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Seymour M. Hersh : The Vice
President’s Men


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When George H.W. Bush arrived in Washington as vice president in
January 1981 he seemed little more than a sideshow to Ronald Reagan, the
one-time leading man who had been overwhelmingly elected to the greatest stage
in the world. Biography after inconclusive biography would be written about
Reagan’s two terms, as their authors tried to square the many gaps in his
knowledge with his seemingly acute political instincts and the ease with which
he appeared to handle the presidency. Bush was invariably written off as a
cautious politician who followed the lead of his glamorous boss – perhaps
because he assumed that his reward would be a clear shot at the presidency in
1988. He would be the first former CIA director to make it to the top.


There was another view of Bush: the one held
by the military men and civilian professionals who worked for him on national
security issues. Unlike the president, he knew what was going on and how to get
things done. For them, Reagan was ‘a dimwit’ who didn’t get it, or even try to
get it. A former senior official of the Office of Management and Budget
described the president to me as ‘lazy, just lazy’. Reagan, the official explained,
insisted on being presented with a three-line summary of significant budget
decisions, and the OMB concluded that the easiest way to cope was to present
him with three figures – one very high, one very low and one in the middle,
which Reagan invariably signed off on. I was later told that the process was
known inside the White House as the ‘Goldilocks option’. He was also bored by
complicated intelligence estimates. Forever courteous and gracious, he would
doodle during national security briefings or simply not listen. It would have
been natural to turn instead to the director of the CIA, but this was William
Casey, a former businessman and Nixon aide who had been controversially
appointed by Reagan as the reward for managing his 1980 election campaign. As
the intelligence professionals working with the executive saw it, Casey was
reckless, uninformed, and said far too much to the press.


Bush was different: he got it. At his
direction, a team of military operatives was set up that bypassed the national
security establishment – including the CIA – and wasn’t answerable to
congressional oversight. It was led by Vice-Admiral Arthur Moreau, a brilliant
navy officer who would be known to those on the inside as ‘M’. He had most
recently been involved, as deputy chief of naval operations, in developing the
US’s new maritime strategy, aimed at restricting Soviet freedom of movement. In
May 1983 he was promoted to assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, General John Vessey, and over the next couple of years he oversaw a
secret team – operating in part out of the office of Daniel Murphy, Bush’s
chief of staff – which quietly conducted at least 35 covert operations against
drug trafficking, terrorism and, most important, perceived Soviet expansionism
in more than twenty countries, including Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil,
Argentina, Libya, Senegal, Chad, Algeria, Tunisia, the Congo, Kenya, Egypt,
Yemen, Syria, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia
and Vietnam.


Moreau’s small, off-the-record team, primarily
made up of navy officers, was tasked with foreign operations deemed necessary
by the vice president. The group’s link to Bush was indirect. There were two
go-betweens, known for their closeness to the vice president and their ability
to keep secrets: Murphy, a retired admiral who had served as Bush’s deputy
director at the CIA; and, to a lesser extent, Donald Gregg, Bush’s national
security adviser and another veteran of CIA covert operations. Moreau’s team
mostly worked out of a room near the National Military Command Centre on the
ground floor of the Pentagon. They could also unobtrusively man a desk or two,
when necessary, in a corner of Murphy’s office, which was near Bush’s, in the
Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.


The Reagan administration had been rattled by
a wave of Soviet expansionism and international aggression that had begun
before the president took office. In 1979, even before their incursion into
Afghanistan, the Soviets had taken over the old airbase at Cam Ranh Bay in the
former South Vietnam, which had been extensively rebuilt and updated by the US
during its losing war. It was a base heavy with symbolism for the American and
British navies – in December 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor, Japanese dive
bombers operating from Cam Ranh sank two of Britain’s premier battleships – and
the Soviet decision to expand there was seen by some senior admirals as an
alarming affront. And a revolutionary increase in America’s capacity to intercept
and decode Soviet signal traffic in the year before Reagan came to power led to
the discovery by analysts at the National Security Agency of a ring of Soviet
sleeper agents inside the United States, many of them working in federal jobs
with – the Carter White House feared – access to national security data.


