On the first Thursday of every month, we throw it back to a classic political scandal. Today: Iran-Contra!
The Scandal: High-up folks in Ronald Reagan’s administration illegally sell arms to Iran in the hopes of freeing hostages and funding right-wing rebels in Nicaragua
The Scandalized: President Ronald Reagan, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane, National Security Council member Oliver North, plus some other people that you don’t care about
The Short Version: In the 1980s, President Reagan and his administration supported right-wing rebel groups fighting in Nicaragua (which were actually based in Honduras at the time and crossing the border). Collectively known as the Contras, these rebel groups were battling the Sandinistas, who were communists (Reagan wasn’t big on commies).
Not everyone in Congress agreed with Reagan’s interventionist ways. Intervention opponents tacked on an amendment to the 1982 Defense Appropriations Act to stop all of this Contra-helping that was going on. The Boland Amendment put serious limitations on what Reagan’s administration could do to help the Contras; Reagan’s administration went on to ignore it, which is the real meat of this scandal.
But first: arms deals! Iran was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war at this point, and “moderate elements” within the country needed big guns. But Iran was officially considered a state sponsor of terrorism, so selling arms directly to them was a no-no. But having Israel sell them arms, giving Israel replacement guns, and taking Israel’s payment for the guns? That would get around the arms embargo, and that’s what the Reagan administration did.
The guns went to a “moderate” faction that promised to do whatever was possible to free U.S. hostages being held in Iran at the time, which looked awkwardly like negotiating with terrorists (through a shady arms deal, no less). On top of that, the money from the Iran deal was immediately funneled to the Contras – in violation of the Boland Amendment.
Reagan denied knowledge of the Contras part and claimed that the arms deal was not in exchange for the release of any hostages. The arms deal was not deemed a criminal offense, but the violation of the Boland Amendment was, and five conspirators were charged – only to see the charges dropped on lack of evidence, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that so much of the relevant evidence kept getting “lost” by Reagan’s administration. Ultimately, 11 conspirators got hit with lesser charges. They were all later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s Veep when this all went down.
Scandal Level: 7/10 angry Salon Reagan retrospectives