Vol. 13 No. 24 · 19 December 1991

Reagan knew, McFarlane knew, North knew, Secord knew, Earl knew, Poindexter knew

Paul Foot

2270 words
Under Fire: An American Story 
by Oliver North and William Novak.
HarperCollins, 446 pp., £17.99, October 1991, 0 06 018334 9
Show More
Terry Waite: Why was he kidnapped? 
by Gavin Hewitt.
Bloomsbury, 230 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 7475 0375 3
Show More
Show More

When did the Irangate scandal start? The official answer is late 1985. The Tower Commission report, a slovenly document which does not even boast an index, starts its story in that year. Col Oliver North, the man who, according to the received version, thought up the idea of selling arms to secure the release of American hostages in Beirut, tells us: ‘My own operational involvement began ... on the afternoon of 17 November 1985.’ The BBC’s Panorama journalist Gavin Hewitt, who is not an admirer of the Colonel, seems to back him up at least in this important detail. ‘Oliver North,’ he assures us, ‘hadn’t been party initially to the arms deals with the Iranians.’ So there were ‘arms deals with the Iranians’ even before North was involved. Or were there? A closer reading of North’s apologia gets us a little closer to the truth.

In April 1983, a bomb went off in the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. In October of that year a lorry of bombs was driven into the Marine compound in the city, killing 241 servicemen. President Reagan, North reports, went wild with fury. Urgent discussions with Reagan’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bill Casey, devised a plan for revenge. One of the CIA’s top agents, William Buckley, was posted to Beirut to implement it. In March 1984, Buckley was taken prisoner and tortured. Casey’s brilliant plan ended in the deaths or hasty flights of several of the CIA’s agents in the area. Casey ordered that a photograph of the unfortunate Buckley be posted up at CIA headquarters as a permanent reminder of the Agency’s failure. It didn’t help Buckley. He died in captivity in 1985. Two months after seizing Buckley, the kidnappers struck again. This time the victim was a Christian missionary called Benjamin Weir. In January 1985, Father Lawrence Jenco was captured, to be followed three months later by Terry Anderson.

Where was Ollie North all this time? In 1981, he was plucked from the Marines to serve on the National Security Council, which is attached to the White House. This was, North is too shy to tell us, a political appointment. The Colonel was chosen because of his right-wing views, which were bolstered, as were the President’s, by fanatical born-again Christianity. North worked closely and happily under Judge William Clark, who was appointed Reagan’s National Security Adviser in 1982, although (perhaps because) he could not name the President of South Africa or Zimbabwe, and knew nothing at all about the British Labour Party. Clark, who surprised his colleagues by coming to work in cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, was appointed for one purpose – to wrest foreign policy from the cautious State Department. ‘He understood what the President wanted and how to achieve it,’ says his admirer, North. Clark was moved, suddenly and mysteriously, immediately after the shooting down of the Korean airliner KAL 007 over Russian airspace in September 1983 – an intriguing and unexplained scandal which Colonel North tactfully forgets to mention. Clark’s replacement was Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane, whom North resented and at every possible occasion sought to discomfort and displace. His real hero was CIA director Casey, who suffered from what his predecessor Richard Helms called Fingerspitzengefühl – ‘a feel for the clandestine’. North reports: ‘I knew nothing of covert operations when I came to the National Security Council but Casey taught me a great deal.’ From 1983 onwards (whatever their part in the Korean airliner disaster) both men concentrated their plotting on the Lebanon. After Buckley’s kidnapping, the plotting rose to a crescendo. ‘The entire CIA,’ North reports, ‘went to enormous lengths to get Buckley back alive.’

