Trump's Russia scandal is more like Iran-Contra than Watergate — which isn't good news

Unfortunately, the murky, massive and muddled Reagan-era scandal is a far closer analogy to what we now face

Published June 4, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Oliver North, Ronald Reagan (Getty/Staff/Handout)
Oliver North, Ronald Reagan (Getty/Staff/Handout)

As the scandal surrounding President Donald Trump's apparent entanglements with Russia has grown increasingly serious the comparisons to Watergate have grown increasingly frequent. It goes beyond comparison, as cable news shows populate their coverage with people who were connected to Richard Nixon's 1970s scandal, from onetime White House counsel John Dean to former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who helped draft some of the impeachment language, to an array of former prosecutors involved in the case.

It’s valuable to have people like that on hand, people who’ve been through it all, as the layers of deception and denial are stripped away. At the same time, it’s a fundamental distortion of perspective to use Watergate as the primary frame of reference for the unfolding scandal.

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For multiple reasons, we’d be much better served to use Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal as our primary reference frame, and use Watergate only as a supplement. Iran-Contra was as messy, complicated and ill-defined as Watergate is neat and tidy, at least in the popular elite version — and that contrast is part of my point: The Trump-Russia scandal is perhaps even messier and more complicated than Iran-Contra was, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.

But the short version of Iran-Contra is that the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran, in hopes of getting hostages released, and used some of the proceeds to illegally fund the right-wing drug-dealing terrorists in Nicaragua known as the "Contras" (in other words, the counterrevolutionaries opposed to that nation's leftist Sandinista government). Writing here on its 25th anniversary, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives offered a slightly expanded bill of particulars:

The Reagan administration had been negotiating with terrorists (despite Reagan’s repeated public position that he would “never” do so). There were illegal arms transfers to Iran, flagrant lying to Congress, soliciting third country funding to circumvent the Congressional ban on financing the contra war in Nicaragua, White House bribes to various generals in Honduras, illegal propaganda and psychological operations directed by the CIA against the U.S. press and public, collaboration with drug kingpins such as Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and violating the checks and balances of the constitution.

Altogether, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican appointed to the federal bench by President Dwight Eisenhower, investigated several dozen individuals and indicted a dozen of them, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, national security advisers Robert C. McFarlane and John Poindexter and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Pardons by President George H.W. Bush effectively ended the prosecutions and effected a final layer of coverup over the whole affair. Walsh considered charging both Reagan and Bush, but did not, for reasons having nothing to do with culpability. He  found Reagan suffering from early signs of dementia disorder during an interview, and saw faint prospects of success with Bush, given the extent of the coverup protecting him.

“The Iran-Contra affairs are not a warning for our days alone,” Kornbluh quotes historian Theodore Draper writing at the time. “If the story of the affairs is not fully known and understood, a similar usurpation of power by a small strategically placed group within the government may well reoccur before we are prepared to recognize what is happening.”

Clearly, the warning has gone unheeded until now. It’s time we did better, and Iran-Contra can help us on at least five counts. First, Watergate perpetuates the illusion that “the system worked,” whereas Iran-Contra shows clearly how and why it did not. Second, Watergate was a narrowly focused domestic affair, while Iran-Contra was a far-flung enterprise involving significant foreign actors. Third, Watergate fostered the misleading impression that impeachment turned on breaking the law, while Iran-Contra made it clear that it was about abuse of power and the political elite’s collective willingness to restrain it. Fourth, Watergate was a relatively self-contained scandal, while Iran-Contra was connected with multiple other illegal international enterprises — a coalition of high-level international lawlessness. Fifth, Watergate occurred at the end of an era, in which a different set of norms and institutional constraints still held sway, while Iran-Contra reflected how badly those norms and constraints had been eroded in Watergate’s aftermath.

Both the scandal and the world we live in today are even further removed from Iran-Contra than Iran-Contra was from Watergate, so I am not proposing that Iran-Contra is an ideal framework for understanding the Trump-Russia scandal. Rather, it is a better framework, which can help us better understand the evolutionary trajectories that make this situation so different from what came before, though still similar in some respects. Let’s go through those five different counts, one by one.

