THE IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR: Anatomy of a Quagmire
The secret White House sales of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits from those sales to the rebels opposing Nicaragua's Sandinista government, and possibly for other clandestine purposes, have deep roots. They go back to the fall of the late Shah of Iran in 1979; the holding of 52 Americans in the Tehran Embassy for 444 days; the subsequent United States decision to embargo all military sales to Iran; and the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua that brought to power a Marxist government that the Reagan administration characterizes as having expansionist aims in Central America. But the immediate story began in 1984, when Muslim terrorists started a rash of kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon and Congress ended US military support for the Nicaraguan contras.
The following chronology has been compiled from news reports and statements by current and past administration officials and congressional sources. 1984 Mar. 16 William Buckley, later identified as the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped. He is reported to have been tortured and killed in October 1985. Buckley's kidnapping is believed to have spurred the CIA to push for the reopening of communications with Iran to secure his release. April 7 Administration and congressional sources acknowledge that Americans working for the CIA on a ship off Nicaragua's Pacific coast have supervised the mining of Nicaraguan harbors in recent months. This is the first disclosure of direct US involvement in military operations against the Sandinista government. May 8 The Rev. Benjamin F. Weir, a Presbyterian minister, is kidnapped in Beirut. Summer-Fall Congress rebuffs administration's repeated efforts to obtain additional funding for the Nicaraguan contras for fiscal 1984 and fiscal 1985. Administration says it will not discourage private citizens, corporations, or foreign governments from supporting the contras, but it tells Congress there is no official US involvement with or sponsorship of such auxiliary aid. A member of the National Security Council (NSC) staff, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, is assigned to oversee the private aid project. Dec. 3 Peter Kilburn, a librarian at the American University of Beirut, is kidnapped. He is killed by his captors in April 1986. 1985 Jan. 8 The Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest and head of the Beirut office of Catholic Relief Services, is kidnapped. March 16 Terry A. Anderson, Associated Press correspondent, is kidnapped in Beirut. May 28 David P. Jacobsen, director of the American University hospital in Beirut, is kidnapped. June 9 Thomas M. Sutherland, a professor at American University in Beirut, is kidnapped. June 14 TWA Flight 847 is hijacked in Beirut by Shiite Muslim terrorists. The hostages are released on June 30 after the secret intervention of Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Iran's parliament. The incident suggests to the administration that Iran has more influence with Lebanese terrorists than Syria does, and that some elements in Iran may be interested in improving relations with the US. July Congress approves $27 million in nonmilitary aid for the contras but bars CIA from administering funds. Mid-summer Then-US national-security adviser Robert McFarlane is informed that Israeli officials believe Iran wants to open communications with the US, but that arms sales probably will be a condition to a dialogue. McFarlane meets with David Kimche, then the director-general of Israel's foreign ministry. Kimche suggests doors can be opened to Iran through Manuchur Ghorbanifar, an Iranian with ties to key ``moderates'' in Iran, including Rafsanjani. McFarlane reports this to the President, who sends Rafsanjani a note thanking him for his help in the TWA hijacking incident and indicating a desire to improve relations. Rafsanjani replies that the US should send Iran arms purchased by the Shah but never delivered. McFarlane meets again with Kimche, who repeats that no dialogue can be opened with Iran without arms shipments. August According to McFarlane's later congressional testimony, President Reagan orally approves the shipment by Israel of American-made weapons and parts to Iran and promises that the US will replenish Israel's stocks. Israel later insists that all its arms shipments to Iran were made with the prior approval of the US. However, the White House disputes McFarlane's account. August The administration acknowledges that members of the NSC staff, principally North, have helped in raising private funds for the contras, but insists actions did not violate the law. August-September Israel makes several arms shipments to Iran. According to the White House, Reagan was informed of the first shipment after it occurred, at which time he condoned it. Sept. 14 Hostage Weir is released. Nov. 22-23 Israel delivers more US-made arms to Iran, using an airplane provided by the CIA (though the CIA says it believed the cargo was oil-drilling equipment, not arms). When Iran later returns the weapons as obsolete, the White House decides to ship arms to Iran directly, rather than through Israeli intermediaries. Dec. 4 McFarlane resigns as national-security adviser as of the end of the year. His deputy, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, is appointed to succeed him in January. Dec. 6 At a meeting with senior advisers, Reagan decides to suspend arms sales to Iran, as they had resulted in the release of just one hostage. Dec. 8 McFarlane flies to London on Reagan's instructions to inform Kimche and Ghorbanifar that the US would no longer sell arms to Iran. Late December Amiram Nir, an Israeli counterterrorism official, tells the White House that Iran is willing to secure the release of the remaining American hostages in return for more arms. 1986 Jan. 7 Top administration officials meet at the White House to consider resuming the arms sales. Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger again oppose the action, but CIA Director William Casey, chief of staff Donald Regan, and Admiral Poindexter favor it. No decision is made. Jan. 17 President Reagan, reportedly at the urging of Poindexter, signs a secret intelligence ``finding'' authorizing dealings with Iran, including arms sales, and instructing Casey to withhold details from Congress. April Poindexter asks McFarlane to fly to Tehran to meet with top Iranian officials. He tells McFarlane a deal is in the works for all the US hostages in Lebanon to be freed before the US delegation arrives in Tehran. May 28 McFarlane flies from Israel to Tehran, accompanied by NSC staff members North and Howard J. Teicher, an Israeli official, and retired CIA Iran expert George Cave as translator. Their plane carries military spare parts. But the hostages are not freed, and after four days in a Tehran hotel the contingent leaves. On the return flight North tells McFarlane of the diversion of funds to the contras. July 4 The US sends another arms shipment to Iran, via Spain and Yugoslavia. July 26 Hostage Fr. Jenco is released. Mid-summer Nicaraguan contras start receiving more arms through a private air transport system reportedly set up with help of company run by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord. The CIA ships more arms and spare parts to Iran, while Israel continues to send military equipment. Aug. 13 Congress approves $70 million in military aid and $30 million in humanitarian aid for the contras, permits the CIA to disburse the money. Sept. McFarlane makes a second trip to Tehran with an arms shipment. Sept. 9 Frank Herbert Reed, director of the Lebanese International School in West Beirut, is kidnapped. Sept. 12 Joseph James Cicippio, controller at the American University in Beirut, is kidnapped. Oct. 5 Nicaraguan troops shoot down a cargo plane carrying weapons for the contras. Three crew members are killed, but a fourth, American Eugene Hasenfus, is captured, along with incriminating flight logs and other documents. After a trial by a Nicaraguan ``people's revolutionary tribunal,'' he is sentenced on Nov. 15 to 30 years imprisonment. Oct. 7 CIA Director Casey and aides meet with New York consultant Roy Furmark, who says a group of private Canadian investors, formed to help finance Iran's purchase of US arms at a profit, has not been fully repaid. Mr. Furmark says that he suspects the proceeds are being diverted and that the investors are contemplating a lawsuit. (Furmark later testifies to Congress that he met three times with Casey in October and November.) Casey later says he asked Poindexter to look into the matter as a result of Furmark's report. Oct. 21 Author Edward Austin Tracy is kidnapped in Beirut. Oct. 26-27 A shipment of US arms is made to Iran via Israel. Oct. 30 Associate Attorney General Stephen Trott, at the direction of Attorney General Meese, asks Federal Bureau of Investigation Director William Webster to suspend the investigation of Southern Air Transport, a company believed to be involved in the private network to supply the contras. Meese's request was prompted by a call from Poindexter. The reason given to the FBI was the need to protect the hostage negotiations then going on. The FBI probe did not resume until Nov. 26. Nov. 2 Hostage Jacobsen is released. Nov. 3 A Lebanese weekly magazine, Al Shiraa, discloses that the US sent Iran spare parts and ammunition for American-made fighter planes and tanks after a secret visit to Tehran by McFarlane. Nov. 4 Iranian Speaker Rafsanjani confirms that McFarlane and other Americans went to Tehran. Nov. 7 Administration officials acknowledge that President Reagan 18 months earlier approved a plan for secret contacts with Iran to improve relations, end Iran's support of terrorism, and help secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. Officials say the plan did not mention supplying arms and parts, but that the White House accepted an Israeli offer to deliver older American-made parts and weapons to Iran. Nov. 12 In a meeting with congressional leaders, Reagan for the first time personally acknowledges sending military supplies to Iran. He defends the action as necessary to establish ties to moderate elements in Tehran. Nov. 13 Reagan, in a televised speech from the Oval Office, defends his ``secret diplomatic initiative to Iran'' as necessary to achieve a number of US policy goals. He says he authorized the transfer to Iran of ``small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts'' that could fit into a single cargo plane. A senior administration official says the supplies totaled about 260,000 pounds, and comprised strictly defensive parts. Nov. 17 Reagan says he has ``absolutely no plans'' to send more arms to Iran. Nov. 19 Reagan, at a press conference, says he has ordered sales of weapons to Iran stopped and denies any Israeli involvement in the arms shipments. But later that evening he issues a written clarification saying ``there was a third country involved in our secret project with Iran.'' Nov. 20 Rep. Jim Wright (D) of Texas, the House majority leader, discloses that Israel, with US approval, shipped Iran 2,008 TOW antitank missiles and at least 235 Hawk antiaircraft missiles, a quantity much greater than previously acknowledged. Nov. 21 Representative Wright says Iran paid at least $12 million for the arms and that the money was deposited in a Swiss bank account. Nov. 22-23 In a weekend investigation ordered by Attorney General Meese, Justice Department lawyers uncover information in North's office indicating the diversion of arms-sales proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras. Nov. 25 Reagan publicly discloses the diversion of funds to the contras. He announces that Admiral Poindexter had resigned as national-security adviser and that Colonel North had been relieved of his duties. Meese reports that $10 million to $30 million had been diverted to the contras through Swiss