A former military officer who worked closely
with Moreau recalled the early tensions that prompted Bush to increase the
targeting of Soviet operations. Moreau’s actions were aimed at limiting Soviet
influence without provoking a confrontation. ‘We saw the Russians sorting out
their internal politics and expanding economically,’ the officer recalled. ‘Its
military had become much more competent, with advances in technology, nuclear
engineering and in space. They were feeling good about their planned economy
and believed that their state control of education from cradle to grave was
working, and it seemed as if the Russians were expanding everywhere. We were in
descent; our post-Vietnam army was in shambles; morale was at rock bottom, and
the American people had an anti-militarist attitude. There was a sense of
general weakness, and the Russians were taking advantage of it. They had
developed the MIRV’ – the multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle, a
missile carrying several nuclear warheads – ‘and were putting ICBMs on wheels
and hardening nuclear silos. This was at the time when it became clear that the
president was drifting, and was not an effective leader.’


By 1983, it was plain to those who worked on
national security for the White House that Reagan wouldn’t or couldn’t engage
with intelligence or counterintelligence matters. Bush had emerged, by default
and very much in private, as the most important decision-maker in America’s
intelligence world. ‘He controlled the strings,’ the officer said. ‘We ran
small, limited operations that were discreet, with a military chain of command.
These were not long-term programmes. We thought we could redouble our efforts
against the Soviets and nobody would interfere. And do it in such a way that no
one could see what we were doing – or realise that there was a masterplan. For
example, the published stories about our Star Wars programme were replete with
misinformation and forced the Russians to expose their sleeper agents inside
the American government by ordering them to make a desperate attempt to find
out what the US was doing. But we could not risk exposure of the
administration’s role and take the chance of another McCarthy period. So there
were no prosecutions. We dried up and eliminated their access and left the
spies withering on the vine.’ Once identified, the Soviet sleepers who worked
inside the federal bureaucracy were gradually dismissed or moved to less
important jobs, in the hope that the low-key counterintelligence operation
would mask the improvements in the US’s capacity to read sensitive Soviet
communications. ‘Nobody on the Joint Chiefs of Staff ever believed we were
going to build Star Wars,’ the officer said, ‘but if we could convince the
Russians that we could survive a first strike, we win the game.’ The aim of the
game was to find a way to change the nuclear status quo of Mutual Assured
Destruction, or seem to do so. ‘We wanted the Russians to believe that we had
removed the M from MAD.’


In the beginning, the officer told me, ‘there
was a great fear that the Russians were ten feet tall. What we found was total
incompetence.’ Moreau’s team were amazed to find how easy it was to reverse
Soviet influence – often with little more than generous offers of American
dollars and American arms. Across the Third World – in countries such as Chad,
Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire – the offer of advanced American electronics and communications
equipment was also invaluable. ‘The Russians simply were not liked abroad,’ the
officer said. ‘They were boors with shoddy clothing and shoes made out of
paper. Their weapons were inoperative. It was a Potemkin village. But every
time we found total incompetence on the part of a Soviet mission, the American
intelligence community would assume that it was Soviet “deception”. The only
problem was that it was not deception. We came to realise that the American
intelligence community needed the threat from Russia to get their money. Those
of us who were running the operations were also amazed that the American press
was so incompetent. You could do this kind of stuff all over the world and
nobody would ask any questions.’


