Jul
01
1987

Scott Armstrong on the Media & Contragate

Scott Armstrong, formerly a reporter with the Washington Post, is the director of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, which recently published The Chronology, a day-by-day account of secret military assistance to Iran and the Contras.

FAIR: What is your assessment of the congressional hearings thus far?

Oliver North

Oliver North

ARMSTRONG: I think the congressional investigation, after hundreds of hours of testimony, is going to prove definitively that Oliver North was involved and did something illegal. To draw a comparison to Watergate, it would be the equivalent of having gone through the entire experience to learn that John Dean was the main culprit.

If we’ve learned anything from this investigation, it’s that Congressional oversight is a double-entendre. When we ask whether the president should be impeached for high crimes or misdemeanors, we might also ask whether Congress should be impeached. In some ways Congress may even be more guilty. It has watched the president and the National Security Council violate statutory law, but nothing was done to stop this while it was happening.

FAIR: How do you rate media coverage of the hearings and the scandal in general?

ARMSTRONG: The overall coverage of the hearings has been poor—but that’s an accurate reflection of what’s going on in the hearings. Congressional investigations are by definition a media show. The press has to interpret what Congress does, and in this case Congress has mistaken a constitutional mountain for a statutory molehill. They keep going after violations of the Boland Amendment. But they articulate the Boland Amendment in a way that’s so confusing, it’s difficult for them to see if there really has been a violation.

George ShultzThe one thing that’s wonderful about this investigation is that it has produced document after document, page after page of depositions that conflict with the Tower Commission report and the president’s statements over the past two or three years. The new evidence conflicts with virtually everything this administration has ever done. It calls into question the veracity of virtually everyone even remotely connected with the Reagan administration who has spoken on the current scandal, including the so-called heroes of this particular affair, Schultz and Weinberger. It makes perjurers out of them.

All this has been documented, but it has largely gone unnoticed by the American press. That’s the tragedy. Those media that reported the government’s lies as facts are obliged to assign someone to scrutinize the conflicting evidence and correct their previous misstatements. This would help the public understand just how vulgar the administration’s activities have been. Very few journalists have done that.

FAIR: Why has the Joint Committee performed so poorly?

ARMSTRONG: I don’t think the congressional committee knows very much. There’s only a few staff people who have any foreign policy background. The ones that do are a little suspicious themselves. Tom Polgar, the former CIA station chief in Mexico City, would not be my choice for senior investigator.

By and large, Congress has chosen to stick to the narrow, factual sequence laid out by the Tower Commission, which concluded that the president had been fooled and lied to by his subordinates. Following this line of inquiry, Congress will probably learn only two things: More people lied on more occasions than the Tower Commission reported, and the president knew a lot more about what was going on than he previously acknowledged.

Had Congress chosen a more objective route to the truth, they would have started with an audit of the Contras and traced the money flow back to its various sources. They could have shown definitively that the executive branch—using private money raised from kings, sultans and potentates, as well as American citizens—implemented an elaborate foreign policy program that Congress would not approve. This was not only illegal in that it violated the Arms Export Control Act and other acts along the way, it’s also unconstitutional.

FAIR: What are the deeper implications of the Iran/Contra scandal that are being missed by the media?

ARMSTRONG: What’s clear is that government off the books, operating with foreign funds and private contractors while Congress looks the other way, has become a regular way of life. It’s an extremely dangerous practice, the kind of practice that probably would have meant the failure of the Republic had it been done by our first president. It would have immediately undercut the separation of powers and this would have been too divisive. It’s the sort of thing that will lead us straight into another war. It could put us into a situation where our country is led across a tripwire, causing massive hemispheric devastation without any way of understanding or knowing why.

FAIR: Do you think the media’s sluggishness during the first six years of the Reagan presidency gave a green light to pursue such far-flung schemes?

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

ARMSTRONG: Reagan’s people took their cues from what they thought they could get away with. His PR men were so successful they created the notion that the president should be forgiven for his repeated misstatements. All the little lies became figments of one big lie. The press knew it and understood it. They knew, for example, that he was totally inattentive to his job. They knew there were actually three presidents--Jim Baker, Mike Deaver and Ed Meese—who shared the responsibility. A number of people knew that Baker and Deaver wouldn’t go out of town at the same time because they were so concerned that Meese might goof something up. Many journalists, not just the White House press corps, had pieces of that story and could have written about it.

FAIR: Why didn’t they write about it?