bank accounts. He said that only North, who organized the funds diversion, and Poindexter knew of the plan. Israel, in its first official comment, says it transferred arms to Iran ``upon the request of the United States'' and did not know of the diversion of money. Nov. 26 Reagan appoints a three-member panel to investigate the role of the National Security Council in American foreign policy. The chairman is former senator John G. Tower, and the other members of the panel are former secretary of state Edmund S. Muskie and former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Nov. 27 Richard J. Brenneke, an Oregon businessman, says he was told by US intelligence sources in early 1986 that the Defense Department planned to buy weapons for the contras with profits from the sale of arms to Iran. He says he told an aide to Vice-President Bush. Dec. 2 Saying illegal acts may have been committed, the Justice Department - with White House support - applies to a federal court for the appointment of an independent counsel, or ``special prosecutor,'' to investigate the case. Reagan appoints Frank C. Carlucci, a former deputy secretary of defense and deputy CIA director, as national-security adviser. Dec. 3 Poindexter appears at a closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee but refuses to answer questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Vice-President Bush, in his first public statement on the affair, denies that he had prior personal knowledge of the diversion of money. Dec. 5 Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, McFarlane says he instructed Israel to ship arms to Iran in the late summer of 1985 after obtaining the President's oral approval of the shipments. Dec. 8 Secretary Shultz, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, discloses that the ambassador to Lebanon, John H. Kelly, had - without Shultz's knowledge - direct, ``back-channel'' communications with Poindexter, North, and retired general Secord regarding the attempts to free American hostages. Shultz said he had summoned Mr. Kelly to Washington for questioning. Shultz repeats that he had no role in nor knowledge of the diversion of money. McFarlane also testifies before the committee. Dec. 9 In separate appearances before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Poindexter and North refuse to answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment. Secord, appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, also declines to testify. Dec. 10 CIA Director Casey testifies behind closed doors before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Separately, administration officials say Casey had suspicions in October that money from Iran arms sales was being siphoned off for the contras, but he did not know ``with finality'' until told by Meese. Dec. 14 The Lowell (Mass.) Sun reports that Colonel North when still at the NSC helped a conservative political action committee mount a campaign before the 1986 elections to defeat congressional opponents of military aid to the contras. The paper also reported that proceeds from Iran arms sales had been funneled to conservative lobbying groups. Dec. 15 White House and State Department officials disclose that over the previous two years, the US had periodically provided Iraq with military intelligence about Iran, in order to help Iraq avoid being defeated in the six-year Gulf war. Dec. 16 White House chief of staff Regan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session. He says that neither the President nor he had any prior knowledge of the diversion of money to the contras, and Regan says that Reagan approved of Israeli shipments of US-made arms to Iran in the summer of 1985 only after the shipments were made. Reagan urges congressional committees to grant limited immunity to Poindexter and North to compel the former aides to testify as soon as possible. A special, 11-member Senate committee, to be chaired by Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii, is named to investigate the Iran-contra affair. Dec. 17 Attorney General Meese testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Afterward he says he has seen no evidence contradicting his earlier finding that only North, Poindexter, and McFarlane knew of the secret plan to divert funds to the contras. House leaders appoint 15 representatives to a special investigatory committee, to be chaired by Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana. The FBI begins an inquiry into why Meese ordered a delay in the bureau's investigation of the private contra supply operation. Eugene Hasenfus is pardoned by the Nicaragua government and allowed to return to the US. Dec. 18 McFarlane testifies again before the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeating his earlier assertion that President Reagan had given prior approval for the Israeli arms shipments to Iran in September 1985. Regan testifies before the House Intelligence Committee, repeating his earlier congressional testimony that the President learned of that shipment after it occurred. Secretary Weinberger and Roy Furmark also testify before the House panel. The Justice Department says that a call from Poindexter prompted Meese to request the delay in the FBI's investigation of the private contra supply operation; Poindexter purportedly told Meese that the probe threatened a ``critical mission'' to free US hostages. Dec. 19 Lawrence E. Walsh is appointed independent counsel, or ``special prosecutor,'' to investigate the Iran-contra affair. The appointing judges grant him a broad mandate to probe the arms sales to Iran, the diversion of funds, and the administration's support for the contras since 1984, when Congress barred government agencies from aiding the rebels. Dec. 26 Reagan appoints David M. Abshire, the outgoing US delegate to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as a special White House counselor charged with coordinating administration responses to investigations of the Iran-contra affair.