Congress, and the constitution, were at first
no more of an obstacle to Bush and Moreau’s covert operations than the press.
The one member of Congress who knew what was going on was Dick Cheney, a close
friend and confidant of Bush’s from their days together in the Ford
administration. In 1976, in the aftermath of the Church Committee’s inquiry
into CIA abuses, standing intelligence committees had been set up in both the
Senate and the House, charged with holding the CIA and other intelligence
agencies to account. But it was understood by all those involved in the vice
president’s secret team that these committees could be bypassed, even though
the laws governing covert intelligence activities had been stiffened: there was
now a legal requirement that all covert CIA and military intelligence
operations had to be made known to the committees through a formal, written
document known as a ‘finding’. But there was a big loophole in the legislation,
in the view of the vice president’s men. ‘There was no requirement for a
finding for merely asking questions,’ the officer said, ‘and so we’d make
routine requests for intelligence assessments from the CIA through the Joint
Chiefs and the National Security Council. Our basic philosophy was that we were
running military’ – not intelligence – ‘operations and therefore did not have
to brief Congress. So we could legally operate without a finding.’ He was
describing an ingenious procedure for getting around the law: one that would be
put into use again after 9/11, when Cheney, by then vice president, triggered
the unending war on terror. ‘The issue for Moreau was how do we take advantage
of what the CIA has to offer – its people, with their language skills and its
networks and assets overseas,’ the officer said. ‘The disadvantage was if we
used the CIA in an intelligence context, we had to get a finding. We decided to
get around the law by using agency people in what we claimed was a “liaison
capacity”.’ The next step was ‘to attach the CIA operators to military units as
liaison who were working for Moreau. Casey knew his CIA was being cut out and
so he became more active where he could – in Latin America.’ As a precaution,
the team prepared written findings when CIA men or information were being made
use of – but they were put ‘in a safe’, to be produced only if anyone in
Congress found out what was going on.


Moreau was contemptuous of Casey and ‘thought
the CIA was a crazy organisation that had no concern about the consequences of
its covert actions’, according to the officer. He remembered Moreau telling his
subordinates on the secret staff: ‘I’m accountable to the vice president and
you motherfuckers are accountable to me. The agency is not accountable to
anybody – not the president, not Congress, not the American people. They will
do whatever they want to support their mission, which is defined by them.’
Cutting out the CIA leadership – though using their resources where needed,
partly through the good offices of Dan Murphy, who had many connections inside
the agency – was key to Moreau’s operations. ‘From the beginning our philosophy
was no publicity,’ the officer said. Enlisting the agency formally would
involve findings, and relying on ‘the CIA’s knuckle-draggers’ – paramilitary
units – ‘who were seen as too dumb and too incompetent. But by using only the
military we inadvertently laid the groundwork for what we have now – a Joint
Special Operations Command essentially out of civilian control.’


One of Moreau’s confidants was Alfred Gray Jr,
a marine who rose from enlisted private to general. He was someone who could be
trusted to do the dirty jobs that were seen as inevitable in combating the
spread of communism in the Third World. By the early 1980s, Gray was a two-star
major general commanding a division of the marines; he would be made commandant
of the Marine Corps in 1987. If there were people to hurt, he would get it done
and leave no footprints. ‘Gray was profane and tough as nails,’ the officer
said. ‘He tells us: “I can do that. We’ve got guys who can do stuff.” And the
marines are organised, unlike the navy. Whenever there are two marines
together, one is senior to the other.’ As the team’s activity stepped up, the
officer told me, they began compiling ‘hit lists’. ‘The CIA would provide us
with lists of bad guys from the files of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the
Justice Department and the National Security Agency, much of it focused on the
drug war and anti-communist operations. A lot of it was in Mexico, Colombia,
Peru, Ecuador and of course Nicaragua. We were doing the same thing then that
the administration is doing now – only now it’s institutionalised with JSOC.
Back then we used the marines and Delta Force, and there was no reason, as
today, to say anything to the Joint Chiefs. Moreau’s strategy was to act in
advance to pre-empt terrorism. “Why wait for it to take place?”’


Moreau’s activities have remained secret, and,
as I learned while reporting on this aspect of history, those who knew of his
activities at the time remain sceptical that they can be written about today.
‘I’m aware of what you’re referring to,’ one senior defence official told me.
‘And Art Moreau was
just like “M”. But you are working in an area that remains highly classified,
and even today it may be too sensitive to reveal the rudiments of our
intelligence networks. I doubt if any records still exist.’


*


Over the course of 1983, Moreau’s team was given a target that would
prove much tougher than the Soviets – terrorism in the Middle East. Sixty-three
American diplomats, intelligence experts and military personnel, along with
civilian employees, were killed when the US embassy in Beirut was bombed in
April 1983, and six months later 241 military personnel, most of them marines,
were killed in an attack on a barracks at Beirut airport. The US embassy in
Kuwait was bombed in December that year, and there was a wave of kidnappings of
Westerners – among them William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, who
would die in captivity.


