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Situation Room, White House, June 25, 1984. Cast of characters: The President, the Vice President, and assorted other high-level members of the Administration.

Problem: How to get around Congressional cutoff of funds for the Nicaraguan contras.

U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick: "If we can't get the money [from Congress] for the anti-Sandinistas, then we should make the maximum effort to find the money elsewhere."

Secretary of State George Shultz: "I would like to get money for the contras also, but another lawyer, Jim Baker, said that if we try to go out and get money from third countries it is an impeachable offense."

CIA chief William Casey: "I am entitled to complete the record. Jim Baker said that if we tried to get money from third countries without notifying the oversight committees, it could be a problem and he was informed that the finding does provide for the participation and cooperation of third countries. Once he learned that the funding does encourage cooperation from third countries, Jim Baker immediately dropped his view that this could be an 'impeachable offense,' and you heard him say that, George."

Secretary Shultz: "Jim Baker's argument is that the U.S. Government may raise and spend funds only through an appropriation of the Congress."

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger: "I am another lawyer who isn't practicing law, but Jim Baker should realize that the United States would not be spending the money for the anti-Sandinistas program; it is merely helping the anti-Sandinistas obtain the money from other sources. Therefore, the United States is not, as a government, spending money from other sources."

Secretary Shultz: "I think we need to get an opinion from the Attorney General on whether we can help the contras obtain money from third sources."

Edwin Meese: "As another nonpracticing lawyer, I want to emphasize that it's important to tell the Department of Justice that we want them to find the proper and legal basis which will permit the United States to assist in obtaining third-party resources for the anti-Sandinistas. You have to give lawyers guidance when asking them a question."

President Ronald Reagan: "There are persons now meeting with the Nicaraguans; and without aborting anything, we do want to keep getting a good Contadora treaty as the focus of our negotiating process."

When historians a hundred years from now make interactive videos - or maybe even write - about the Cold War, they will puzzle over such dialogue. Did the world's most powerful people actually say these things, or was some fledgling playwright trying to imitate Edward Albee? No, the editors of The Iran-Contra Scandal assure us, this transcription came from one of those real meetings from which Irancontra policy emerged.

How did a bunch of Republican businessmen, lawyers, and an actor come to spend so much time and money on one of the least important spots in the world? Yes, the United States has always responded negatively to revolution in this hemisphere, and CIA chief Casey certainly suffered from a compulsion to do battle until death with the Evil Empire, the subversion of Nicaragua being for him the doing of Moscow.

But add to that another factor, without which the Iran-contra episode would be even less comprehensible. Ronald Reagan had two political obsessions, and Nicaragua was one of them. His staff, understanding these Presidential proclivities, employed any and every charlatan means to satisfy Reagan's desire to punish the Sandinistas.

So a vast multilayered operation began. It included a serious ad campaign in which Colonel "Jake" Jacobowitz and his minions outlined a sales pitch, the "Public Diplomacy Action Plan," to persuade the rubes (the public) that the contras were not really a hazardous product. In a March 12, 1985, memo classified Confidential - Sensitive, Jacobowitz lists among the assets at the Administration's disposal "The Great Communicator" and "historical U.S. policies." As his overall theme: "The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters are fighters for freedom in the American tradition," and should be portrayed as underdogs; "FSLN are evil."

Reagan made many speeches filled with heroic rhetoric. (Remember his warning that the Sandinistas are only a two-day march from Harlingen, Texas?) The documents illustrate the oratorical arcs of the mountebanks of the 1980s, but the humor that a reader may derive from some of the papers Kornbluh and Byrne have assembled must be tempered by a knowledge that the policy implications of such documents led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Central Americans and the destruction of tens of billions of dollars' worth of property.

The fact that the U.S. response to revolution in Central America resulted in one of the most ludicrous episodes in American history does not lessen the pain for the victims and their families. They will receive neither solace nor understanding from reading this inane drama. They will read how the powerful discussed trivial affairs as if they had world-shaking importance. They will see how mindless officials manipulated the media, prepared psychological-warfare exercises - some of which were used - and engaged in surreptitious fundraising and spending schemes. They will peek into the lies these officials told not only to the public, the media, and Congress, but to each other, as criminals tend to do when seeking to disguise their felonies.

In the years-long cabal that emerged as the Iran-contra scandal, the highest officials of the land concocted hoaxes to fool Congress, trick each other, gain pieces of bureaucratic turf, and then cover their own asses.

Moreover, they created an additional layer cake of prevarications, a series of myths about their real motivation and their knowledge of criminal activities, until some lost the ability to, or interest in, distinguishing between facts and their peculiar perception of reality. In the process they seemed to acquire actual zeal, a true belief in the importance of their historic mission - to pulverize a puny Nicaraguan government that was attempting to make a few desperately needed reforms. One of the less intelligent fanatics, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, threw himself into covert operations with such ardor that he frightened seasoned CIA operatives like Joe Fernandez, the station chief in Costa Rica, whose debriefing is included in the book.

The editors provide an ample and necessary narrative, so that readers can follow non-sequitur dialogue and shabby attempts to disguise banal criminality as anticommunist ideology. Thanks to the editors' text, each document's relevance becomes clear as part of one zany story.

The coffee-table-size volume is an abridged, contemporary equivalent to the Pentagon Papers. Like those Vietnam war documents, The Iran-Contra Scandal brings up to date the peregrinations of the national-security apparatchiks. Like other conspirators of big and little wars against Third World revolutions, the Iran-contra plotters drenched their intrigue with paper, but the words have a hollow, bureaucratic ring. These texts are bereft of a single trace of literary elegance.

If one doesn't have the stamina to browse through the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents now available on the Iran-contra affair, this volume of documents offers the pieces de resistance from the larger menu.

If the reader still has an appetite for reading on intelligence matters, Ralph McGehee, former CIA official turned critic, has assembled an impressive resource guide to almost everything published. This cross-referenced manual runs some seven megabytes and will serve everyone from the term-paper writer to the exhaustive researcher. It operates on both IBM and Macintosh systems - and without any need for hacker status.

(Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Transnational Institute in Holland. His new books are "The Guerrilla Wars in Central America," published by St. Martin's Press, and "My Dad Was Not Hamlet," poems published by IPS.)
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Title Annotation:U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Author:Landau, Saul
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Evaluation
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History.
Next Article:To your health.

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