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Iran-Contra players return to power

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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 25, 2002

WASHINGTON -- When Rear Adm. John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, was asked in 1987 why he failed to tell Congress about covert U.S. support of the Nicaraguan rebels, he replied: "I simply did not want any outside interference."

His remark horrified members of Congress and constitutional scholars, who believe the founding fathers intended for the legislative branch to have a role in all aspects of government, including foreign policy.

Now Poindexter, whose Iran-Contra conviction for lying to Congress was later overturned on appeal, is back working at the Pentagon and running the Total Information Awareness program, which is trying to centralize data on all electronic commercial transactions to be accessed in the war against terrorism.

Poindexter's new role is causing discontent among civil libertarians and opinionmakers of all political persuasions:

-- "This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even more scandalous than Iran-Contra," wrote New York Times columnist William Safire.

-- "To now entrust a nationwide electronic monitoring capability unknown and hardly understood by the nation's lawmakers to individuals with ties to past rogue operations is craziness on steroids," said the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

-- "That is only one of the reasons to worry about a program that would establish a Big Brother of the computer age," said National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr.

Poindexter is also only one of several former Iran-Contra players who have been restored to power by President Bush. Others include Elliot Abrams, who is serving on the White House National Security Council; Otto Reich, Bush's chief policymaker for Latin America; John Negroponte, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, a former Contra ally who is now the top Pentagon official for Latin American affairs.

With such a lineup, you'd almost expect to see Fawn Hall back at the White House, where she previously worked for former Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was the poster boy for the Iran-Contra scandal. But alas, Hall has not returned.

Of course, the president has done nothing illegal or unethical in hiring Poindexter and the others. But the question that bothers their critics is: Did these former Reaganites learn anything from their mistakes or are they likely to repeat them?

Earlier this year, administration officials admitted that Pardo-Maurer met with opposition forces in Venezuela before they attempted to stage a coup against President Hugo Chavez.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer admitted the coup attempt was discussed in those meetings, but he emphasized, "In the conversation they had, they explicitly told opposition leaders the United States would not support a coup."

Unlike Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan officials covertly sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits to assist the Nicaraguan rebels, is seldom referenced anymore as a critical juncture in the nation's political history. Instead, Republicans dismiss it as just another example of politics by accusation, much like the Monica Lewinsky affair.

What was the lesson of Iran-Contra?

Former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh summed it up this way: "The Iran-Contra affair illustrates both the forces that propel high-level officials to engage in illegal activities and the barriers to full disclosure once the illegal activities have been exposed."

The congressional investigation concluded that "in the Iran-Contra affair, officials viewed the law not as setting boundaries for their actions, but raising impediments to these goals."

In the midst of the current war against terrorism and on the eve of a possible attack against Iraq, it would be easy for the Bush administration to repeat that mistake, particularly with some of the Iran-Contra personalities back in responsible positions.

Former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who spearheaded the Iran-Contra congressional investigation and now leads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the lesson of Iran-Contra is easy to forget. "It's the kind of thing you have to learn over and over again," he said. "People obtain power; people abuse power. . . . These people just happened to get caught at it."

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