Oliver North

The Fox News house pundit and Iran-Contra scandal survivor spars with Salon's news editor over Bush, Clinton, bin Laden and whether his own Contra allies were terrorists.


Joan Walsh
January 29, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

Post-Sept. 11, ideology ain't what it used to be. In Congress, President Bush got bipartisan, unanimous-minus-one support for his war against terrorism, and while a few prominent lefties opposed the U.S. military campaign, there's no domestic antiwar movement to speak of. Meanwhile, a remarkable number of left-liberals -- SDS founder Todd Gitlin, Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, our own editor in chief David Talbot -- have aggressively backed the war and bashed old allies for knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

And on the airwaves, President Clinton's lone cable-news defender, left-leaning Geraldo Rivera, jumped to conservative Fox News and took off for Afghanistan. When military officials balked at giving access to the liberal news personality, one of Fox's house hawks, Lt. Col. Oliver North, was asked by his corporate bosses to intervene with his former uniformed colleagues on Rivera's behalf. Whatever North did (and there's debate about that), it didn't work -- apparently hawks have long memories, and Geraldo had to high-tail it to Somalia.

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But I have a long memory, too, and I can remember when the country was ideologically split over the issue of terror, and over the very person of Ollie North himself. Back in the summer of 1987, when the gap-toothed, medal-bedecked Marine starred in nationally televised congressional hearings over the arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra scandal he choreographed, Americans were bitterly divided into two camps: those who saw the National Security Council staffer as a traitor -- that would be me, and most liberals -- and those who saw him as a patriot.

Iran-Contra was a blockbuster scandal, featuring brazen defiance of the Congress and Constitution and foreign intrigue. North helped orchestrate an elaborate plot to sell arms to enemy Iran in violation of an embargo, in order to free hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists who enjoyed Iranian patronage; giving the proceeds of the deal to the Nicaraguan Contras, themselves considered terrorists by many Americans, in violation of congressional resolutions cutting off funding to the violent anti-communist resistance. The big question, though, was how high in government the conspiracy went. Although North would later famously insist, in his bestselling memoir "Under Fire," that President Ronald Reagan "knew everything," his superiors always claimed North acted alone, and he was eventually convicted of three felony counts, including obstructing Congress, in 1989. But a federal appeals court later reversed or set aside the convictions, and almost immediately North enjoyed folk hero status on the right.

Fifteen years later, Iran-Contra is little more than a trivia question in "The '80s Game" for most people. Whatever currency it still enjoys is due primarily to the zany details that always make for a juicy scandal -- pre-Enron document-shredding parties, National Security Advisor Bob McFarlane's stealthy bible-and-cake trip to Iran; North's comely assistant Fawn Hall slipping secret documents out of their office in her pants; the charming rogue North himself making derring-do missions to Central America. The big constitutional and geopolitical picture was too complicated to be well understood.

Yet Iran-Contra remains eerily relevant to the current terror crisis. Hezbollah leader Imad Mugniyeh, the mastermind of the Beirut hostage-taking, is now believed to be a top al-Qaida leader. Iran remains a U.S. strategic quandary, with even conservatives divided on Tehran: should the U.S. reach out to moderate elements or widen the terrorism war's targets to include the country's hard-line mullahs? And even the decades-old war in Nicaragua has re-entered the current debate, with left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy pointing to Reagan's support for the Contra forces as proof that the U.S. itself has sponsored terror when it suited its purposes.

North makes no apologies. Today he insists he was prescient about the need for relations with restive moderates in Iran, and dismisses critics who say that was just an excuse to sell arms to Islamic terrorists in order to fund Nicaraguan terrorists. And Noam Chomsky may laugh, but North insists the Contras weren't terrorists, but "freedom fighters," echoing his old boss Reagan's flattering description of the often-brutal rebels. Some Contras were responsible for civilian "atrocities," he admits, but atrocities happen in any war, including the American Civil War, which the affable Virginian jokes he still calls "the recent war of Northern aggression."