First, the illusion that “the system worked.” This claim seems so self-evident to political elites that no one ever thinks to explain it. But what does it mean? That Nixon was forced to resign? That seems like an appallingly low bar in light of all that’s happened since. The destructive forces that Nixon unleashed were only briefly restrained, if at all. Public confidence in government — which began falling during the Vietnam War — declined as a result of Watergate, and was not restored by its conclusion. Political polarization intensified, and institutions continued to erode.

The press also failed. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post are legendary figures. But they weren’t part of the White House press corps, or even the political press. They were metropolitan reporters assigned to cover a burglary story in June 1972, which they did to devastating effect, but not until after the 1972 election. The press's failure to cover Watergate before the election was a key factor that led sociologist Carl Jensen to establish Project Censored in 1975. The burglary "sparked one of the biggest political coverups in modern history," Jensen later recalled. "And the press was an unwitting, if willing participant in the coverup. Watergate taught us two important lessons about the press: First, the news media sometimes do fail to cover some important issues, and second, the news media sometimes indulge in self-censorship."

Yet elites today are blind to all the above failures. So let’s consider Iran-Contra instead. No jail time was served by anyone, not even the lowliest underling, while Reagan and Bush escaped so thoroughly that their involvement is scarcely even remembered by elites, while the heroic prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was subject to hostility and contempt. His book, "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up," was a damning indictment of how the system failed, with detailed descriptions of how the multi-layer coverup unfolded over time. But elites had no appetite to face up to it. As one reviewer explained the antipathy:

On one front, the Washington media wants to perpetuate the myth that it remains the heroic Watergate press corps of "All the President's Men." On another, the national Democratic establishment wants to forget how it crumbled in the face of pressures from the Reagan-Bush administrations. And, of course, the Republicans want to protect the legacy of their last two presidents.

Those were the words of investigative reporter Robert Parry, another key figure in the historical comparison. He was the Woodward and Bernstein of Iran-Contra. He co-wrote a December 1985 AP story reporting that three Contra groups had "engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua." The story almost didn’t run, due to Reagan administration pressure, but it drew the attention of Sen. John Kerry, who chaired a subcommittee that spent the next few years producing a damning report, "Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy," released on April 13, 1989.

We’ll pick up that strand again later. After that, Parry and his collaborator Brian Barger worked for months on a followup story, in which they exposed the illegal Contra-supporting side of the scandal. But the rest of the Beltway media relied heavily on Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council as a favorite inside source, and he effortlessly waved them off the story. In the face of that pushback, AP pulled Parry and Barger off the story, only to have it explode again after two Mideast newspapers blew the whistle on the Iranian arms sale side of the scandal.

I’ll have more to say about Parry and his discoveries below, but the mere fact that he’s not as famous as Woodward and Bernstein speaks volumes about how different the political climate had become. In Watergate, Nixon had only a handful of allies in his fight to hold back the truth. In Iran-Contra, there was a well-coordinated, multi-level defense system in place. If anything it was the prosecutors and investigative reporters who were isolated and ultimately scorned by the political establishment.

The second way in which Iran-Contra is a more useful reference frame is the matter of scope. Although Watergate had some foreign policy origins — the “plumbers” started out burglarizing Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in response to the Pentagon Papers — it was an overwhelmingly domestic affair with a narrow focus. Iran-Contra was a vast, far-flung enterprise with significant foreign actors: Middle East arms dealers, Iranian government officials, Central American paramilitary groups, etc. There were also no clearly defined outer edges to the scandal. In fact, there were additional overlapping scandals involving some of the same individuals and similar or related activities. The broader framework of criminality in which Iran-Contra arose, and the importance of foreign actors, potentially quite hostile to America as a whole, as well as profound uncertainty of how far the scandals go, all set Iran-Contra apart from Watergate but are essentially the same situation we confront today.