A particular target was Muammar Gaddafi. ‘By
1981 Gaddafi was beginning to get more and more bizarre,’ the officer said. ‘He
was making a lot of moves into our hemisphere: selling air-to-surface missiles
to Argentina, selling Hind attack helicopters to Nicaragua, supplying aid to Peru,
supporting the government in Venezuela, and even dealing with the Popular Front
in Palestine. He also closed the Gulf of Sidra to our 6th Fleet. We had to take
care of Libya. Gaddafi was a primary military and oil threat, and he became a
strategic target.’


An assassination was planned, using Casey’s
CIA assets in Libya, the officer said, and because of the CIA’s involvement the
administration was required to inform the congressional leadership about
aspects of the plan via a highly classified finding. This was promptly leaked
by someone in Congress, so Moreau’s team thought, and the operation called off
– allegedly. Moreau’s people continued to support the Libyan opposition. In May
1984, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an opposition group that
would later be clandestinely supported by the CIA, failed in an attempt on
Gaddafi’s life. Eight rebels were killed along with eighty government soldiers,
according to published reports. Gaddafi responded by executing three members of
the Muslim Brotherhood and arresting and torturing thousands of others. One of
the Americans involved in the plot was Major-General Richard Secord, who had
resigned from the air force in 1983 after being accused of improper dealings
with a former CIA officer. Secord, who had a long career in special operations,
pleaded guilty in 1989 to a felony count for lying to Congress about his role
in the Iran-Contra affair, but never came close to spending a day in jail. His
sentence of two years on probation was reversed the following year.




Moreau’s operations were described,
indirectly, in The
Reagan Imprint
(2006) by John Arquilla, who teaches in the special
operations programme at the United States Naval Postgraduate School. Arquilla
wrote about a secret 1984 White House memorandum – NSDD 138 – that authorised
‘sabotage, killing … pre-emptive and retaliatory raids, deception and a
significantly expanded [intelligence] collection programme, aimed at suspected
radicals and people regarded as their sympathisers’. Arquilla reported that the
memorandum (which wasn’t declassified until 2009) triggered intense controversy
inside the government, and the directive was never implemented in full. He
added that Bush ‘was initially cool to the idea as well, though he eventually
warmed to it’.


It seems likely, from the suggestive reference
to Bush, that Arquilla knew more than he could write, or wanted to write. The
officer remembered the bitter internal dispute over the memorandum, which was
promulgated well after Moreau’s team began its activities. ‘The irony was, of
course,’ the officer said, ‘that as we racked up some amazing successes, the
administration took credit and defence and the agency each thought the other
was responsible.’


There were a few hints of Moreau’s real
authority in the early Reagan years. A 2010 US army history of the 1983
decision to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada includes a paper by Edgar
Raines of the US Army Centre of Military History. It recounts a series of
secret planning meetings in which Moreau, while junior to others present, ‘was
in many ways the most influential person in the room … Moreau’s ideas thus had
a way of reaching the very highest echelon of government. It made him a force
with which to reckon.’ Raines notes that Moreau had managed to direct the most
sensitive operational decision-making to the Special Situation Group, a
committee of the most senior policymakers chaired by Bush. None of this was
made public at the time.


A memorandum declassified in 2008, written in
April 1984 by Richard Kerr, then deputy director of the CIA, noted that the
agency’s ‘products’ – its intelligence reports and estimates – were being cut
off by Moreau and his team, and not reaching the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff. ‘I have the feeling,’ Kerr wrote plaintively, ‘that if we are going
to get something past Admiral Moreau we will need to send it via the briefer
with a note . . . asking that it be called to the attention of the chairman.’
Moreau himself received the full range of CIA products. ‘Admiral Moreau’s
interests,’ Kerr added, ‘are all subjects, worldwide.’


