Twenty years ago today, John Poindexter, a US national security adviser, was convicted of conspiracy and other charges pertaining to the infamous Iran-Contra Affair. Though the convictions were overturned the following year, Poindexter’s defence might have been assisted had access to the diaries of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H W Bush not been quashed under the guise of ‘executive privilege’.
The National Security Archive, located at The George Washington University, gives this summary of the Iran-Contra affair: ‘On November 25, 1986, the biggest political and constitutional scandal since Watergate exploded in Washington when President Ronald Reagan told a packed White House news conference that funds derived from covert arms deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran had been diverted to buy weapons for the US-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In the weeks leading up to this shocking admission, news reports had exposed the US role in both the Iran deals and the secret support for the Contras, but Reagan’s announcement, in which he named two subordinates - National Security Advisor John M Poindexter and NSC staffer Oliver L North - as the responsible parties, was the first to link the two operations.’
More than three years later, on 7 April 1990, Poindexter was convicted for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury, defrauding the government, and the alteration and destruction of evidence pertaining to the Iran-Contra Affair. On appeal, these convictions were reversed in 1991. (North had been convicted on lesser charges the previous year, and his convictions were reversed in 1990.)
Poindexter, born in 1936, studied at the United States Naval Academy and the California Institute of Technology. He had a distinguished career in the navy (battleship command and high-ranking Pentagon posts) before serving in the Reagan administration, first as a military assistant then, from 1983 to 1985, as Deputy National Security Advisor. In 1985-1986, he was National Security Advisor providing recommendations to the President on national security, foreign policy and defense policy. He reached the navy rank of Vice Admiral, but was retired, because of the Iran-Contra Affair, as a Rear Admiral in 1987. After that and until retirement he worked in the hi-tech private sector, apart from a few months as Director of the DARPA Information Awareness Office - see Wikipedia for a little more biographical information.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) website has the text of the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, and Chapter Three deals with United States v. John M Poindexter. It provides a full background to his indictment in March 1988, and gives a run down of the trial and outcomes. More specifically it also mentions how, in September 1989, Poindexter’s attorneys informed the court that ‘the defendant is willing to seek access to the personal diaries and notes of former President Reagan and former Vice President Bush pursuant to a . . . subpoena.’
The judge in the case subsequently ordered President Reagan to make diary entries available for the court’s in camera review, and after the review ordered him to produce the relevant diary entries for Poindexter - in the absence of a claim of executive privilege. This was headline news at the time - see the Google archived Associated Press report. But then, the Report explains, President Reagan, joined by the Bush Administration, claimed executive privilege and this was granted by the court, thus allowing the Reagan-Bush motions to quash the subpoena for the diary entries.
Executive privilege, according to Wikipedia, is the power claimed by the President of the United States and other members of the executive branch to resist certain subpoenas and other interventions by the legislative and judicial branches of government. The Supreme Court has confirmed the legitimacy of this doctrine but only to the extent of confirming that there is a qualified privilege: ‘Once invoked, a presumption of privilege is established, requiring the Prosecutor to make a ‘sufficient showing’ that the ‘Presidential material’ is ‘essential to the justice of the case’.
Here is more from the National Security Archive on Reagan and Bush.
On Reagan: ‘The scandal was almost the undoing of the Teflon President. Of all the revelations that emerged, the most galling for the American public was the president’s abandonment of the long-standing policy against dealing with terrorists, which Reagan repeatedly denied doing in spite of overwhelming evidence that made it appear he was simply lying to cover up the story. Despite the damage to his image, the president arguably got off easy, escaping the ultimate political sanction of impeachment. From what is now known from documents and testimony - but perhaps not widely appreciated - while Reagan may not have known about the diversion or certain other details of the operations being carried out in his name, he directed that both support for the Contras (whom he ordered to be kept together ‘body and soul’) and the arms-for-hostages deals go forward, and was at least privy to other actions that were no less significant.’
On Bush: ‘Then-Vice President George H W Bush became entangled in controversy over his knowledge of Iran-Contra. Although he asserted publicly that he was ‘out of the loop - no operational role,’ he was well informed of events, particularly the Iran deals, as evidenced in part by this diary excerpt just after the Iran operation was exposed: ‘I’m one of the few people that know fully the details . . .’ [see below also]. The problem for Bush was greatly magnified because he was preparing to run for president just as the scandal burst. He managed to escape significant blame - ultimately winning the 1988 election - but he came under fire later for repeatedly failing to disclose the existence of his diary to investigators and then for pardoning several Iran-Contra figures, including former Defense Secretary Weinberger just days before his trial was set to begin. As a result of the pardons, the independent counsel’s final report pointedly noted: ‘The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete.’
The Project for the Old American Century is one of the websites that has several pertinent extracts from George Bush’s diary made available in 1993:
5 November 1986
‘On the news at this time is the question of the hostages . . . I’m one of the few people that know fully the details . . . it is not a subject we can talk about . . .’
13 November 1986
‘I remember Watergate. I remember the way things oozed out. It is important to be level, to be honest, to be direct. We are not saying anything.’
25 November 1986
‘The administration in disarray - foreign policy in disarray - cover-up - who knew what when?’
1 January 1987
‘These so-called findings on Iran - I'll be honest - I don’t remember any of them, and I don’t believe that they were even signed by the president, frankly. But sometimes there are meetings over in the White House with Shultz, NSC guy, Casey and Weinberger, and they make some decisions that the president signs off on. . . And the facts are that the Vice President is not in the decision making loop.’
And here is one excerpt from Reagan’s diary, taken from a Vanity Fair preview of The Reagan Diaries edited by Douglas Brinkley and published in 2007.
24 November 1986
‘Big thing of the day was 2 hour meeting in the situation room on the Iran affair. George S. is still stubborn that we shouldn't have sold the arms to Iran - I gave him an argument. All in all we got everything out on the table. After meeting Ed [Meese, attorney general] & Don [Regan] told me of a smoking gun. On one of the arms shipments the Iranians pd. Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank acct. Then our Col. [Oliver] North (NSC) gave the money to the ‘Contras’. This was a violation of the law against giving the Contras money without an authorization by Congress. North didn't tell me about this. Worst of all John [Poindexter] found out about it & didn’t tell me. This may call for resignations.’