A new piece by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books gives some insight into secret U.S. operations during the Reagan administration. The Vice President’s Men includes a quite sensational claim of who revealed the Iran-Contra affair.
According to the conventional wisdom, as reflected in Wikipedia, an Iranian operator revealed to a Lebanese paper that the U.S. was selling weapons to Iran in the hope to get hostages in Lebanon released:
After a leak by Mehdi Hashemi, a senior official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the arrangement on 3 November 1986. This was the first public report of the weapons-for-hostages deal.
People is the National Security Council used profits from these weapon sales to illegally arm and finance CIA run anti-government gangs in Nicaragua. Both, the weapon sales to Iran and the weapon delivery to guerilla in Nicaragua, were illegal under U.S. law. The leak to Lebanese paper blew up both operations.
That Mehdi Hashemi, the Iranian operative, leaked the affair is only supported by second hand hearsay from a dubious source. Seymour Hersh reports of a very different culprit.
According to his sources former CIA director George H.W. Bush, who was then Reagan's vice president, ran his own secret operations through a special office in the Pentagon. It was led by Vice-Admiral Arthur Moreau. The office and its operations were kept outside of congressional oversight. Neither the CIA nor the Joint Chief's of Staff were aware of its doing. During some 30 different operations the Bush team used small groups of U.S. marines to effect Soviet operations in foreign countries and to get rid of unwanted foreign politicians. Bush essentially ran the prequel of the 'war on/of terror' which today is run by the CIA and the Joint Special Forces Command.
Bush disliked William Casey, who Reagan had named as new CIA director. Casey was a business man who got the job after he managed Ronald Reagan's election campaign. Bush thought that he was too incompetent to run the clandestine service.
One of the operations run under Bush also involved Nicaragua, but had nothing to do with the later Iran-Contra scandal. At the same time the CIA director William Casey was drumming up support for the Contras in Nicaragua. The two operations collided when Lieutenant Colonel Oliver (Ollie) North at the National Security Council used the proceeds from the weapon sales to Iran to illegally finance the CIA's Contras in Nicaragua. While North was also a confident of the Bush/Moreau's operations, he allegedly freelanced and eventually deserted to the CIA side.
According to a former officer involved in Bush's operations office, Bush and Moreau feared that the CIA's widely expanding Iran-Contra operation run by Oliver North would become a threat to their own operations. They decided to blow it up:
‘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, ...
According to Hersh's source the effect of the leak to the Lebanese paper was foreseen and intended:
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.”’
If Hersh's anonymous source is correct, which I have no reason to doubt, the Iranian Mehdi Hashemi did not leak the issue. It was bureaucratic infighting between a former CIA director, who continued to run secret operations, and a sitting one, who was deemed incompetent by the former, that led to the disclosure of the Iran-Contra affair.
Seymour Hersh is known to have lots of contacts with former officials and officers. According to his on telling he is actively seeking them out as soon as they retire. Old men like to tell war stories, but dislike to damage their still living friends. George H.W. Bush died last November. Hersh likely knew the story long ago but is only now allowed to tell it.
The new Hersh/LRB piece is quite long and the details seems to have little relevance for current affairs. But his sources tell an interesting story about the backstage fights that went on between the various branches of the national security bureaucracy during the Reagan presidency. There is no doubt that similar fights, including intentional leaks to damage competing officials, continue today.
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