oliver north
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr

I have never asked David Corn why, when he was the Washington editor of The Nation, he decided to spend a significant fraction of his life researching the career of CIA operative Ted Shackley, but I think it’s a safe bet that he couldn’t resist a story that connected the Bay of Pigs to the Watergate burglary and the Iran-Contra affair. It would be a good idea for all the members of the National Rifle Association to go buy a copy of Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades (available in hardcover at Amazon for just $3.99). It’s probably the simplest way for them to get to know the folks their new president Ollie North used to fund the Contras.

As for the Iran portion of the scandal, I’d recommend Chapter 8: The Enterprise and Its Finances from Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh’s Final Report for Iran/Contra Matters.  It’s a gripping tale involving some of the most notorious scoundrels to course through the veins of our national politics in the second half of the 20th Century.  You won’t be bored reading about CIA operatives Rafael “Chi Chi” Quintero, Thomas Clines and Edwin Wilson, trust me. And it’s always exciting to learn about the lifestyles of arms merchants like Adnan Khashoggi.

This is all important because the true character of Oliver North wasn’t fully understood even when he was at the center of the nation’s attention, and the passage of time hasn’t helped in this regard. Part of the problem was that the Independent Counsel had to drop most of the really serious charges against North because proving his guilt would have revealed classified information and because he had been granted limited immunity by Congress and because his lawyers were very competent and aggressive and willing to use graymail in his defense.

It’s always been relatively easy to have sympathy for North if you weren’t too exercised about the illegal operation he orchestrated. He was asked to keep the Contras afloat at a time when Congress had forbidden any direct assistance to their cause. The president said it was important and his defense secretary, CIA director and national security adviser all were giving their approval.  Later on, North was asked to assist in winning the release of hostages that were being held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. This was a top priority for Ronald Reagan. It’s true North could have resigned rather than do something illegal, but it’s also easy to see why he felt he was doing something that was authorized and patriotic.

If all North did was follow the instructions he’d been given, he certainly could have been considered the fall guy. His superiors should have been in the docket before he was, and the president was ultimately the most responsible party. Even some of his lies were understandable since his superiors were lying and asking him to lie about matters that had the potential to damage foreign relations and to compromise sources and methods.

The problem with this narrative is that North didn’t simply follow instructions. He and his lieutenants Richard Secord and Albert Hakim set up an elaborate scheme to enrich themselves at the cost of the Contras and the American government. They did this by skimming off the deals they made with the Iranians, the Israelis, the Contras, and the government. This is from the Walsh Report:

Secord and Hakim benefited substantially as a result of their involvement in the Iran and contra operations. Secord in 1985 and 1986 received $2 million in direct personal benefits from the Enterprise, and more than $1 million in cash payments. Hakim in 1985 and 1986 received $2.06 million in direct benefits, and more than $550,000 in cash.

The benefits fell into three broad categories: pro-rated profit distributions on contra weapons sales, for which each received $1,557,377; money from Enterprise accounts that went into Secord-Hakim business ventures, amounting to $520,000 each; and funds withdrawn from Enterprise accounts for personal use, including repairs to a Secord plane amounting to $5,729, payments of $20,000 each by Secord and Hakim for a business venture in the Middle East, and $3,000 each for investment in a catfish business venture.

North oversaw all of Secord and Hakim’s activities, and he got his own taste:

North testified that $4,300 in traveler’s checks given to him by Calero for the operational fund, and which North spent at grocery stores, gas stations and other retail outlets, were to reimburse himself for operational expenses he paid from his own pocket. He said he was not nervous about destroying the only record he kept of the operational fund disbursements because he never believed he would ever be accused of doing anything dishonest with the money.

North testified that he had $15,000 in cash in a metal box bolted to a closet floor in his home, saved from pocket change and a decades-old insurance settlement. This, North said, was the source of funds for a car he bought in October 1985. North could not explain why he paid for the car in two cash payments — the second after North had visited Secord. He said he could not recall the October 1985 payment.

