1986 January 17

President Reagan Signs Secret “Finding,” Authorizing Arms Sale to Iran


President Ronald Reagan on this day signed a secret Presidential Finding that authorized covert arms sales to Iran. Not only did the arms sale to Iran violate the Arms Embargo Act, but the sale was  part of a secret deal to free U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon, which violated the long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Finally, the profits from the arms sale were secretly diverted to support the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, in violation of the Boland Amendment. The finding signed on this day was a key event in what became the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a wide range of violations of law by the Reagan administration.

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.

Learn more: Theodore Draper, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (1991)

Follow a timeline on the Iran-Contra affair: http://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/timeline-iran.php

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