North has made a living out of sparring with liberals like me as host of his own radio and television programs, since an unsuccessful run for a Virginia U.S. Senate seat in 1994. Today, he's a regular Fox News commentator and host of the network's "War Stories," which appears Sunday nights in most cities. He spoke with me on the phone shortly after returning from Afghanistan for the network, where he briefly overlapped with his old nemesis from the Clinton impeachment days, Geraldo Rivera.

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I have a sense it's more fun to be you than me during this war.

How?

I'm a dovish liberal who was dragged kicking and screaming into supporting this war, expecting a quagmire.

Oops, that was wrong!

And you're a Marine and a hawk who embraced it from the start. You're happy with its progress?

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Well, I'm always happy when we can kill the enemy and not kill Americans. We've killed very few Americans and thankfully we seem to have broken the back of al-Qaida and the Taliban. That's a good thing for all of us.

Do you have any worries about the war situation at all?

Well, look, in a situation where you have a country that had already suffered so much destruction, that was already decimated by the Taliban, there's always the danger of a further collapse. There's very little central government, the current head of state, Hamid Karzai, is about to address the U.N. and he could find himself less than welcome when he returns. That's not uncommon in places like Afghanistan. That said, given the commitment of the U.S. and the rest of the world, given the global response that this president's gotten has been profound -- it's less likely that you'll have a catastrophic outcome.

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And I say that with some degree of experience. I mean, not with any hubris in all this, my real job, not withstanding all the controversy, my real job from 1983 to '86 was being the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator. I worked for a great president, but we didn't dream of getting the kind of cooperation this president's gotten. We couldn't get the dad-gum French to help when we were responding to Gadhafi's attacks. We couldn't fly over their airspace; we had to fly all the way around Gibraltar and two F-111 pilots died because of that. This president has been able to forge an extraordinary international consensus on this war. No matter how you feel about him you have to acknowledge that.

I do. I was impressed by the coalition he put together, and, honestly, I've been pretty surprised by his able handling of the war. Pleasantly surprised. I'm not one of those Bush haters who can't stand to see him succeed even in this.

Like Robert Altman.

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No, I'm happy to live in this country. But one thing I'd press you on: Your old mentor, (Reagan CIA director) Bill Casey, was a big sponsor of the way we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and there are many people who say we created the early success of Osama bin Laden, and then we walked out and left the country destroyed.

Well, let me agree with the last part -- we walked out, and we shouldn't have -- and disagree with the first. There's a lot of misinformation, some of it spread by bin Laden himself. We never gave bin Laden a single dollar, a single bullet. Most of his money came from rich Saudis and the Pakistani intelligence service, and eventually the charities he created. But he was not a recipient of U.S. assistance during the mujahedin uprising against the Soviets. He's seen to it that the credible resistance leaders that we did help are all dead. [Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah] Massoud is dead, murdered by al-Qaida suicide operatives, [Alliance leader Abdul] Haq was murdered trying to make his way back in from Iran. So if you look at the actual record of U.S. involvement, the mistake was not in arming the mujahedin, it was that Afghanistan was no longer on our scope from the mid-'90s on.

It wasn't the mid-'90s on. The neglect started earlier than that.

The Soviet withdrawal was 1989-'90. The U.S. stayed the No. 1 donor country after that, for years. It's still the No. 1 donor country through the NGOs and the U.N. What we didn't do in the 1990s was to elicit the kind of global support to keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Remember, the Taliban didn't come into power until 1995, and people want to blame Ronald Reagan and George Bush, well, Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's, and George Bush was out of office. The guy who let that happen was Bill Clinton. His response was to throw Tomahawk missiles at it, which was totally inadequate. What should have been done was what's happening now, with real leadership, to say to the world: Something's gotta be done about what's going on there.

