THE NSC STAFF AS ROGUE ELEPHANT
In the aftermath of the Iran-contra scandal involving questionable arms sales to Iran and
the funneling of the profits to the contras for a covert war in Nicaragua, President Ronald
Reagan established a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the affair. The president selected a
former U.S. senator, Republican John Tower of Texas, to head up the inquiry. This selec-
tion summarizes the commission's findings, which were highly critical of both the presi-
dent and the NSC staff.
The arms transfers to Iran and the activities of the NSC staff in support of the Contras are case studies in the perils of policy pursued outside the constraints of orderly process.
The Iran initiative ran directly counter to the Administration's own policies on terrorism, the Iran/Iraq war, and military support to Iran. This inconsistency was never resolved, nor were the consequences of this inconsistency fully considered and provided for. The result taken as a whole was a U.S. policy that worked against itself.
The Board believes that failure to deal adequately with these contradictions resulted in large part from the flaws in the manner in which decisions were made. Established procedures for making national security decisions were ignored. Reviews of the initiative by all the NSC principals were too infrequent. The initiatives were not adequately vetted below the cabinet level. Intelligence resources were underutilized. Applicable legal constraints were not adequately addressed. The whole matter was handled too informally, without adequate written records of what had been considered, discussed, and decided.
This pattern persisted in the implementation of the Iran initiative. The NSC staff assumed direct operational control. The initiative fell within the traditional jurisdictions of the Departments of State, Defense, and CIA. Yet these agencies were largely ignored. Great reliance was placed on a network of private operators and intermediaries. How the initiative was to be carried out never received adequate attention from the NSC principals or a tough working-level review. No periodic evaluation of the progress of the initiative was ever conducted. The result was an unprofessional and, in substantial part, unsatisfactory operation.
In all of this process, Congress was never notified….
1. Contradictory Policies Were Pursued
The arms sales to Iran and the NSC support for the Contras demonstrate the risks involved when highly controversial initiatives are pursued covertly.
ARMS TRANSFERS TO IRAN. The initiative to Iran was a covert operation directly at odds with important and well-publicized policies of the Executive Branch.
From Report of the President's Special Review Board (Tower Commission), Washington, D.C. (February 26, 1987), pp. IV 1–13.
The Tower Commission members included the chair, John Tower (R–Texas); Edmund Muskie, former Democratic senator from Maine
and secretary of state in the Carter Administration; and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the Ford and first Bush adminis-