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Reading: A Book Too Fast

Looking for a clear, comprehensive account of the Iran-contra fiasco? Keep looking.

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The details of the current crisis are difficult to master, and the lists of shady characters are hard to retain," warns University of California at Berkeley English professor Peter Dale Scott in the conclusion to this premature retrospective, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era. "Floods of detail . . . and excesses of information, just as securely as secrecy, can become a means whereby the issues are concealed."

The admonition is ironic in this excessively detailed and essentially confused book, of which fully one quarter is devoted to footnotes. It would be pleasant to be able to cheer on the team in its long-awaited joint effort. In addition to Scott, the book is written by the Oakland Tribune's Libertarian editorial page editor Jonathan Marshall, with one chapter on Israel and the contras by Jane Hunter, editor of the monthly Israeli Foreign Policy. It would be pleasant, but it would be wrong.

It is by now common knowledge that much more was going on behind the Iran-contra affair than Fawn Hall's panty hose, Richard Secord's Porsche, or Bill Casey's lobotomy. Readers of accounts in the alternative press, and those accustomed to scanning the interstices of the mainstream papers with the eye of a Soviet reading Pravda, are more or less aware of allegations of scandal and parapolitical intrigue of Ludlumesque proportions, a number of which are covered to some extent in The Iran-Contra Connection:

that the Reagan team cut an arms deal with Iran back in 1980 to delay release of the hostages until after the election, thus insuring a Carter defeat;

that the Nicaraguan contras and their Cubano friends have financed their activities for years by running drugs into the U.S., with the tacit approval if not the active assistance of various federal agencies;

that in its anticommunistic fervor, the CIA has consorted with, trained, and supported the most gruesome collection of ex-Nazis, fascist death squads, and right-wing terrorists imaginable;

that the American public has been fed cynical disinformation and wild paranoid fantasies by its own leaders in order to gain support for policies that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

The names of some of the players in these various and often overlapping scandals are known from the recently concluded House-Senate joint hearings: Secord, Singlaub, Rodriguez, North. Others were frequently mentioned but did not appear: Manucher Ghorbanifar, Michael Ledeen, Edwin Wilson, William Casey. Still others were scarcely mentioned at all but should have been: Theodore Shackley, Thomas Clines, Michael Deaver, Richard Allen, John Hull, and many others. They all play parts in the real story behind the Iran-contra scandal, that advertised in the subtitle to The Iran-Contra Connection: "Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era."

For that story to come out, however, a coherent, clear exposition of the characters and their tangled exploits is needed, lest we drown in the floods of detail about which Scott warned us. Unfortunately, one cannot look to his book as a life preserver.

The Iran-Contra Connection has the appearance of having been written in haste by a committee of three suffering a lack of consensus. Hunter wrote one chapter, Scott three, and Marshall everything else. This leads to great leaps in tone and style, not to mention subject matter. The reader begs for an editor to come to the rescue, but none appears.

On page 16, for example, we learn that Tom Clines was "negotiating a $650,000 deal with Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza 'to create a search and destroy apparatus against Somoza's enemies.'" That's in Marshall's chapter. In Scott's following chapter, we learn on page 30 that Clines "even before he left the CIA . . . was promoting a deal with the Nicaraguan tyrant, Anastasio Somoza, to create a search-and-destroy apparatus against Somoza's enemies." Both quotes are from Peter Maas's Manhunter, a genuine narrative biography of CIA rogue Edwin Wilson that we get the feeling we would be happier reading at firsthand.

Such sloppy repetitiveness does not come solely as the duplication of effort between various coauthors. In chapter ten, for example, Marshall gives an interesting and provocative account of the "Libyan hit squad" scare of the fall of 1981. The punch line of the story is the revelation that Iranian arms dealer and possible Israeli agent Manucher Ghorbanifar "had made up the hit-squad story in order to cause problems for one of Israel's enemies." The impact was reduced, however, since Marshall had already used the same story, and the same Washington Post quote, 40 pages earlier.

Scott also suffers from the redundancy plague, reminding us five times in 50 pages that Guatemalan death squad "Grandfather" Mario Sandoval Alarcon and Licio Gelli, the head of the Italo-Argentine P-2 Masonic lodge, were guests at Reagan's 1981 inaugural ball. The detail is shocking at first, excessive the second time, and irritating after that.

(One wishes for a proofreader as well as an editor in Marshall's story of the Chase Manhattan Bank: "In 1972 it opened a merchant bank in London in 1972 . . ." There is also a hilarious typo in Hunter's account of the attempt to portray the Sandinistas as anti-Semitic; she cites "Rabbid Rosenthal.")

