Malcolm Byrne is the author of the new book Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. His other books include Mohammed Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran and The 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He is deputy director and director of research of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Q: You write, "This book contends the Iran-Contra affair's consignment to historical irrelevance is greatly undeserved." Why do you think it has received little attention in recent years, and what do you see as its importance?
A: First of all, there’s no denying Iran-Contra was a huge news story when it broke in late 1986. It was a multi-pronged scandal and the first one that Reagan opponents (and the media) thought might actually stick to the Teflon President.
Ironically, the over-exposure of the scandal contributed to its being buried eventually. The public’s collective eyes glazed over at what seemed to be repetitious charges and counter-charges.
But at the same time the process was unquestionably aided by Reagan supporters who threw every piece of mud on the story they could in hopes of neutralizing it. By the time of the criminal trials in the early 1990s, everyone had already made up their minds about what happened – even though they had incomplete access to the record, in my view.
As one example of the general attitude, I heard from a number of journalists that their book proposals had been turned down by publishers simply because of scandal fatigue.
As for the episode’s importance, it’s multifarious. It’s a significant window into Reagan himself and into his administration’s policy-making approach.
Reagan may have been asleep at the switch on some issues but the record shows clearly that he was avid about the hostages in Lebanon and the Contras in Nicaragua, and constantly demanded new information and ideas about how to deal with each.
He was driven largely by his own personal desires and priorities (you can agree with them or not) but he paid precious little attention to either the complex facts underlying each policy or the ramifications of what he was imposing on his advisers. The results were sometimes devastating politically and on a policy level.
The scandal is also important as a snapshot of the political process in the U.S., and I would argue is necessary to understanding how we’ve arrived at the virtually gridlocked system we have today.
The Iran and Contra affairs also had significant regional effects including undercutting U.S. standing internationally and creating risks for U.S. policy. (A number of ex-diplomats told me about the embarrassment they faced of having to fan out among our allies to explain and apologize for the scandal.)
It even undercut our efforts at arms control with the Soviets by, for example, deflecting attention from that arena to the damage-control campaign in the White House.
Q: Can you explain more about President Reagan's role in the Iran-contra affair, and does your view differ from that of other experts?
A: The standard defense of Reagan at the time included arguments that he was misled by self-serving aides (North, McFarlane, Poindexter), that he had been kept in the dark about what was happening, and that he had broken no laws – although “mistakes were made.”
It took the president several months even to admit that his arms-for-hostages arrangement with Iran had been wrong.
The documentary record and interviews and depositions from numerous officials show clearly that he was not only well-informed from the beginning but that he was the driving force in both instances.
He had several meetings with the likes of George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, among others, where they registered their forceful objections and their view that the arms deals in particular were illegal. In every case Reagan chose to go forward nonetheless.
I think most people now (in some cases reluctantly) agree that Reagan was responsible. What I think they often don’t appreciate fully is just how active and even aggressive he was in pursuing his pet policies.
Another defense is that his memory had failed him by then. There’s certainly substantial evidence of that, but at the same time no question he understood what he was doing and would not brook calls to change course.
Q: How did you research the book, and how much was your research shaped by newly declassified material?
A: I started working on Iran-Contra when the scandal erupted. My organization pursued it from the start as an exercise in establishing government accountability through full access to the record, which by now amounts to over 50,000 pages of declassified materials (millions more are still classified, of course).
I always kept up an interest in the subject, but years later took it up again in earnest, in part after realizing how little had been written about it in over two decades.
My research was significantly shaped by declassified material all along the way, particularly the personal notes of VP Bush, Weinberger, Oliver North and others, which came out over a protracted period of time – in some cases too late to make a difference in the prosecutions or elections.
In more recent years, I’ve made a lot of use of additional materials (uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act) like minutes of NSC meetings and CIA records relating to the hostages in Lebanon, as well as items that surfaced in places like Nicaragua, Iran, and Israel.
Those materials collectively helped a lot in terms of adding supporting evidence to the portrait of Reagan as initiator, and to the subject of the impact of these policies, among other things.
Q: How can lessons from Iran-contra apply to today's crises?
A: There are things to be learned both substantively and procedurally. In my view, the Iran affair was made possible by an abiding ignorance of Iran’s internal affairs, including who the main players were, how they interacted to make policy, and how they viewed us.
In Nicaragua, the passions of the neo-conservatives encouraged some of Reagan’s own ideological predilections – above all, anti-communism – to a point that far overstated the true nature and extent of the threat to our national interests, as understood particularly with the benefit of hindsight.
Similar shortcomings in our knowledge and approach are evident in our attempts to understand and establish control in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria (not to mention Iran).
And anti-communism has been replaced by the global war on terrorism – not that it’s a trivial concern, but we’ve certainly allowed it to take us places (invasion of Iraq, search for WMD, and a host of domestic civil rights abuses) that arguably were not warranted by the facts.
One of the big lessons of Iran-Contra, to me, is that our political and legal systems are simply not up to the task of holding high officials accountable for their wrongdoing in matters of national security.
There’s no question that Reagan and several of his aides who were acting to fulfill his objectives did so with the full knowledge that they were probably violating the law. Reagan himself famously said (according to Weinberger) he could “answer charges of illegality but he couldn’t answer charge that ‘big strong President Reagan passed up a chance to free hostages.’”
Yet, no senior officials paid a significant political or legal price – although several lower-level lieutenants not surprisingly did. (I spend a lot of the book going into the congressional and independent counsel investigations and the problems they faced.)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I continue to do studies on the underpinnings of Iran-U.S. relations, including organizing conferences where former policy-makers from opposing viewpoints (and different countries) meet to talk over flashpoints in the relationship and how things got to their current pass. I also edit a couple of publications series and help to supervise the research of a number of analysts at my organization.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s a completely fascinating story with twists and turns that most people never really comprehended – even some of those who participated in the scandal that I’ve interviewed!
The cast of characters is extraordinary. Why there hasn’t been a movie made yet, I don’t know.
Plus, it’s got a lot to teach us about current U.S. policies and America’s standing in the world, as well as about today’s domestic political environment.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb