, probably wrote some of the best paper, produced a huge amount of material, was constantly in meetings and I think had a very full sense of himself: “I am playing a very important role on the national stage here.”

And he was playing a very important role but in the course of that, my sense of the feeling was a little bit like he had a protector or sworn confidant or soul mate or something, on the other side of West Executive Avenue in the West Wing, mainly the National Security Advisor, whether that was Poindexter or McFarlane. He made himself so valuable to them through the volume of work and everything that they trusted him implicitly.

When it became clear that some of the things that he was involved in were risky to say the least, Poindexter began to move to rein him in; to disassociate him from the Central American portfolio and put him on a counter terrorism portfolio with Bob Earle and these other guys that Ollie brought into the NSC. Nevertheless he just never gave up his Central America portfolio. He just held onto it. He had all the contacts and had been working with these people. He was very interested and I think he had a real missionary sense about the fight in Central America and he wasn’t going to let go of it. So that was sort of how it was.