When someone mentions a 'Shadow Government', it is often peoples response to scoff at the notion. The actions of the CIA and NSC reveal exactly that: A shadow government within the intelligence industry that operates above the law and without oversight, often funding and participating in atrocities for small pockets of power in far away foreign lands, condoning and sometimes even directly participating in terrorism.
“The common ingredients of the Iran and Contra policies were secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law...the United States simultaneously pursued two contradictory foreign policies — a public one and a secret one”- Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair
“In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not—repeat, did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.” -Ronald Reagan, November 1986
“A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not." -Ronald Reagan, March 1987
Of the many covert operations scandals perpetrated by America's intelligence agencies and armed forces, it is certainly the Iran/Contra affair which has stuck with the national psyche the most, in no small part due its extensive coverage in the mainstream media. The interest in the televised trial of Oliver North reached the levels of the likes of O.J. Simpson. It is interesting, then, that the general public continued to be so uninformed about the depth of the scandal and its dire implications for the existence of an American covert government.
Iran/Contra was not one singular scandal but rather two distinct operations that intersected at key points and were overseen by the same officials in the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. I will begin with discussing the 'Nicaraguan Story'.
Nicaragua and the Contras
American intervention in the affairs of Nicaragua was nothing new. In fact, American troops had already landed in the country 10 times before our full scale occupation in 1912 during a period known as the 'Banana Wars'. There was a long period of stability, in the eyes of the American establishment, beginning in 1933 when the American trained and run Nicaraguan National Guard quickly arrested and executed their political opponent Augusto Sandino, in violation of a free passage agreement, soon leading to a military dictatorship run by the Samoza family which would last for 4 decades. The Guard would continue to use rape, torture, and assassination as a political tool throughout the Samoza regime.
In the 1970s, a new political rival emerged, the revolutionary Sandanistas, whom first made their name widely known in 1974 when they kidnapped several Nicaraguan elite at a Christmas party. Their uprising culminated in gaining full power in 1979, after Carter had eliminated aid to the Samoza regime, pending an improvement with their civil rights record. The Sandanistas were lucky to have some breathing room with the Carter administration before Reagan assumed office in 1981.
On December 1, 1981, Reagan signed an order that would allow the CIA to train, fund and equip the Contras. He would soon sign National Security Decision Directive 77, essentially a public planning group that coordinated with the NSC to create public diplomacy campaigns in regards to 'national security', in effect America's first peacetime propaganda ministry.
Meanwhile, the Contras would go on to deliberately terrorize the Nicaraguan population. A 1987 Chicago Tribune article noted that the Contras “engaged repeatedly in kidnapings, torture and murder of unarmed civilians.” The Guardian would delve deeper into the atrocities of the Contras, saying “Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit." Americas Watch, a humans rights group, accused the Contras of:
- targeting health care clinics and health care workers for assassination kidnapping civilians
- torturing civilians
- executing civilians, including children, who were captured in combat
- raping women
- indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian houses
- seizing civilian property
- burning civilian houses in captured towns.
These were the principle means of waging war. Meanwhile, Reagan called the Contras the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers”
This was not simply a case of oversight. In fact, the CIA wrote a manual for the Contras titled “Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare” which among other things advocated for assassinating judges, priests, blackmailing citizens, blowing up public buildings, and firing on dissenting citizens.
Congress Tries to Intervene
The importance of this story is not the human rights abuses of the Contras, though it is certainly important to illuminate the depths of depravity that the CIA was wholeheartedly supporting. Rather, the part of the Nicaragua story that has implications today is the complete defiance of congress in these covert operations. In 1982, when CIA activities with the Contras began escalating and information about their atrocities was breaking into the mainstream press, Congressman Edward Boland lead a campaign to end all funding to the covert war. His Boland Amendment passed but by this time the CIA had committed itself to the cause, and circumvented it with a loophole by which they “did not intend to overthrow the Sandanista government”. Furthermore, it was revealed that the CIA began taking actions such as blowing up refineries and placing mines in civilian harbors with their own assets, circumventing the need for the Contras entirely.
Congress soon realized the ineffectiveness of their amendment and passed a second one, aptly named Boland Amendment II. This one explicitly stated that “no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual.”
This is where Iran and Israel come in to play.
The Iran Story
By now most people are familiar with the 1953 coup of the democratically elected government of Iran by the CIA, which saw the installation of a military government which would develop into an authoritarian monarchy. This eventually culminated in a backlash in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
In the subsequent Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, the US began arming Iraq, first with 200 million dollars in helicopters, and later escalating to several billion dollars worth of economic aid, the sale of dual-use technology, non-U.S. origin weaponry, military intelligence, Special Operations training, and direct involvement in warfare against Iran. Americas allies, most notably Britain, supplied even more significant levels of support to Iraq. At the same time the United States was actively engaged in Operation Staunch, an arms embargo against Iran.
We have recently learned that arms sales to Iran had been covertly facilitated by Washington as early as 1981 as well. Israel served as the intermediary. It is very likely that these early arms shipments were the reason that Iran was able to function throughout the war after Iraqs initial assault, in which they gave no formal warning in a hope to exploit Irans revolutionary chaos.
In August 1985, Reagan approved a plan to allow Israel to sell US made weapons to Iran in direct defiance of the arms embargo, and only a month after Reagan had publicly denounced bartering with 'terrorists'. This time, funds were diverted to arm the Contras, in direct defiance of the wishes of Congress. The CIA would continue to facilitate the arming of Iran and the Contras secretly until two Lebanese reporters broke the story in November 1986.
There is much more to the story, such as the involvement of Oliver North and the resulting trial and coverup, all of which were certainly scandalous to the Reagan administration but it is the actions of the CIA from 1981 to 1986 that have the deepest implications for todays administration.
Iran/Contra established that the actual policies of the United States are far removed from the rhetoric of democratization and rule of law. The CIA deliberately defied both Congress and international law to weaponize Iran and the brutal fascist Contras. The extent to which Reagan was aware of these actions is disputed. These thoughts may not seem too significant at first glance but the real implications are truly important. When someone mentions a 'Shadow Government', it is often peoples response to scoff at the notion. The actions of the CIA reveal exactly that: A shadow government within the intelligence industry that operates above the law and without oversight, often funding and participating in atrocities for small pockets of power in far away foreign lands, condoning and sometimes even directly participating in terrorism.
The balance of powers defined in the Constitution had been long dead by the time the US covertly defied national and international law in the 1980s, but for the first time it was laid out before us with definitive proof. The populace remained entirely complacent and complicit in the affairs, during a time when significant change was needed most.