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Well, to be fair, Salon covered the 2000 presidential race quite extensively, and I didn't hear George Bush making a big deal about the Taliban, Afghanistan or Osama bin Laden. Neither candidate made a big deal out of our vulnerability to terrorism, or the devastation of Afghanistan.

I happen to know a bit about how candidates are briefed on national security issues, because the National Security Council is in charge of that, and I was there for the 1984 campaign. There are briefings that are incredibly detailed for presidential candidates, gathered up from CIA, State Department, all the government agencies, so they know the issues. But our intelligence services were basically emasculated by 1995. Read Bob Baer's book on it.

"See No Evil" -- we reviewed it a couple of weeks ago.

He's right on the mark. He traces it back to the 1990s.

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He traces it back earlier than that. I think this attempt to lay it all at the feet of Clinton is unfair. Earlier this month, Salon gave a cover story to Andrew Sullivan to lay out the case against Clinton, and clearly Clinton bears some of the blame. But nobody was talking about bin Laden when he first came into office, nobody knew the threat until 1998, and after that the response was pretty serious and muscular.

Dig a little bit in the files. Go back to 1995, 1996. Louis Freeh, now I am no Louis Freeh fan, but Freeh tried to get the state Department to deal with Khartoum. The government of Khartoum realized it had gone too far, it had had enough of Osama bin Laden, and decided maybe it was time to get this guy out of there, and would the Americans like to have him. There was State Department paperwork on this, and it was rejected by (former Secretary of State) Maddie Albright.

This is basically the story the London Times laid out, and to some extent the Washington Post?

Right. That's not just [CIA director] George Tenet trying to keep his job, and Louis Freeh trying to keep his legacy. That's a true story. Now, Maddie Albright insists it didn't happen. But I happen to believe the FBI had reason to take the guy, the government in Khartoum had reason to give the guy and Albright stopped it.

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Albright personally stopped it?

Well, somewhere on the seventh floor, it got stopped. That's where the ultimate decisions get made. Albright is saying the State Department, broadly, didn't veto it. And that's 180 degrees away from what the FBI guys are saying.

We both know there are a lot of versions of that story, a lot of different takes on how serious the offers from Khartoum really were, even what the offers were. And you know that in bureaucracies, in an administration, even if you're all on the same team, different people are going to spin things different ways, and lay blame -- you experienced some of that, right?

Sure.

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So, I'm not sure we'll ever know the full truth about who really tried to do what. And meanwhile, the Washington Post, which has been doing some of the best reporting on the Clinton failures of policy toward al-Qaida, today turned to the young Bush administration's failures. And the bottom line is, look, the Clinton administration got religion about al-Qaida with the embassy bombings in 1998. Maybe it was late, maybe ultimately it wasn't enough, but it was a high priority in the White House after that point. In the Bush White House, terror just didn't have the same sense of urgency that it had in those final two years of the Clinton administration until Sept. 11. The Washington Post says Bush stopped the gunboats that were on patrol off Afghanistan to bomb al-Qaida and bin Laden, and they passed up some potential opportunities to kill bin Laden -- there was a feeling that the Clinton administration was too focused on bin Laden personally. Donald Rumsfeld vetoed a request to move $600 million from missile defense to anti-terror work ...

But Joan, first of all, in the bureaucracy of Washington, there are always people screaming they don't have enough money to do what they want to do, so that's a hollow whining. Look, this used to be my job. Between you and me, cruise missiles don't do diddly squat against terrorists, so firing them at a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum or tent camps in Afghanistan was basically an enticement to a guy like Osama bin Laden. That was what went wrong after the embassies were bombed. Clinton makes this grandiloquent speech, and by golly, nobody can give a speech like Bill Clinton. He promised the perpetrators would be brought to justice -- hooey! And Osama bin Laden knew it. And the reason bin Laden is either dead today or in total shock, is that he could not imagine the difference between Bill Clinton and George Bush. But I'll tell you something: I worked for a great president, and I'm grateful to Ronald Reagan until the day I die, because he made the world safer for my children. But in our wildest dreams, we never could have imagined getting the world to go along with us, and this president has done it. And he did it in 26 days, from the day of the attack until the day we started shooting back.