The third way that Iran-Contra is a more useful reference frame is in terms of focus: What is the scandal about? Watergate fostered the misleading impression that the question of impeachment turned on breaking the law. But, Iran-Contra made clear that it was about abuse of power, and the elite's collective willingness to restrain it. Impeachment was never intended to punish specific violations of law. Its purpose is protect the whole framework of the rule of law from the encroachments of tyranny. It was certainly appropriate for Walsh, as a prosecutor, to carefully weigh whether it made sense to prosecute not just based on his belief that crimes had been committed but on multiple other factors; it was also appropriate for Congress to weigh its responsibilities. At the very beginning of the process, Democratic senators said they were not interested in impeachment, thus setting the tone for an extended pageant of delays, digressions and denials.

Even worse, congressional committees took testimony heedlessly ignoring prosecutorial needs. Most notably, Oliver North’s convictions — for accepting an illegal gratuity, obstruction of a congressional inquiry and destruction of documents — were all overturned on appeal because North had been granted congressional immunity, even though Walsh built his case independent of that testimony. Everyone involved — but especially those with key congressional power — needs to be clear about the nature and purpose of impeachment and other oversight responsibilities, and their relationship to law enforcement. The more these issues get muddled, the more damaging it is to the rule of law and the health of our democracy.

The fourth way in which Iran-Contra is a better reference frame is in terms of background. Watergate was a relatively self-contained scandal. Although Nixon engaged in several different sorts of activity that led to drafting impeachment charges, there was little to connect them, beyond Nixon’s own exaggerated sense that “when the president does it, it’s not illegal.” In contrast, the Iran-Contra affair. 

The broader context of Iran-Contra can be thought of as two additional overlapping scandals: one involving the Contra drug-dealing, the other an earlier Iranian arms deal linked to meddling in the 1980 election, the so-called “October Surprise” in which Iran and the Reagan campaign colluded to prevent the release of the U.S. Embassy hostages in Tehran until after Election Day. Both these scandals were much more intensively suppressed than Iran-Contra itself, but they call attention to the broader framework of criminality in which the whole affair arose, which is significantly more extensive today.

As mentioned above, Parry co-wrote a 1985 story about Contra drug involvement that was virtually ignored by political elites, except for John Kerry’s subcommittee. The resulting 1989 report covered drug trafficking in the Bahamas, Colombia, Cuba and Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and Panama, with the longest chapter devoted to the Contras. It stated that "The war against Nicaragua contributed to weakening an already inadequate law enforcement capability in the region which was exploited easily by a variety of mercenaries, pilots, and others involved in drug smuggling." It "did not find that Contra leaders were personally involved in drug trafficking," but "there was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters."

Awareness of the criminality reached all the way to the National Security Council. North's notebooks were made available to the subcommittee in redacted form, but 16 examples were cited "which discernibly concern narcotics or terrorism." In addition, it noted that numerous other entries referred to individuals or events that apparently related to "narcotics, terrorism, or international operations, but whose ambiguities cannot be resolved without the production of the deleted materials by North and his attorneys."

In short, the illegal conduct involved in the Iran-Contra scandal took place against a background of widely tolerated criminality. Beyond that, "The logic of having drug money pay for the pressing needs of the Contras appealed to a number of people who became involved in the covert war. Indeed, senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems."  

Throughout the 1980s, there were repeated rumors and scattered bits of evidence pointing to a secret deal struck between Iran and the Reagan campaign to prevent the release of hostages before Election Day in 1980, an “October surprise” that could have benefited Jimmy Carter. In fact, there’s undisputed evidence that arms transfers to Iran began well before the negotiations for release of hostages, using Israel as a go-between. One such arms shipment was shot down aboard an Argentinian CL-4 turboprop near the Soviet-Turkish border on July 18, 1981. Iran’s president during this period, Abolhassan Banisadr, was a primary source affirming that these were connected to the October Surprise deal, but it wasn’t until after Iran-Contra came to light that pressure started to build for a full investigation.