Another hint came in Colin Powell’s 1995
autobiography – he was military aide to the secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger,
at the time of the Grenada invasion. Powell wrote that Moreau


came to me one
morning with an odd revelation. The secretary’s office was not getting some of
the most curious traffic that the NSA plucked out of the air. On his own hook,
Art had decided to share this withheld material with me. What I read enraged me
… The content of the messages was startling enough, but what troubled me just
as much was why the secretary’s office should be cut out of the loop.


Powell, who
shared his boss’s scepticism about the value of a war on terror, showed the
intercepts to Weinberger. Weinberger – equally furious – asked where they had
come from. ‘I explained,’ Powell wrote, ‘that they were bootlegged to us by
Admiral Moreau, who got them from the NSA.’ ‘And don’t I control the National
Security Agency?’ Weinberger asked. There was no suggestion in Powell’s book
that either he or Weinberger challenged Moreau’s access to intercepts deemed
too sensitive for the secretary of defence.


*


‘Bush was petrified that the president would say the wrong thing to
outsiders about what was going on, and he was hanging around the Oval Office,’
the officer said. ‘You never knew whether the president might start talking
about an operation in China or into Vietnam.’ Reagan was kept out
of trouble at important national security meetings by being given a script. ‘My
colleagues and I would write a talking paper for the president before meetings
that resembled movie scripts, because the Old Man knew scripts as a reference.
We were constantly updating the script, because if we made a dumb mistake, he
would read it. We’d talk among ourselves about where to put the emphasis for
certain words and phrases.’ In Deadly Gambits, his 1984 study of arms control, Strobe
Talbott showed what happened when Reagan didn’t have a script. During a
conversation about arms control with a group of congressmen, the president
suddenly proclaimed: ‘Land-based missiles have nuclear warheads, while bombers
and submarines don’t.’ ‘Even as he said these words,’ Talbott wrote, ‘his voice
dropped and wavered, as though he had forgotten his lines and knew there was
something not quite right about his attempt to improvise.’


Casey was another source of tension, the
officer said. He ‘was going around giving the impression that he was a super
spook, but nobody on the inside cared because he had no juice. We knew he was
over the hill and living on his past glory with the OSS’ – the Office of
Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime predecessor. He may have run Reagan’s
election campaign, he may have been controlling the US operation in
Afghanistan, but the military men working with Moreau saw him as ‘bizarre, unpredictable,
out of control and dishonest’. Murphy made sure to be kept up to date on what
Casey was up to. The CIA’s director got his chance of glory in Nicaragua, whose
Sandinista government was inordinately feared by Reagan and Casey as a dire
threat to the United States. Casey was able to get his way because of a rare
error of judgment by Moreau, who had brought Marine Lieutenant Oliver North
onto the secret team. The Iran-Contra story, as seen from inside the Moreau
operation, has little in common with the public record. Bush, known to his
friends and aides as ‘Poppy’, was also worried about Nicaragua and Daniel
Ortega, the Sandinista leader, and was instrumental in the decision to give
clandestine American support to the Nicaraguan opposition force known as the
Contras. Moreau’s team inevitably became involved: a high-risk proposition for
the group because Congress had passed an amendment barring the use of American
funds for support of the Nicaraguan opposition. There was no question about
Bush’s part in what would become the Iran-Contra scandal. ‘Dan Murphy and Poppy
would sit down and work it out about the Contras,’ the officer said. ‘They saw
Ortega as turning Nicaragua into a Russian puppet state. “We can’t have that.
This is our turf. We have to protect Guatemala and Honduras and Panama.” So I
and my colleagues on Moreau’s team wrote findings about covert actions going
after Daniel Ortega.’


