The summer of 1987 was unusually hot. To the Reagan White House it must have also seemed unusually long, for the Administration’s basic competence in the conduct of foreign policy was on public trial, day after day, on national television.
Hearings of the House and Senate select committees began on May 5 to investigate the secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contras. At first the proceedings were little more than a dull exercise in detective work. Suddenly, with the appearance of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North from July 7 to 14, there came a new air of courtroom drama. Public attention was galvanized—and polarized—by North’s defense of his own actions and by his challenges to the committees.
North did little, however, to clear up the basic question of what the president knew. It was left to a subsequent witness, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, the former national security adviser, to address this: he testified that he had not briefed President Reagan about the diversion of profits to the contras, and the fateful question seemed laid to rest. But then the testimony of Secretary of State George Shultz raised still broader questions about the formulation and conduct of the Iran policy by the Reagan Administration, the practice of covert operations, the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches in foreign policy, and the outlook for a weakened presidency that still had 18 months left in which to govern.
The hearings—at times a sharp and heated dispute between witnesses and the committees—started narrowly, as an inquiry into the procedures followed in the conduct of two covert actions involving Iran and Nicaragua. In the mid-1970s the Congress had passed legislation (the Hughes-Ryan Act) requiring a presidential "finding" that each covert action was in the national interest; Congress was to be informed in a "timely" manner. At that time, the prevailing wisdom was that the risks of undertaking covert actions could be lessened by
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