But Bush did that after Sept. 11. And long before that, he had evidence that al-Qaida was behind the USS Cole attack. Now, the Post story notes that Bush warned the Taliban we would attack if they continued to harbor al-Qaida -- and then he didn't do it either, until after Sept. 11. Don't you think if Sept. 11 had happened a year earlier, Clinton would have been able to marshal a similar coalition against al-Qaida?

Why didn't Clinton act after the USS Cole?

For one thing, it happened on Oct. 12, less than a month before the election. Yes, people believed right away it was bin Laden and al-Qaida, but there wasn't proof. But the National Security Council presented its final conclusions about the Cole attack -- that it was of course al-Qaida -- to Dick Cheney Feb. 9, according to the Post report. Why didn't the Bush White House attack soon after that? They warned the Taliban, but they didn't do anything. They were doing less than the Clinton administration.

That information about the USS Cole was developed within days of the bombing. Now, there's a new administration in town for a few weeks, and they get an intelligence briefing that says "Here's the" -- not "the new" -- "here's the evidence Osama bin Laden was behind this." Well, great! But what the hell was the previous administration doing about it? Nothing.

I don't think it's true they were doing nothing, but certainly they didn't attack. We also didn't hear on Oct. 13 or 14 candidate Bush say, "I'm going to invade Afghanistan if they don't punish al-Qaida!" We didn't hear it from Al Gore either. You should be the one arguing -- you're the hawk -- that neither party took this threat seriously enough.

I just don't believe the evidence about al-Qaida's responsibility for the Cole was presented to the candidates, either candidate, in the depth it was presented in that NSC meeting in February.

So why didn't the Bush administration act immediately after that February NSC meeting?

Very simple: What was it that galvanized the world?

Sept. 11. But Bill Clinton didn't have a Sept. 11. George Bush had that, tragically.

You're missing the point. Look, I just got back from over there. There are seven countries out there acting every day to help America prosecute that war. Not one of them wants to be listed as an American ally. Why is that? I visited a base where we have thousands of military personnel operating to support the operation in "a neighboring country." That's how I was told I had to describe it. I couldn't use the name of the country. Why? They're scared to death that we're going to pull out again because that's what they experienced under Bill Clinton. They're afraid the U.S. isn't in it for the long haul. We never should have abandoned the region after the Gulf War.

That wasn't Clinton.

We never should have allowed the Taliban to take charge after 1995. And after the USS Cole -- even after two American embassies were bombed -- why in God's name, with 2,000-plus people dead or wounded, why didn't the Clinton administration galvanize the world then? It was a missed opportunity for a guy who couldn't keep his pants up. Yes, I'm visceral when it comes to Bill Clinton.

When did you become aware of bin Laden and the threat al-Qaida posed?

Oh, 1997, '98. But of course I'm not in government. But I don't think most people in government were focusing on what's going on in Afghanistan. But now the agencies have done a lot in the 133 days since 9/11 to rebuild an infrastructure to respond to the complaints of Bob Baer and others. We got out of the human intelligence business in the mid-1990s. Baer's criticism is absolutely accurate. The killing of [CIA agent] Mike Spann (during the Mazar-e-Sharif prison uprising) demonstrates how sloppy the clandestine services business had gotten in the last five years.

How is that?

You never, ever, send a clandestine services officer into a situation like that with prisoners, outnumbered. You take the prisoners out to talk to him, and then bring them back. What happened? Thank God he didn't take more Army guys in with him, they'd have been killed.

What do you say to liberal critics who contend the Bush administration didn't do enough to crack down on al-Qaida, particularly on the Saudi support for al-Qaida, given that the Saudis are such close allies of the U.S. as well as the Bush family. You got money for the Contras from the Saudis.

