1989 May 4

Oliver North Convicted of Iran-Contra Crimes


Lt. Col. Oliver North, staff member with the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan, was convicted on this day on three counts for crimes associated with the Iran-Contra scandal. In fact, the Iran-Contra affair was based on North’s “neat idea” of secretly and illegally selling arms to Iran and then using the profits from the sales to secretly and illegally providing funds to the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua through the CIA. North was originally indicted on 16 counts of criminal conduct for his actions during the scandal; on this day, he was convicted of accepting a gratuity, obstructing a Congressional investigation, and ordering the destruction of government documents (see, for example, his infamous “shredding party” on November 21, 1986). His convictions were subsequently overturned on a technicality. For his defiant testimony before Congress on July 7, 1987, in which he belligerently refused to apologize for his illegal actions, he immediately became a hero among conservatives.

President Reagan and his CIA Director William Casey were fierce anti-communists, determined to fight what they saw as communist threats anywhere in the world. They were both committed to this effort, even if it meant violating the law and established policies, as the Iran-Contra affair revealed.

In brief, he Iran-Contra scandal was a complex affair in which the Reagan administration sold military arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages, and the profits from the sales were used to secretly fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. The arrangement violated the Arms Embargo Act and the Boland Amendment prohibiting aid to Nicaraguan forces (see December 21, 1982), as well as the established policy of not negotiating with terrorists over hostages. When President Reagan approved one set of illegal actions on December 7, 1985, his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense both joked with him about going to prison (“visiting hours are on Thursday,” one of them said). President Reagan and some of his aides lied to cover up the affair, and National Security Council staff member Oliver North shredded key documents as part of the cover-up (November 21, 1986). In the end, eight administration officials were convicted of crimes related to the affair (President George H. W. Bush pardoned six of them on December 24, 1992.

The Iran-Contra affair is particularly important because it demonstrated the readiness of an ideologically driven administration to violate the law and controls over national security in the pursuit of its policies. President George W. Bush also violated a variety of laws in the war on terrorism, authorizing both illegal NSA spying (see the exposure by the New York Times on December 16, 2005) and torture (see the infamous “Torture Memo” on August 1, 2002.

Read his account: Oliver North, Under Fire: An American Story (1991)

Watch North’s famous Congressional testimony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX4Vg46vqAg

Learn more about the Iran-Contra Scandal: Theodore Draper, A Very Thin Line (1991)

Learn more at a timeline on the Iran-Contra scandal: http://www.ibiblio.org/sullivan/CNN/RWR/ps174/icontra/ictimtxt.htm

Learn more about the Iran-Contra scandal: http://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/iran-contra-affairs.php

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