But it was important to keep Casey out of the
way, the officer said, in order ‘to protect our real operations’.
Unfortunately, the person charged with protecting the vice president’s inside
team was Ollie North, then on the staff of the National Security Council. ‘We
were in different parts of the White House’ – where conspiracy was a constant –
and ‘North’s job was to keep Moreau up to date on all NSC operations. North was
a plant.’ It became clear to the Moreau team that the CIA’s Casey-led
operations in support of the Contras were veering out of control. Casey had
been busy illegally raising millions of dollars for the Contras from
‘concerned’ American citizens and foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia and
Brunei, whose leaders were seeking favour with the White House. ‘Moreau thought
that Casey’s actions in support of the Contras were stupid and a time bomb,’
the officer said. ‘What had begun as a quiet op designed by Moreau to influence
public opinion inside Nicaragua was becoming a political football. So Moreau
calls on his boy Ollie and tells him to get involved with the Contra issue and
keep it from getting out of control. He picked the wrong guy. North was loyal
and enthusiastic, but he was fucking dumb.’ North saw a career path through
keeping in with Casey – but then the operation took a ludicrous turn after
Buckley’s kidnapping in Beirut in March 1984 by members of the group that would
soon call itself Hizbullah.


A plan developed to sell anti-tank and
surface-to-air missiles to Iran, via the Israelis, in return for Iranian help
in releasing Buckley and the other prisoners (the government of the Ayatollah
Khomeini, who had overthrown the shah in 1979, was viewed with great hostility
by the Reagan administration). Profits from the arms sales would then be used
to finance support for the Nicaraguan opposition – in direct violation of the
congressional ban. ‘Ollie brings in Dick Secord and Iranian dissidents and
money people in Texas to the scheme, and it’s gotten totally out of control,’
the officer said. ‘We’re going nuts. If we don’t manage this carefully, our
whole structure will unravel. And so we’ – former members of Moreau’s team who
were still working for Bush – ‘leaked the story to the magazine in Lebanon.’ He
was referring to an article, published on 3 November 1986 by Ash-Shiraa
magazine in Beirut, that described the arms for hostages agreement. He would
not say how word was passed to the magazine, nor did he acknowledge that with
this leak Moreau’s group was acting with as much self-interest, and as little
regard for the consequences, as Moreau had accused the CIA of doing. The
officer explained that it was understood by all that the scandal would unravel
in public very quickly, and Congress would get involved. ‘Our goals were to
protect the Moreau operation, to limit the vice president’s possible exposure,
and to convince the Reagan administration to limit Bill Casey’s management of
covert operations. It only took a match to light the fire. It was: “Oh my god.
We were paying ransom for the hostages – to Iran.”’


Moreau was gone by the end of 1985: at the
recommendation of Bush, he had received his fourth star and was rewarded for
his high-pressure double duty in the White House by being appointed commander
of US naval forces in Europe and Nato forces in southern Europe. There was
another factor: on 1 October 1985, Admiral William Crowe replaced John Vessey
as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The formidable Crowe had been filled
in, up to a point, on the clandestine operations inside the vice president’s
office. ‘He got a whiff of what was going on,’ the officer said. Crowe quickly
disbanded Moreau’s secret team and returned its officers to navy duty. There
would be no undeclared operations on his watch. The roof could have fallen in
the following November, when the Iran-Contra scandal became public. The
congressional inquiry that followed focused on Reagan, and what he did and
didn’t know. Bush was mostly out of the line of fire, and so was Moreau. Casey,
meanwhile, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in December 1986, and left office
within days. He died five months later.


If Casey had not taken ill, the officer assured
me, ‘he would have been the fall guy, and taken one for the Boss’ – the
president. Bush, with his seemingly secure run for the presidency in 1988 under
threat, flew into a panic about the burgeoning scandal. He had played a major
role in the sure-to-fail scheme; a comprehensive inquiry might well discover
the 35 or so earlier covert operations – many of them successful – that he and
the Moreau group had conducted. The team’s carefully prepared findings, none of
which had been given to Congress, were destroyed, as were any other records of
the extraordinary operations unit. Moreau suffered a major heart attack in
December 1986, while on duty, and died soon afterwards at a military hospital
in Naples.


Secrecy, internal rivalries and illegality had
doomed Moreau’s project but, for all its flaws, there were some in the defence
establishment who felt, as Moreau did, that extraordinary efforts were needed
to combat international terrorism. ‘How ironic it is,’ a senior defence
official told me, ‘given all the interest now in waging covert warfare, that
the very real opportunity to pre-empt al-Qaida, and launch a war decades before
9/11, was squandered by a mix of overzealous, sometimes misguided operators and
bickering administration officials.’


