Gates' Iran-Contra Role A Puzzle

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Miami Herald
December 3, 2006
Pg. 1

Questions are raised anew about Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee for defense secretary, and his role as a CIA official during the 1980s Iran-contra scandal.
By Alfonso Chardy and Jay Weaver
Questions about whether former CIA official Robert Gates told the truth about his role in the Iran-contra affair 20 years ago may surface again during a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday on his recent nomination by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.
Gates' responses may not threaten his nomination after all these years. But they could harm his credibility -- a highly sensitive issue that has dogged the White House and Rumsfeld because of perceptions that they have misled the public about the rationale for going to war in Iraq and how they intend to prevail.
In its day, the Iran-contra scandal engulfed the Reagan-era White House, when Bush's father was vice president. Some critics have always wondered whether Gates -- one of the scandal's few political survivors -- disclosed all he knew about the illicit mission to arm the rightist faction, called the contras, that sought to overthrow the Marxist government controlled by the Sandinistas, who were inspired by the late Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto Sandino.
A final Iran-contra report by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh focused on one private meeting involving Gates, then the CIA deputy director under William Casey.
Soon after the Sandinistas downed an arms-laden plane over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, Gates met privately with Casey and two other senior CIA officials to decide what they would tell Congress as it investigated whether the secret mission violated a ban on military aid to the contras.
That meeting was investigated by Iran-contra prosecutors when they considered indicting Gates over allegations that he deceived Congress about the illegal contra program.
It preceded a call days later by a contra official to The Miami Herald and other newspapers to falsely claim responsibility for the plane, which belonged to a then-secret contra resupply network run by National Security Council aide Oliver North.
Gates maintained that he knew nothing about the illegal program and North's role in it until Nov. 25, 1986. That is when then-Attorney General Edwin Meese disclosed that profits earned from covert weapons sales to the Iranian government -- in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon -- were being used to fund the contra forces.
The diversion of the Iranian profits was among the ways that some Reagan administration officials used to circumvent the Boland Amendment, which barred U.S. military aid to the contras -- forces initially funded by the CIA.
The independent counsel -- and other observers -- had their doubts about Gates' truthfulness.
''It was incredible for an active deputy director to Bill Casey to be that much out of the picture,'' said Thomas Polgar, a veteran CIA officer -- now retired in the Orlando area -- who testified against Gates' nomination for CIA director in 1991. ``I still felt very strongly that in 1986 they covered up the situation and that Gates was part of the coverup.''
Alan Fiers, former head of the CIA Central American Task Force, who pleaded guilty for his role in the scandal, took an opposite view in a telephone interview last week from his Palm Beach County home.
''He didn't have a clear view of all that was going on, and he wasn't involved in the coverup part of it,'' said Fiers, who attended the meeting with Gates in the immediate aftermath of the shootdown.
He added that Gates should not have to ''go through the wringer again'' on Iran-contra.
The White House, speaking for Gates, declined to respond to The Miami Herald's questions about his involvement in Iran-contra.
'There is an extensive public record on this, and a Senate hearing will be held on Tuesday where Mr. Gates looks forward to answering the senators' questions,'' said White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo.
What Gates and the three other CIA officials -- Casey, Fiers and clandestine-service chief Clair George -- discussed during the October 1986 meeting was central to the Iran-contra investigation. Afterward, Fiers and George testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 14 that the CIA was not involved.
At the time, congressional leaders were trying to establish whether senior CIA officials sought to cover up the agency's participation.
North was assisted by some lower-level CIA officers and private operatives, including retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord and Cuban exiles Luis Posada Carriles and Félix Rodríguez.
In the end, prosecutors decided not to indict Gates because they found insufficient evidence -- but they concluded that his public statements were ''less than candid.'' They noted that Gates ``participated in two briefings that helped lull congressional investigators into believing that the CIA was not involved in facilitating private re-supply flights.''
An account of the meeting involving Casey, Gates, George and Fiers was included in the Iran-contra prosecutor's final report. It does not say whether the four agreed to mask government involvement in the illegal program. The report notes that Gates may have left the meeting at some point.
Fiers told The Miami Herald that he was not trying to come up with a ''cover story,'' but rather was pushing for someone to tell the truth because the spotlight was on the CIA.
Gates has acknowledged in public testimony after the scandal broke that four days before the shootdown, another CIA officer told him that proceeds of Iran arms sales may have been diverted to the contras. But Gates has also maintained that he was unaware of North's operational role until Meese's disclosure nearly two months later.
Either Gates was unable to establish a connection or pretended not to know of any such link, according to some former senior CIA officers who knew Gates.
'By Gates' own admission, how do you know about the diversion and not know about Ollie North's operation?'' said Vincent Cannistraro, who was on detail to the National Security Council at the time.
The October 1986 meeting took place in Casey's office, according to the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters. Prosecutors included the meeting in the Gates chapter under the subtitle ``Obstruction of the Hasenfus Inquiries.''
Captive aviator
Eugene Hasenfus, the sole survivor of the plane shootdown, was captured by the Sandinistas after parachuting to safety. Within days, Hasenfus told the Sandinistas that resupply flights left from a Salvadoran air base, launched by CIA operatives.
Eventually, investigators learned that the air base was partly under the control of North and Secord, that the flights were launched by Posada and Rodríguez, and that at least one CIA officer in Central America provided intelligence for weapons drops.
Gates appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee three days after the shootdown and was asked whether the plane was linked to the CIA.
''No, sir,'' Gates replied. ``We didn't have anything to do with that.''
While there was no evidence that Gates knew then that CIA subordinates had aided the North-Secord network, ''he did know by then of the concern that North and Secord were diverting funds from the Iran arms sales to the contras,'' the Iran-contra prosecutor's report said.
According to the report, Gates joined Casey, Fiers and George at a meeting a few days after the Oct. 8 congressional testimony. Fiers told the group that speculation about a CIA role in the prohibited program would end if someone took responsibility for resupply flights.
Fiers proposed that Secord assume responsibility, but Fiers' boss, George, objected, reminding Casey that Secord ''has other problems,'' the report said -- a reference to Canadian investors' threats to disclose the diversion.
A contra claim
On Oct. 13, 1986, a Washington-based spokesman for the contras, Bosco Matamoros, called reporters at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times and claimed that the downed plane belonged to the contras.
The New York Times published the claim the next day -- the same day George and Fiers testified before the House Intelligence Committee and denied any agency role in the resupply network.
What Matamoros did not say is that a day earlier, contra leader Adolfo Calero had called him from Miami and ordered him to contact the reporters and falsely assume responsibility for the plane, The Miami Herald reported in May 1989. Calero said at the time that he could not remember whether he had ordered Matamoros to claim responsibility.
Calero, now in Nicaragua, did not respond to telephone requests for an interview.
It remains unclear whether the idea to have the contras take the rap was hatched at the meeting in Casey's office.
A former senior contra official familiar with Calero's call said he believes that North called Calero as a result of Fiers' recommendation at the Casey meeting attended by Gates. The former contra official asked not to be identified because he did not have authorization from Calero to disclose the information.