So eager are the authors to launch into their footnotes that only the most shorthand descriptions of the important characters are offered. Because they are never properly introduced, they have to be continually reintroduced, like Mario Sandoval Alarcon the-guy-at-Reagan's-inaugural. The result is that we never have a very clear picture of even the most central figures. One prays for an adjective: "weasel-eyed Michael Ledeen," "hang-lipped Bill Casey," "furtive Elliott Abrams"--but we get nothing, not even mug shots. The unfortunate result is that when Tom Clines and Ray Cline run into each other on the same page we can't tell one from the other, and wonder if perhaps there hasn't been another typo.

This is not to say that we need phony novelistic touches to carry us along ("After hours waiting in the unmarked plane on the dusty tarmac at Teheran Airport, North raised his soulful eyes to McFarlane, as if to say, 'Why don't we just eat that chocolate cake ourselves?'"), but we do need coherent organization and careful editing. The Iran-Contra Connection is not so much a book as a collection of loosely associated essays, rushed into print after the Tower Commission report and before the summer hearings. It is not reportage, not exactly scholarship, nor even analysis; it is the work of an obsessive clip service. All sources are secondary, which accounts for the enormous number of footnotes, and all are accorded equal weight: the New York Times with Larry Flynt's Rebel magazine, CounterSpy with the Washington Post. The authors gratefully acknowledge the help of Oakland's Data Center, but appear to have spent too much time there for their own good.

The result of such research is like a collection of one-liners. Sure, there are some great items the authors have culled from mountains of newsprint: Michael Ledeen calling Ghorbanifar "one of the most honest, educated, honorable men I have ever known" (McFarlane called him the most despicable human being he had ever met), or the story of how General John Singlaub didn't realize Lyndon LaRouche was a kook until he suggested a military coup in the U.S., even if the story was repeated in two chapters. But these are only little treats for initiates. My mother wouldn't get them, and neither would yours unless she subscribes to the Nation, Parapolitics/USA, and the Covert Action Information Bulletin.

The failure to develop a proper narrative is all the more tragic because the subject matter couldn't be more important or more dramatic: the secret, unaccountable network of special operations spooks and right-wing lunatics whose trail stretches from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam and Laos, to Iran and back to Central America. While the book's project of presenting the larger picture founders under the weight of the poorly organized detail, it is valuable in two respects: its identification of the central role of Israel in the whole scandal, and its discussion of "blowback," or what happens to the U.S.-sponsored terrorists when they're no longer needed.

Hunter's chapter contains a synopsized history of the phenomenal growth of the Israeli arms industry, its expansion into Central America in the vacuum formed by the Carter human rights arms embargo, its crucial assistance to the contras, and its own self-interested rationale for pushing forward the arms sales to Iran. Hunter's theory, in short, is that the Israelis found that "generating funds from Iran would be an obvious way to get the [Reagan] administration, with its constant pleas to do more for the contras, off its back."

In a later chapter, Marshall cites George Shultz complaining that "every time he was told the deal was dead, some Israeli would come over and stir the flames." Even though the book was written before the summer hearings, little has transpired since its publication to change its conclusion. The reverence of the Reaganoids for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, discussed by Marshall, for example, was pointedly displayed in McFarlane's bizarre emotional outburst during the hearings about how the U.S. should hunt down and assassinate its enemies, just like the Israelis.

Marshall provides a valuable chapter on what he calls the "disposal problem" of embittered professional killers and intelligence agents once they have been thwarted in their primary goal. The anti-Castro Cubans who were humiliated at the Bay of Pigs are the perfect examples. They have gone on to provide the foot soldiers for the Watergate burglary, the Miami drug traffic, the training of the contras, the assassination of Orlando Letelier, and maybe even the Kennedy assassination. "Drugs, terrorism, political destabilization," writes Marshall. "The American people and, indeed, people throughout the world, have paid a heavy price for the US government's unleashing a war it could not contain. The contra war is far from concluded, but already it shows all the signs of producing a monster that will attack its creator." If Reagan fails to scuttle the current Central American peace process, we may find out the costs very soon when the contras start coming back to Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

But it's tough going getting to the important conclusions, and the authors should have known better. In a discussion of a failed attempt to rewrite the CIA charter during the Carter years, Marshall quotes former presidential candidate Joseph Biden: "Let me tell you something, fellas. The folks don't care. The average American could care less right now about any of this . . . You keep talking about public concern. There ain't none."

The same could be said of the American people's desire to get to the bottom of the Iran-contra affair. "In our view," says Scott in his conclusion, "a coherent interpretation of these facts, however abstruse and remote from the usual concerns of press and Congress, are necessary for understanding and articulating the real issues of the Iran-Contra crisis." Maybe it's too early in the course of the unfolding scandal to expect a "coherent interpretation," but this is not it. And unless we get one, the average American couldn't care less.

The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era by Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter, South End Press, $11.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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