One result of the plotting was the formation of a new Task force to combat terrorism. North explains that the official Terrorist Incident Working Group was too unwieldy. The new Task Force was much smaller and more tightly-knit, bringing together right-wing zealots from different departments. The chairman of the Task Force, North reveals, was the Vice-President, George Bush. North gives him the highest accolade. ‘He was,’ he concludes, ‘comfortable with covert operations.’ Soon after Buckley was kidnapped in 1984, this little group with Bush at its head and North as its dynamo, was running the US Government policy on terrorism, especially in the Lebanon. Their primary concern was Buckley’s release. Oliver North’s book says nothing at all about what was done to get Buckley out. Perhaps he is straining not to give away any state secrets. But he would have us believe that he himself played no part worth recording in that effort – until November 1985, when his ‘operational involvement began’.

Turn from this unlikely story for a moment to what appears to be an even more unlikely one. In 1987, long after the Iran-Contra scandal had broken, four men were arrested in Britain and charged with a complicated fraud. They were alleged to have tried to lure millions of pounds from a Swiss bank by pretending to sell missiles to Iran. These missiles, said the prosecution, never existed. The four men, three arms-dealers called Michael Aspin, Eric Matson and John Taylor and a Lloyds underwriter called William Harper, were tried at the Old Bailey in early 1988. Aspin, Harper and Matson were found guilty and sent to prison – Aspin is still inside. Taylor was acquitted. Aspin, who was cast as the ringleader, pleaded in his defence that the deal to sell arms to Iran had been set up by the CIA. His chief witness was his brother Leslie Aspin, who claimed he had been recruited by William Casey, director of the CIA, to put together a deal to sell arms to the Iranians in exchange for the release of the hostages, especially William Buckley. Leslie Aspin told the court that he had responded enthusiastically to this request since Buckley was an old friend. He had put together a complicated deal to collect US TOW missiles in Portugal and ship them to Iran. During the course of this deal he had, on several occasions, met Oliver North. On 15 November 1984, long before North says he was involved in selling arms for hostages, Aspin says he met North in Paris and, with the intention of laundering money for the TOW missiles, opened three accounts at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

This Story was laughed out of court by prosecution and judge, who suggested it was an ingenious fantasy by Leslie Aspin to exculpate his brother. The jury agreed. Leslie Aspin died in 1989, still insisting that his story was true. On his recent visit to Britain to publicise his book, Oliver North was asked by a Sky Television team if he had ever met Aspin. He flatly denied it.

In the United States, however, where information flows far more freely than in Britain, evidence has recently come to light which supports Aspin’s story. A former US Justice Department lawyer, John Loftus, assisted by an investigative journalist called Peggy Robohm, set out to test Leslie Aspin’s story against the mountain of evidence which emerged during the Iran-Contra Senate hearings. They found that his story again and again connects with the evidence. They disclose, for instance, that North was in Paris on 15 November 1984, the date Aspin says the two men opened the BCCI accounts there. North’s diaries suggest he could well have been in London on all of the dates Aspin says he met him there. North’s book has frequent references to meetings in London in the Churchill Hotel, the meeting-place named by Aspin. Loftus and Robohm have signed a huge affidavit, which concludes that the suggestion that Aspin invented meetings and dates which much later turn out to coincide with documents he could not have seen stretches credibility beyond endurance.

Suppose North was involved in this deal to sell arms for hostages as early as 1984, what follows? One obvious conclusion is that British justice has failed again, and that three men were wrongly convicted and sent to prison. That is mundane, run-of-the-mill. The real significance is in the USA. For if the Aspin deal began in 1984, it pushes the start of the Irangate scandal back a year and lands it splat in the office of the Vice-President of the United States, George Bush. It suggests that the real master of Irangate was not the doddering Reagan, who, undoubtedly, as North insists, knew everything, but his younger and more energetic Vice-President who was, after all, entirely ‘comfortable with covert operations’. If this were proved true, it would expose one of the great political Houdinis of modern times. For somehow, George Bush Vice-President has emerged as one of the very few senior men associated with the Eighties White House to have escaped even a scintilla of blame for Irangate. Reagan knew, McFarlane knew, North knew, Richard Secord knew, Bob Earl knew, Admiral Poindexter knew: but the chairman of the Task Force set up to deal in covert antiterrorist activities didn’t know a thing.