Let's deal realistically about the Saudis. When King Faud had all of his faculties, and was working with President Reagan to help the Nicaraguan resistance, we had very, very amicable relations. (Former Defense Secretary) Cap Weinberger saw to it that the first major military arms sale after the administration got to town was to the Saudis. Now, King Faud is still the titular head, but the people who run the country have very little affection for the United States. The people of Saudi Arabia have been polarized by the acquiescence of Al-Turki and others to the most radical Islamists, and they've put their own regime at great risk.

So you'd agree the Bush administration didn't do enough to get the Saudis to crack down?

I don't know about that. I just know they haven't cracked down. Look at that Saudi cleric on the bin Laden video. Now that guy's clearly a big benefactor of al-Qaida; you can see bin Laden's behavior toward him when he walks in. Well, he's still free, still at large. The Saudis have not cooperated with the financial controls we've tried to put on. The days of Prince Bandar coming down to the White House and offering help are behind us. Why aren't we doing more against the Saudis? You bought gasoline recently?

Yes, prices are going down.

Exactly. But the Saudis are putting themselves at enormous risk by doing this, acquiescing to the most radical elements of their own society.

That brings me to Iran. People forget about the Iran part of Iran-Contra, but you always maintained that you were trying to develop the Reagan administration's ties to moderates in that country. Right now there's a rising call to get tough with Iran -- maybe even make that the next front of the war on terror. William Safire called for that last week in the New York Times.

There is a power struggle going on in Iran, and the moderates are the offspring of the folks I was trying to deal with. I think eventually they're going to take over. There's a lot of goodwill toward Americans among Iranians -- not in the government, but among the people. I think more than half the population is under 25. They have no recollection of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shah or SAVAK [the Shah's secret police]. They only know what they've experienced, which is hell. Iran is a macrocosm of what the Taliban brought to Afghanistan.

Not quite. It's much better developed, there's still more freedom.

Oh, of course, the country's much richer, the infrastructure's far greater, it's a rich culture and it has resources, oil and the rest of it. But the people of Iran don't particularly care for their government, the government is disaffected with much of the rest of the world and it wouldn't be surprising to see a transition to a much more moderate regime much sooner than we'd see it with Iraq. If that were to happen, then you've got the replacement for Saudi Arabia. If you look at the strategic place of Iran [in the region], the development of the oil fields.

What do you make of people saying now, let's expand the war, not to Iraq -- which I know you've come out against -- but to Iran? And is Israel the chief obstacle to our developing better relations with Iran?

Look, the historic connection between the people of Israel and the Persian people goes back to antiquity.

Yes, but they're not getting along very well right now. Israel's blaming Iran for the weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority.

Well, the worst thing in the world, not to take on my friend Mr. Safire, but the worst thing in the world would be to start bombing in Iran.

And make a new generation of enemies.

Bingo! Look at all the ferment in Iran, the demonstrations ... You can't underestimate the power of the Revolutionary Guard, and the power of the mullahs. But that power is diminishing. Look at the student riots in Qom. Where they put 80,000 students on the street. That's a sign of the lack of internal control on the part of the Iranian hardcore. And it's the antithesis of what's going on in Saudi Arabia, where the radicals are taking over. The opposite is happening in Iran. We ought to encourage that kind of process, and I don't think we do that with B-2s and B-1s and F-18s; you make it known that we'd like to work with moderates, as George Bush the elder did, and this president has. You say, "We're interested in having a relationship with reasonable people, because one day those reasonable people are going to take over."

To go to the Contra side of Iran-Contra, people on the left who oppose the war quote your old boss, Ronald Reagan, saying, "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," and he was talking about your friends the contras. That proves to a lot of people that the U.S. has always had a double standard on terror. We interviewed Noam Chomsky recently and he talked about how the U.S. backing of the Contras, and the terror in Nicaragua, undermined our ability to claim to be opponents of terrorism. Weren't the Contras terrorists, according to the prevailing definition? How do you defend your backing of them today?

