Edmund Morris in his controversial "Dutch, a Memoir of Ronald Reagan" states his suspicion that President Ronald Reagan knew about Lt. Col. Oliver North's diversion of funds from the arms sales to Iran for the Nicaraguan contras. The issue is a very serious one, then and now. Had it been proven that Reagan approved the diversion, this could have been an impeachable offense. It would have been "theft of government property," stealing and using the funds for unauthorized purposes. This could have forced Reagan into the impeachment process that President Clinton went through. If Reagan did know, he would also be guilty of coverup and obstruction of justice. Make no mistake about it: This was a pivotal point in the Reagan presidency, and surprisingly, Morris in this book treats this issue off-handedly without any kind of analysis or documentation, only speculation.
Donald Regan's description of the president when informed was that the blood drained from the president's shocked face in a way that his chief of staff had never seen before. Then Reagan's authorized biographer speculates as to whether this was the expression of someone "who had been found out" rather than someone just informed as Reagan took it. Without a shred of real evidence, official biographer Morris offers his suspicion that "Dutch" authorized the transfer without understanding the somewhat complicated laws he was subverting: the Arms Export Control Act and the Second Boland Amendment. Morris does not seem to realize that these two laws were not the ones feared for the basis of impeachment, but that the diversion was. In my conversations with the president, he clearly understood what Morris apparently didn't.
I had firsthand experience in these investigations for the first three months of 1987, the winter of the truly precarious period of the Reagan presidency. This was in the aftermath of the November 1986 Poindexter/North coverup. The situation was so serious and some in the White House were so devious that it became impossible for others to know what really had happened in this octopus-like affair. In December, however, the president broke out of these tentacles, unlike Nixon or Clinton. He waived executive privilege, and appointed an independent, bipartisan board chaired by former senator John Tower to investigate. The day after Christmas the president phoned me in Brussels, where I was NATO ambassador, and summoned me to report to the White House to join his Cabinet as his special counselor for three months. I was to "get everything out" to the board, to the congressional investigating committees, and to Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent prosecutor.
Working with general counsels in the departments and the White House legal counsel, within a month we were able to deliver some 3,000 documents the FBI labeled as relevant to the several investigating bodies. These documents were reviewed and classified, and then copies made for the investigating groups. President Reagan wisely designed my authority and activities to be a second track, separating them from the daily operational work of the chief of staff and independent of his authority. The president did not bring me in to defend or shield him but rather to compel an honest process of investigation. I later had a severe difference with chief of staff Regan, but in the beginning he advocated and indeed was an architect of this two-track approach.
A dozen times I met at length and alone with the president during a period when any one of those hundreds of documents could have contained a smoking gun, such as some memo proving that the president knew about the diversion, as Nixon's "smoking gun" tape proved his coverup and undoing. During our meetings, the president was never edgy, nervous or concerned as we discussed the massive movement of these documents. There was never a "David, don't you think you are overdoing it a bit." I also asked the president three times whether there was any chance Adm. John Poindexter could have covered his tracks by obscurely mentioning the "diversion operation" hoping the president wouldn't focus. "Absolutely not," the president replied. "That is not minor. I would have remembered it. I would have exploded. You would have heard it in the next room." He had no fear that any document would contradict him. Neither did the four outside investigations find such a document.
My team was criticized by some who believed that we were far too forthcoming, that we should be stonewalling, fighting Capitol Hill rather than cooperating. (Of course, that in itself could have led to obstruction of justice.) But time and again, the president expressed to me the opposite, applauding this open disclosure process -- which, by the way, built enormous bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, at least for those three months.
The entire Iran-contra affair was a vast blunder and abrogation of the National Security Council coordinating process. It became the political low point of the Reagan presidency, especially with Reagan's inaccurate and misleading press conference and speech in November 1986. But unlike the Nixon and Clinton episodes, Reagan broke out of the bunker and saved his presidency. This dramatic story of a president setting up such an independent operation not to defend himself but to avoid further coverups is missing from "Dutch," yet it is unique in presidential history and very instructive for future presidents in trouble. It is a strange irony that Morris, who for years was the recipient of Ronald Reagan's open-door hospitality to roam the White House, at will, would totally miss the seminal story of an open Reagan presidency in this period of the investigation.
The writer early in 1987 served in the Cabinet as special counselor to President Reagan.