North claimed no awareness of a $200,000 investment account that Secord’s business partner Albert Hakim set up for North in Switzerland, although he did admit that he sent his wife Betsy to Philadelphia in March 1986 to meet with Willard I. Zucker, the Secord-Hakim Enterprise’s financial manager. North said he believed the purpose of Betsy North’s trip to Philadelphia was for her to identify herself to Zucker in case North didn’t return from a dangerous trip to Iran. North said he assumed that in the event of his death, something would be done “that was proper and honorable and nothing wrong in any way,” denying that the investment account was a bribery attempt by Hakim.

[Hakim pleaded guilty in November 1989 to attempting to supplement the salary of North, based partly on the establishment of the $200,000 investment account. See Hakim chapter.]

North was unable to blame others for his acceptance of a home security-system from Secord, except to explain that he accepted the system in response to reported terrorist threats on his life. North admitted that after the Iran/contra affair became public, he exchanged false back-dated letters with Glenn Robinette, a former CIA officer who worked for Secord in installing the system, suggesting payment arrangements. “[I]t was a fairly stupid thing to do,” North said.

Much of the money that Secord and Hakim made was from either overcharging the U.S. government or for failing to properly pay them back. In a way, this kind of activity was built into the design of the operation. By overcharging the Iranians and the Israelis, they were able to get funds to divert to the Contras. But they overcharged the Contras, too, as well as the U.S. government, and they kept the money for themselves.

The fundamental problem with Ollie North wasn’t that he was running an illegal operation authorized by the president and his entire national security team. The problem wasn’t even that his mistakes resulted in exposure of the Contra operation and the Iranian arms-for-hostages deal without securing the release of any hostages. The problem wasn’t that he shredded documents and perjured himself. The problem was that he used his position to steal. And he was most definitely not authorized by anyone to steal.

In retrospect, no one would argue that it was a wise decision to entrust Ollie North with these operations. And the major reason it was a mistake was because North utilized the same people who had bungled the Bay of Pigs operation, the same people who had bungled the Watergate burglary and the same people who utilized the trust that was given them in Laos during the Vietnam War to introduce Southeast Asian heroin into the global market. Morals were not the strong point of this crew, and their record of incompetence and exposure should be legendary and taught in every school of clandestine operations.

I’m fairly confident that the people who made the decision to make Oliver North the president of the National Rifle Association are unfamiliar with North’s thievery and are devoted more to the mythological legend of North than to the actual man.  They might have better considered, however, his actual record of performance. His pipeline to the Contras was exposed when the Sandinistas shot down one of North’s transport planes and captured Eugene Hasenfus, a veteran pilot of Ted Shackley’s Laotian heroin trafficking days. North’s supposedly secret deals with the Iranians were exposed causing the Iran-Contra scandal, with all the legal problems that attended that, as well as creating a political nightmare for President Ronald Reagan and his heir-apparent George H.W. Bush.

North does know a lot about weapons. He knows how to secure them from international arms dealers and foreign governments. He knows how to move them from place to place. He knows who to hire to create shell companies and buy shipping and air transport. He knows how to skim off every transaction.

What he doesn’t know is how to get away with it. What he doesn’t know is how to achieve the objectives he’s been given. The hostages’ freedom was not secured. The operations did not remain secret. Everyone involved, including his superiors, had their roles exposed and/or their cover blown.

Most importantly for the NRA, North used the faith that was entrusted in him to steal, thereby betraying even St. Ronnie Reagan himself.

The members of the NRA should know this history because while they may like it when North says we should have to go through five metal detectors to get into our children’s school, they won’t like it when North follows his nature and figures out a way to inadvertently expose their dirty laundry while scamming them out of their money.

And with more and more evidence suggesting that the NRA has already been up to their necks in criminal behavior involving using foreign money to illegally fund domestic political campaigns, is now really the time to bring in someone like North with his decades-old connections to one debacle after another?

It just seems like a truly bad idea.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com