ARMSTRONG: It has a lot to do with what our press organizations are and what purpose they serve. I was never unaware at the Washington Post that my principal job was to increase the return on investment for the Graham/Meyer family. This was reflected in the way the Post was organized, the way it treated its employees. Anything that might be mistaken for investigative journalism was allowed if it boosted sales. But there was never any question in my mind that if protecting the First Amendment became more expensive than the return on investment, the First Amendment would be the loser.

I should make clear that the Post is one of the better organizations; they did bring five Freedom of Information lawsuits on my behalf, for example. But there were 200 other instances when the Post was illegally denied access to information and did not challenge the government. That’s the way it is at most newspapers. They aren’t prepared to go after stories that require a major investment of time. They’re oriented toward short-term daily journalism, which—if you read between the lines—means increasing the profit margin.

FAIR: If you were an editor at a major newspaper and could assign a team of journalists two or three stories related to the current White House scandal, what would those stories be?

ARMSTRONG: The most important story would be the failure of Congress to act like an authentic branch of government. It’s not just the Joint Committee. The previous failures of the oversight committees are so glaring and so obvious that it raises serious questions about whether or not we have any checks and balances in the foreign policy area whatsoever.

Secondly, I’d focus on the government’s off-the-books arrangements. Some were in place prior to the Iran/Contra scandal. Some may go back to previous administrations. The Angola situation is very suspicious. Here again it seems that the US government initiated a sequence of arrangements with other countries so as to bypass Congressional restrictions.

Covert international policy, which I don’t think is going to end because of any particular scandal, has inherent in it enormous risks. Invariably you end up in bed with characters who are going to come back and hurt you. The US Congress may approve of money for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, for example, but they must understand that they have created a worldwide narcotics epidemic as a result.

Third, it would appear that the ways we facilitate covert operations in various parts of the world—whether it be Afghanistan, Angola or Nicaragua—involve relationships with other countries who expect something in return. What’s implicit in our secret arrangements with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan and so on? We’re giving them massive amounts of military equipment, we’re making regional alliances and setting up US military bases, and we’re creating tripwires all around the world that could trigger regional or global conflicts.

These arrangements should be examined very closely. But that takes a great deal of work and coordination on the part of a newspaper. And most news organizations aren’t willing to devote the necessary resources. The media often overcompensate because they’re so afraid of Communism and appearing as though they’re being too critical of the US. When they finally decide to send someone to Angola, it tends to be someone who wants to become a Savimbi freedom fighter.

Sidebar:

What Did the Press Know and When?

August 8 & 9, 1985: The New York Times reports that the Contras are “receiving direct military advice from White House officials” in an operation run by a military officer on the National Security Council who “briefs President Reagan.” The White House does not deny the reports but asks the Times not to publish Oliver North’s name because publication might endanger his life. The Times accedes.

August 11, 1985: Chicago Tribune refers to the activities of a “Marine Corps lieutenant colonel” as part of Reagan’s “effort to press his policy despite opposition in Congress.”

August 15, 1985: Columnist Joseph Kraft names Oliver North as the key White House operative in its Nicaragua war, "a smelly operation redolent of
Richard M. Nixon.”

September 5, 1985: The New York Times reports the House Intelligence Committee will hold hearings into the NSC/Contra relationship. (The hearings were later canceled).

September 6 & 17, 1985: Reagan holds two new conferences, one nationally televised. Not on reporter asks about the recent revelations that the White House and North were aiding the Contras in violation of the law.

Last month, Extra! asked Times assistant managing editor Warren Hoge about the decision to delete North’s name from its reports. Hoge said he disagreed with the decision, but he would not identify the editor who made it: “Let’s just say it would never happen today if the same issue arose."

[Source: Chicago Media Critic, 4/87.]
Sidebar:
Impeachment Blackout

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D.-Indiana) made a news splash in mid-May when he suggested that the president might face a call for impeachment if it’s shown that he had approved diverting funds to the Contras.

One thing most media forgot to mention: There already was a call for impeachment—House Resolution 111, introduced by Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D.-Texas), charging Reagan with six violations of law stemming from Iran/Contra activities. One of the few dents in the press blackout of HR 111 was C-SPAN’s transmission of pro-impeachment speeches by Gonzalez to near-empty House chambers. The Austin American-Statesman (5/24/87) reported that the C-SPAN cablecasts caused a deluge of mail and phone calls of support to Gonzalez from across the country.