*


In 1986, as the Iran-Contra scandal turned toxic, the immediate
problem for Vice President Bush was political survival. Too many outsiders –
men like Oliver North – knew too much. The vice president began keeping a diary
– with notable fake elements – late in 1986, as the scandal was being
investigated by the special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. The diary wasn’t turned
over to Walsh’s inquiry until after Bush’s defeat in the 1992 presidential
election, despite relevant subpoenas dating back to 1987. It begins with the sentence:
‘This is November 1986, the beginning of what I hope will be an accurate diary,
with at least five and maybe 15 minutes a day on observations about my run for
the presidency in 1988.’ But Bush was unable to restrain himself, repeatedly
wondering whether North and his close associate on the National Security
Council, Admiral John Poindexter, would ‘do the right thing’ when testifying
before Congress. The ‘right thing’, of course, was for North and Poindexter to
lie and not say what they knew about Bush’s involvement. At one point, Bush
refers to allegations in the media that he has not come clean on his part in
the scandal, and adds: ‘The implication being that I was some way linked in to
the diversion of funds to the Contras or that I was running a secret war’ –
which, of course, was precisely what he had been doing. Later, writing about
the arms for hostage agreement, he says: ‘I’m one of the few people that know
fully the details, and there is a lot of flack and misinformation out there. It
is not a subject we can talk about.’


Bush’s unconscious seemed to spin out of
control again when he was summoned in December 1986 by the Tower Commission, a
three-member investigating group put together by the White House in a failed
attempt to head off the Walsh inquiry. ‘The testimony before the Tower
Commission, I think went well,’ Bush wrote. ‘I made several suggestions to them
… [and] they include no more operations by the NSC; CIA to conduct covert
operations; formalise process of the NSC staff; clearly [no more] oral
findings, and failure to follow up on these covert operations was wrong. Nobody
had any dream that these kinds of things were going on.’ He was once again
describing what Moreau’s group had been doing. The diary, had it been turned
over earlier, as Bush’s team of lawyers certainly understood, would have led to
a great deal of further questioning, and possibly to an indictment.


Walsh reluctantly ended his far from
satisfactory inquiry in 1993. Convictions his staff won at trial were later
overturned or suspended, as in North’s case; others were pardoned by Bush
before he left office. One of Walsh’s last acts was to determine whether there
was a case against Bush for his initial refusal to turn over the diary. He
decided against it after concluding that there was little likelihood of a
successful prosecution. The same general conclusion had been reached two years
earlier, before the existence of the diary became known, by Christian Mixter, a
senior attorney on Walsh’s staff. While there was much evidence that Bush had
attended most of the important meetings on Iran-Contra, Mixter wrote, his role
as ‘a secondary officer’ to the president made him less likely to be criminally
liable for the actions he took. Mixter’s analysis was not made public until 2011.


There is no evidence that Walsh or any of the
lawyers on his staff found out about the existence of Moreau’s special
operations group, though it was clear to some that there was more to know. John
Barrett, who now teaches at St John’s University School of Law in New York,
spent five years working for Walsh and came away, as he told me, with ‘a very
strong sense that the water was way deeper than we could see. And who knew what
was below. I concluded that we were at the mercy of the executive branch.’ He added
that Archibald Cox, the Harvard law professor who was in charge of the
Watergate investigation in 1973, had been able to turn for help to John Dean –
the White House counsel who testified in public about the presidential
cover-up. Unlike Cox, ‘we didn’t have an intelligence insider.’


The Washington press corps was equally in the
dark. Scott Armstrong, a Washington journalist who spent years researching US
policy on Iran, recalled a pleasant lunch he had long after the Iran-Contra
inquiry with Don Gregg, Bush’s national security adviser. The conversation
inevitably turned to the Iran-Contra days and Armstrong told Gregg that he and
other journalists had always been interested in his role. Gregg’s answer, as
Armstrong recalled it, was crude and mysterious: ‘You guys [in the press] were
always sniffing around my ass, and Dan Murphy passed right by you.’


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