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Cheney Reprises His Iran-Contra Role to Defend Bush Administration Torture

December 17, 2014

"The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes...were just that," Dick Cheney announced to the nation, "mistakes in judgment, and nothing more."

There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ''the rule of law,'' no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or coverup. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.

But that confident proclamation didn't happen last week, but on November 18, 1987. And then Congressman Cheney wasn't defending a Republican president from charges of detainee torture, but from the unpunished criminality that was the Iran-Contra affair.

That's right. Swap Ronald Reagan for George W. Bush and replace "enhanced interrogation techniques" with "traded arms for hostages," and you'd have the minority Republican response to the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation. Joined then and as now by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) among other GOP leaders, Cheney didn't just denounce the majority's findings as "clearly case in such a partisan tone," but insisted President Reagan had the constitutional authority to ignore the Congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras:

"Judgments about the Iran-Contra Affair ultimately must rest upon one's views about the proper roles of Congress and the President in foreign policy. ... [T]hroughout the Nation's history, Congress has accepted substantial exercises of Presidential power -- in the conduct of diplomacy, the use of force and covert action -- which had no basis in statute and only a general basis in the Constitution itself. ... [M]uch of what President Reagan did in his actions toward Nicaragua and Iran were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers. ... [T]he power of the purse ... is not and was never intended to be a license for Congress to usurp Presidential powers and functions."

(Interestingly, not even Bush's torture architect John Yoo would have agreed with Cheney's radical assessment of unlimited executive power. As Yoo put it in February 2010, "if the Congress doesn't like it they can cut off funds for it or they can impeach him.")
But for Cheney, that President Reagan negotiated with terrorists and diverted the proceeds to the Contras in violation of the Boland Amendment was worse than a crime (which he claims it wasn't). It was a blunder.
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:

A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.

As his diaries published in 2005 show, President Ronald Reagan was under no illusions about either the illegality of the scheme or that it constituted anything other than a swap of arms for hostages. On Thursday, December 5, 1985, Reagan wrote in his diary:

N.S.C. briefing--probably Bud's last. Subject was our undercover effort to free our 5 hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. It is a complex undertaking with only a few of us in on it. I won't even write in the diary what we're up to.

Nevertheless, just two days later the Gipper wrote about that very topic. On Saturday, December 7, Reagan noted in his diary:

Day opened with "Rex" (our new dog) on our bed. I then had a meeting with Don R., Cap W. and Bud M., John P., Geo. Schultz and Mahan of C.I.A. This had to do with the complex plan which could return our 5 hostages & help some officials in Iran who want to turn that country from its present course & on to a better relationship with us. It calls for Israel selling some weapons to Iran. As they are delivered in installments by air our hostages will be released. The weapons will go to the moderate leaders in the army who are essential if there is to be a change to a more stable govt. We then sell Israel replacements for the delivered weapons. None of this is a gift--the Iranians pay cash for the weapons--so does Israel.
George S. Cap and Don are opposed--Cong. has imposed a law that we can't sell Iran weapons or sell any other country weapons for resale to Iran. Geo. also thinks this violates our policy of not paying off terrorists. I claim the weapons are for those who want to change the govt of Iran & no ransom is being pd. for the hostages. No direct sale would be made by us to Iran but we would be replacing the weapons sold by Israel.

In case there was any doubt that Ronald Reagan blessed the delivery of hundreds of advanced anti-tank weapons to Tehran, the President himself removed it with his January 17, 1986 diary entry, "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran."
The rest, as they say, is history. Or more accurately, rewritten history. As President Reagan told the American people in a nationally televised address on March 4, 1987:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."

Still, in his minority report eight months later, Congressman Cheney protested that "in our view, every single one of the committees' legal interpretations is open to serious question." Why? Because then as now, he charged, the report was "seriously flawed" because it was conducted in a partisan fashion. Of that "one-sided legal" brief that happened to contain the signatures of Republicans Warren Rudman (R-NH) and Lee Hamilton (R-IN), Cheney and his Iran-Contra defenders declared:

Sadly, the committees' report reads as if it were a weapon in the ongoing guerrilla warfare, instead of an objective analysis. Evidence is used selectively, and unsupported inferences are drawn to support politically biased interpretations. As a result, we feel compelled to reject not only the committees' conclusions, but the supposedly ''factual'' narrative as well...The narrative is not a fair description of events, but an advocate's legal brief that arrays and selects so-called ''facts'' to fit preconceived theories.

Fast forward to 2014 and Dick Cheney's talking points have barely changed. Earlier this year, Cheney prepared for the release of the Senate torture report by calling President Obama's incontrovertible conclusion that "we tortured some folks" a "disgusting" and "despicable" slander of CIA personnel who carried out the Bush Torture Team's legal blueprint. 27 years after he served as the GOP attack dog against the Iran-Contra report, as Cheney explained in 2009 to his hagiographer and 9/11 fabulist Stephen Hayes, he's still doing it all for the "little guys" who were just following orders:

"I went through the Iran-Contra hearings and watched the way administration officials ran for cover and left the little guys out to dry. And I was bound and determined that wasn't going to happen this time. I think to George Tenet's credit--I don't agree with George on a lot of stuff--but I think he was of the same view and that's why we had all of these requests coming through for policy guidance and for legal opinions. And this time around I'll do my damndest to defend anybody out there--be they in the agency carrying out the orders or the lawyers who wrote the opinions. I don't know whether anybody else will, but I sure as hell will."

Which means that whether a Republican administration negotiate with terrorists, swaps arms for hostages, or orders terror suspects waterboarded or rectally violated, it's all legal if the President says so. For Dick Cheney, it's the same as it ever was.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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