The Contras never had a policy of attacking civilians. I don't care what anybody says. I helped write some of their stuff, as bad as my Spanish is, and it was a joke within the Contras. They used to joke about the gringo who couldn't speak Spanish because I learned it at the Naval Academy. The fact is the Contras never had a policy of attacking civilians. Now, did civilian atrocities occur? Certainly they did. They always occur in war. Civilians get hurt in every war; that's one of the reasons that those of us who've been to war never want to see another one.

The reality of it is, and I don't think the left has ever really understood this, Joan, I used to listen to [Contra commander] Enrique Bermudez and his orders to his commanders in the base camps on the Honduran border. In every case, he told them, "The civilians are the sea in which we swim. If you hurt them, they will turn you in. We must recruit from them. And you cannot recruit by being brutal." That was not the Sandinista philosophy at all. Poor old Enrique Bermudez gets murdered when he goes back to Nicaragua, and there was no investigation of his murder; it was simply allowed to happen. Meanwhile, (Sandinista leaders) Tomas Borge and Daniel Ortega, who locked up people who died in dungeons, are still walking the streets. Ortega, a pedophile and everybody knows it [Ortega was accused of abusing his stepdaughter], is still walking the streets. Daniel Ortega does not feel like he's under threat from anybody in the government. That's the difference.

But former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro was widely quoted as saying in reality a lot of units did brutalize civilians.

Well, sure. But the difference is, I mean this is where Chomsky can't get it: The policy of an organization like al-Qaida is to do nothing but target civilians. If you can also kill soldiers, it's just fine. A freedom fighter doesn't do that. A freedom fighter just wouldn't do that. Now, there were exceptions. But I watched court-martials after which the perpetrators of crimes within the Nicaraguan resistance were executed.

You watched Contra court-martials?

Yes, and there were executions of commanders who committed atrocities. Look, in any civil war, terrible things occur. I live in Virginia, where we still call it "the recent war of Northern aggression." What I'm suggesting to you is that people like Chomsky still can't abide the fact that his pal Daniel Ortega was voted out of office.

Democracy ultimately worked in Nicaragua.

But it never would have happened without the Nicaraguan resistance.

You don't know that. And you're not really going to compare the U.S. Civil War to end slavery to the Contra war, are you?

The atrocities that occurred in the Civil War in this country, as in any civil war, were awful. Look, the North won the war. But ask anybody on that Sherman Memorial Highway between Savannah and Atlanta what he did, and they'll tell you. They still talk about it.

Let's move on to a somewhat lighter issue: What was the real story with your friend Geraldo Rivera, and your attempts to intervene with the military on his behalf?

The media made way too much of the whole thing. As I assured Roger Ailes [Chairman and CEO of Fox News], I'm on his team. Just like an NFL team, there are a lot of personalities. I think we've got a winning team, and I'm not about to sack my own quarterback or knock another teammate. I did not talk to anybody about Geraldo. I did not talk to any New York [Daily] News reporter, and I think that's where the story got started about Geraldo. I was up north [in Afghanistan], he was doing his reporting down south; I think we did a good job. He's now in Somalia, where he thinks the next war's going to be.

Where do you think it's going to be?

My gut would tell me more likely the Philippines. It's not a Muslim Country; it's a Catholic country with a Muslim minority that wants our help. We don't have the logistics problems; the Navy has the run of the seas.

And your best guess about Osama's whereabouts?

KIA. All the best guys I talked to out there are convinced of it.

Do you worry that the Bush administration can't declare victory if it can't prove he's dead?

Well, I asked a bunch of the youngsters out there, "What's your definition of victory?" And one of them said, "I'll tell you what victory is, Colonel: It's six months without reading about terrorism on the front page of an American newspaper." And that's a perfect answer.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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