Robert Parry played a significant role investigating this scandal as well. He was involved in a 1991 PBS "Frontline" documentary that helped to build support for a congressional investigation. That investigation, however, was severely crippled both by outside media criticism promoting coverup narratives (detailed by Parry here), and by the leader of the investigation himself, Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat. In a detailed dissection of the resulting report’s weaknesses, Parry decribes how Hamilton suppressed a dissent from Rep. Mervyn Dymally, D-Calif.:

[W]hen Dymally submitted his dissent, he received a terse phone call in early January 1993 from the task force's Democratic chairman Lee Hamilton, who vowed to “come down hard on” Dymally if the dissent were not withdrawn.

The next day, Hamilton, who was becoming chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, fired the entire staff of the Africa subcommittee, which Dymally had chaired before his retirement from Congress which had just taken effect. Hoping to save the jobs of his former staffers, Dymally agreed to withdraw the dissent but still refused to put his name on the task force's conclusions.

To this day, Hamilton enjoys an elevated reputation for his Beltway bipartisanship, of which this is a classic example: He beat up on other Democrats for the sake of a unified coverup. Parry went on to publish a book based on his research, "Trick or Treason," in 1993. But two years later he discovered much more information. In 1995, he began publishing an eight-part series, the “October Surprise X-Files,” based on his investigation of the neglected work product of Hamilton’s task force. The first story in that series, “Russia’s Report,” revealed that the task force had received a last-minute response from Russia (in its post-Soviet, pre-Putin glasnost phase), which provided strong confirmation:

To the shock of the task force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact, that [CIA director William] Casey, George Bush and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to outbid one another for Iran’s cooperation on the hostages. The Russians asserted that the Reagan team had disrupted Carter’s hostage negotiations after all, the exact opposite of the task force conclusion.

What these examples show is both the existence of much wider criminality and much more intense bipartisan denial. Ignoring either of these two aspects surrounding Iran-Contra only further misleads us in any effort to make sense of the unfolding Trump-Russia scandal.

The fifth and final way in which Iran-Contra is a better reference frame is a reflection on all the above, and how hostile Washington had become to exposing the truth and defending democratic norms. Watergate occurred at the end of an era in which a different set of norms and institutional constraints still held sway. It’s delusional to pretend that those norms and constraints still hold. The bungled non-resolution of the Iran-Contra scandal, not to mention the two related scandals discussed above, shows just how badly those norms and constraints had been eroded in Watergate’s aftermath. Things have only gotten worse since then.

Part of the explanation simply goes back to who controls Congress. During Watergate, it was all Democrats, across the board. During Iran-Contra, Democrats had just won back the Senate after Republicans had controlled it for six years, and were particularly eager to prove how “fair” and “bipartisan” they could be. Republicans took every advantage they could as a result. Now Congress is entirely in Republican hands, and you can see the results for yourself every day.

But it’s not just the numbers. It’s also the kinds of people involved, and the nature of the power blocs behind them. From a big-picture perspective, as I wrote in 2013, “scandal narratives function differently for conservatives and liberals based on essential differences across the centuries in how they define things.” This is largely based on the distinction between logos, which is concerned with how the world works, and mythos, which is concerned with making meaningful sense of the world.

Liberals generally understand scandal in terms of logos: a breaking of the rules, once hidden, brought into the light. It is very much about the facts of the case, an empirical investigative process. Conservatives generally understand scandal in terms of mythos, as unmasking a violation of the sacred order of things, that sacred order being that conservatives and those they favor are on top, and everyone else is beneath them. In this view, the very existence of liberalism is scandalous, because liberalism posits a fundamental equality of people, rather than an immutable hierarchy. For conservatives, scandal is a spectacle or a morality play, whose facts are largely determined by how well they resonate with pre-established meanings.

So the very idea of investigating conservative scandals is itself a scandal in conservative eyes. This, above all, is the change in overarching attitude that distorts everything we are living through, and makes the Watergate model so woefully outdated when it comes to understanding what we’re up against now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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