When nationally televised Iran-contra hearings ended last August, what former national security adviser John M. Poindexter called a protective "wall around the president" had withstood months of inquiries and revelations.
The majority report of the congressional investigating committees, issued yesterday, jumped over that wall. The report contains only a few factual surprises and it leaves many critical aspects of the affair unresolved -- but it unambiguously affixes historical responsibility for the Iran-contra affair on Ronald Reagan.
It does so in terms that come just short of suggesting the president had committed potentially impeachable offenses by failing to follow his constitutional charge "to take care that laws be faithfully executed."
The essence of the majority report is that Reagan, as the nation's chief executive and principal law officer, could not escape responsibility for actions of his subordinates because of ignorance of their actions or the climate of secrecy that flourished in his administration.
He had a responsibility, the report concludes, "to leave the members of his administration in no doubt that the rule of law governs." But he failed to do that, the report says. It was the president who set the tone that led aides to believe they were carrying out his policies, the president who must accept responsibility for failing to let them know he disapproved of their actions after the nation learned that several of them had "lied, shredded documents and covered up their actions." Instead, the president "has yet to condemn their conduct."
The majority report presents a direct, unequivocal, coherent and unsparing portrait of the multiple complex activities that came to be known collectively as the Iran-contra affair.
It makes them understandable in sober and straightforward tones. It has the sweep of a historian's narrative rendering of serious, fateful events. It does not read like a polemic.
The judgments it renders are simply, bluntly stated. "Again, North lied," it says at one point. It calls a cover-up a cover-up. It brands lies as lies, deception as deception. Its section headings read like pithy guides to a tragic episode with overtones of high corruption coupled with high purpose: "The Money Begins to Run Out" . . . "The Decision to Bring the Situation to a Head" . . . "Keeping 'USG Fingerprints' Off the Contra Operation: 1986" . . . "Authority to Lie" . . . " 'Taken to the Cleaners': The Iran Initiative Continues."
Its text is free of bureaucratic jargon, unusual for a document that is the product of many authors struggling against a tight deadline to achieve a consensus in a highly charged political atmosphere.
For example, here's how it summarizes why the secret Iran arms sales failed disastrously, and the implications of that failure:
"Too many drivers -- and never the right ones -- steering in too many different directions took the Iran initiative down the road to failure. In the end, there was no improved relationship with Iran, no lessening of its commitment to terrorism and no fewer American hostages.
"The Iran initiative succeeded only in replacing three American hostages with another three, arming Iran with 2,004 TOWs and more than 200 vital spare parts for Hawk missile batteries, improperly generating funds for the contras and other covert activities (although far less than North believed), producing profits for the Hakim-Secord Enterprise that in fact belonged to U.S. taxpayers, leading certain NSC and CIA personnel to deceive representatives of their own government, undermining U.S. credibility in the eyes of the world, damaging relations between the executive and the Congress, and engulfing the president in one of the worst credibility crises of any administration in U.S. history."
These are harsh judgments. Short of the presidential impeachment process itself, an event that has occurred only twice in American history, seldom if ever has a president of the United States been criticized so severely and directly by a select panel of both houses of Congress.
Seldom has a president been so blamed for creating, or tolerating, what the committees found was a pervasive atmosphere in which members of his administration repeatedly lied to other high government officials, and deceived Congress and the American people.
It will be -- and already has become -- controversial.
A strong and bitter dissenting minority opinion was filed by the six Republican House members of the select committee and two of the five GOP senators on the corresponding investigating panel. They denounced what they called "the more hysterical conclusions" in the majority report and dismissed the serious allegations by saying that mistakes made were merely "mistakes in judgment" -- and that "there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for 'the rule of law,' no grand conspiracy and no administration dishonesty or cover-up."
But despite such strong evidence of the deep political polarization that surrounds this final chapter of the congressional hearings, this report seems almost certain to have a historical afterlife -- one that likely will affect the ultimate judgment on the Reagan administration and the secret events that became public knowledge in the Iran-contra affair. It does not tell the whole story. It does not answer all, or many, questions.
Yet it is more than possible that the judgment of Senate select committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), issued separately yesterday with the majority report, will bear the test of time.
"We have uncovered the core facts," Inouye said, "although not every fact. Inescapably, some facts have been lost to us and to history. But you do not have to see each grain of sand to recognize a beach. The picture presented of the Iran-contra affair is clear."
The former White House chief of staff, forced out of his job last winter in the midst of the Iran-contra affair, is writing a book. He is also an economic consultant for NBC News.
Abrams, who admitted misleading Congress about efforts to solicit funds for the contras from other countries, continues in his job as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Abrams is much less visible on Capitol Hill these days because several congressional Democrats have opposed allowing him to testify. However, he retains the confidence of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and has not moderated his advocacy of controversial positions.
The former National Security Council consultant continues to write and lecture on Iran and terrorism, and consult for international clients. He is writing a book about the Iran-contra affair and his role in 1985 as a key liaison between the White House and the Israelis.