Saturday, May 12, 2018

Stop Me If You've Heard This

History, it is said, repeats itself. Or at least it rhymes. Or exhibits recurring themes and leitmotifs. Or wanders in circles. Or suffers flashbacks.

In the past week or so, the NRA elected itself a new leader best known for illegal arms sales; a foreign enemy released three American prisoners; Donald Joffrey Trump abrogated a treaty with Iran; and the White House complained that a criminal investigation was getting too close to the president had dragged on too long.

Where have I heard this song before? Doesn't that tree look familar?

When the Reagan administration's secret arms deal with Iran first came to light in 1986, it was immediately associated with the release of one of the hostages who were being held by various factions in Lebanon's civil war. Iran was backing Hezbollah there, while also in the sixth year of war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

I drew a connection with Nicaragua, whose socialist government had just arrested Eugene Hasenfus, an ex-marine from Marinette, Wisconsin. Hasenfus had been shot down while flying arms to right-wing rebels known as the Contras. I wasn't making the right connection, but I was in the right ballpark.

When the true Iran-Contra connection came to light, the Reagan administration line was that aid to the Nicaraguan guerillas was all the work of one U.S. Marines Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.

It was a complicated scheme, involving North's funneling $10,000 from the Sultan of Brunei to a Swiss bank account (to the wrong account as it happened), and enlisting the aid of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega against the Nicaraguan government. (Overthrowing Noriega would become a priority of the George H.W. Bush administration.)

Since President Reagan had no idea what was going on, he was obliged to appoint former Senator John Tower (whom we discussed a couple weeks ago) to lead a commission tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra affair. The Tower Commission presented its findings to the president in March, 1987.

But that didn't bring an end to the matter. Attorney General Ed Meese named New York attorney Lawrence Walsh special counsel to determine whether to charge anyone with any crimes. Congress also held hearings into the Iran-Contra affair; Lt. Col. Ollie North was a star witness. He defended his having lied to Congress because he believed aiding the Contras through illegal arms sales was a "neat idea."

You never saw future NRA head honcho Ollie North on TV except in full military uniform, badges and all.

On March 16, 1988, a grand jury handed down a 23-count indictment against top administration officials, including future NRA top gun Ollie North. By the time any of the court trials got underway, Ronald Reagan was out of office. He was also exhibiting signs of senile dementia, although those closest to him were doing their best to conceal the problem and to pass it off as his usual aw-shucks folksy demeanor.

Walsh had concluded that Reagan had not himself broken the law, so popular speculation immediately after his presidency centered on whether he would be called upon to testify at the trials of his subordinates. Of more pressing concern to the first of these was paneling a jury that could be impartial in weighing the fate of future NRA don Ollie North.

But a jury was finally seated. In May, 1989, North was found guilty of three out of 16 federal charges: accepting an illegal gratuity, aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and ordering the destruction of documents.

Appellate courts would ultimately set aside North's conviction, as well as those of Reagan's National Security Adviser Adm. James Poindexter and nine others. Five others — including former State Department official Elliott Abrams and former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger — were preëmptively pardoned by lame duck President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992.

There was no investigation of Walsh's investigation, of course. Bush's successor would have to endure a totally unrelated interminable investigation which was supposed to be about some Arkansas land deal in which Bill and Hillary Clinton had lost money. But it ended up being about extramarital affairs and —

I'm positive we passed that tree before!

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