Some of Bush’s closest aides during 1983 and 1984 have been spirited out of the limelight. Robert Owen, for instance, one of North’s most energetic assistants in his campaign to arm the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, gets only one grudging and uninformative mention in North’s book. Before Owen left to bankroll terrorists in Central America, he was working in Washington as an aide to a little-known right-wing senator called Dan Quayle. Robert Sensi doesn’t get a mention at all. He was much in evidence at the London offices of Cyrus Engineering where the Aspin missile deal was hatched. Sensi told John Taylor, the entirely innocent businessman who still passionately believes he was caught up in a political ramp, that he was the European director of an organisation called Republicans Abroad, and worked directly to the office of Vice-President Bush. He was arrested in Britain in 1986, swept off to the United States, tried and convicted of stealing millions of dollars from Kuwait Airways. His defence was not dissimilar to that of Michael Aspin and Co. He said he was ordered to take the money by the CIA, of which, he proved in court, he was an agent.

Even before he became President, Bush was promoting people who had had some inside knowledge of Iran-Contra. He named the ridiculous Quayle as his Vice-President, the drunken Tower (chairman of the Tower Commission) as his Defence Secretary, and Brent Scowcroft, who with Tower had made up a majority of the Commission, as his National Security Adviser. Now he has got Robert Gates, who was close to North’s Task Force in the mid-Eighties, as director of the CIA.

If North is right that he never met Aspin, and that he had nothing to do with a TOW missile deal in Britain in 1984 and 1985, then all this falls to the ground. But it is difficult to believe his denial, not only because of the evidence, but because the most consistent characteristic of Oliver North is that he tells lies. He lies instinctively, perpetually. He lied (as he quaintly puts it) ‘every time I met the Iranians’, he lied repeatedly to the elected Congress which he detested – chiefly because it is elected. And he lied, as Gavin Hewitt’s excellent account proves, to Terry Waite. He lies because he believes it is right to lie. The cause for which he stands, Good Old America, makes it imperative that he lies. Hyperactive, calling in God as his witness, and in floods of tears at the sheer dramatic beauty of it all, he lies for his country. So powerful is his cause that it smoothes out all contradictions. A lot of his book is about his crusade to save Nicaragua from the Red Peril. He admits that he bent all his body and soul to arming and sustaining the Contra terrorists who waged a war against the Sandinista Government, a war which killed 18,000 people and tore the heart out of what was left of the Nicaraguan economy. North persuades himself that he did all this for democracy. The Sandinistas, he tells us, had set up an undemocratic regime which was ‘worse’ than that of the dictator Somoza whom it toppled. Well, on 4 November 1984, as North, Owen and their henchmen were arming the Contras, free elections were held in Nicaragua for the first time in its history. Eighty-five percent of the people voted the Sandinista Government in, rather more than double the percentage of voters in the United States who, two days later, gave President Reagan a second term.

And where did North go to get funds to sustain his beloved democratic forces in their struggle against the elected government? He went to Galtieri, the dictator of the Argentine, and to Noriega, the corrupt tyrant of Panama. A million dollars a month for the Contras came from the King of Saudi Arabia, in which country there is not a whisper of democracy, and from the Sultan of Brunei, who locks up his opposition so that he can maintain his palace with 372 bathrooms.

North is still lying for his country, and he has a lot of admirers for it. His proudest page is 421, on which he reprints a letter written on 27 November 1985, only a few days after he pretends his own ‘operational involvement’ in Irangate started. The letter ended like this: ‘One of the many things I have to thank you for is the way in which you have performed, under fire, in tough situations. Your dedication and tireless work with the hostage thing and with Central America really give me cause for great pride in you and thanks. Get some turkey,’ The letter was signed: George Bush.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences