In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order that authorized the CIA to support the Contras in their attempts to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. Here begins the list of illegal and questionable activities.

Informing Congress about "covert" actions
According to the Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974, which was later added to the US Code (quoting from there), the president cannot "authorize the conduct of a covert1 action by departments, agencies, or entities of the United States Government" without a determination that it is "necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States and is important to the national security of the United States." Even when he has determined this, he cannot simply order/authorize covert action without issuing his determination ("finding") and explanation to Congress "as soon as possible but in no event more than 48 hours after the decision is made" (it also cannot be sent for an action that has already taken place). In the finding he must specify each "department, agency, or entity of the United States Government authorized to fund or otherwise participate in any significant way in such action." Further,

any third party which is not an element of, or a contractor or contract agent of, the United States Government, or is not otherwise subject to United States Government policies and regulations, will be used to fund or otherwise participate in any significant way in the covert action concerned, or be used to undertake the covert action concerned on behalf of the United States

must also be specified. (That the finding "may not authorize any action that would violate the Constitution or any statute of the United States" should go without saying.) The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1981 does provide for more "secrecy," in that only the heads of certain committees and the majority leaders of each house need to be notified, rather than all of Congress. In any case, they were not notified, either.

Additionally, funding is conditional in that

No funds appropriated for, or otherwise available to, any department, agency, or entity of the United States Government may be expended, or may be directed to be expended, for any covert action...unless and until a Presidential finding required...has been signed or otherwise issued....

Reagan did not inform Congress of the "authorized" covert action taking place in Nicaragua, funded and armed (and in some cases trained) through the CIA.

In January 1984, mines were placed in Sandino harbor in Nicaragua. This was a violation of International Law. The Sandinistas (who were the acknowledged government of the country, however one feels about them) took the case to the International Court of Justice. They won, the court ruling that the US support of the Contras "amounts to an intervention of one state in the internal affairs of the other" ( This also violated the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) of which the US is a member. In the charter (Article 15) "no state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state." Having ratified it, it is considered binding law. According to the Constitution (Article VI): "all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." Of course, Congress had not been informed of this action along with the others and it condemned the act.

Boland Amendment
Because of the mining incident and certain other acts of sabotage and destruction (other mines, communications, an arms depot) led to Congress passing the first version of the Boland Amendment (to the War Powers Act). The amendment was to prohibit any military support/funding/supplying with arms or matériel given "for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua." Those involved chose to interpret the wording to mean that it only applied to "intelligence" agencies and continued funding through the National Security Council (that the Director of Central Intelligence is the intelligence adviser, shows how close to the line things were being played).

The NSC (Oliver North had been assigned to the council in 1981) is chaired by the president, regular attendees (all according to the government's own website at are the "Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs." This seems to undermine claims of several of the higher ups of not knowing anything about it. Of course whether there was justification for the interpretation is practically a moot point, given the other violations.

"We're complying with it fully"
Support also continued under the guise that it was not aid to be used to overthrow the government—despite arms and money going to an acknowledged revolutionary group whose purpose was to overthrow the government (but they seemed not to sweat the details). In a news conference in 1983, Reagan was asked point blank if the US was "directly or indirectly supplying, arming or training insurgents" to which Reagan flatly stated "We are complying with the law, the Boland Amendment, which is the law. We're complying with it fully." Or his interpretation of it. Even if one contends the Boland Amendment is invalid, the president clearly stated that it was considered to be law and further that "we're complying with it fully." Reagan openly asserts it to be law at the same time he is violating it.

When asked "does that mean we are not arming or supplying any of the dissidents along the border...?" he replied first with a long attempt to bypass the question by explaining just how terrible the Sandinista government was (as opposed, say, to the brutal Somoza regime that had been fully supported by the US) then finally stating that "anything that we're doing in the area is simply trying to interdict the supply lines which are supplying the guerillas in El Salvador."2 (A lie, the answer is "Yes.") Later he goes on about how formidable the Nicaraguan army was (akin to President George Bush's exaggerations about the Iraqis in the Gulf War) and that he didn't think it "reasonable to assume that that kind of force [the Contras] could nurse any ambitions that they can overthrow the government with that great military force."

Again asked if the US was "doing anything to overthrow the government there," he again stated that "No, because that would be violating the law." When asked if the War Powers Act and the Boland Amendment "unduly restrict your authority as the Chief Executive?" He responded with "I think any legislation which restricts the relation—or confines itself to the relationship of a single country, our relationship with a single country, yes, is restrictive on the obligations that the Constitution imposes on the President." 3 When the president swears that he "will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States" while taking the oath of office, one would assume that includes the laws of the nation. Also recall that the constitution compels ratified treaties to be accepted as the "supreme law of the land."

Dealing with Drug Dealers
In 1984, after seeing that support of the Contras continued, a second version of the Boland Amendment was passed. This time all military/paramilitary aid was prohibited. At that point the CIA and Department of Defense began pulling out people they had in the area. The NSC continued its support. Now they needed "covert" means for funding and supporting their "covert" operations.

One way was to work with known drug traffickers. The drug cartels were already being used as a way to get munitions and money to the Contras—as testified in 1988, General Paul Gorman stated that "If you want to move arms or munitions in Latin America, the established networks are owned by the cartels." They and others provided planes and airstrips. Weapons would be brought in to neighboring countries (primarily Honduras and Costa Rica) where they could be transported to the group. At the same time, drugs were also shipped around Central America and to the United States.

It got to the point that this "infrastructure" of planes, pilots, and landing strips, according to the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, "used by the Contras and that used by drug traffickers was potentially interchangeable, even in a situation in which the U.S. government had itself established and maintained the airstrip involved." Drug traffickers even used the strips when they weren't carrying arms because they knew that the war was "protected."

The aforementioned report concluded that

On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.

In other words, agents of the US government were well aware of the illegal activity and were turning a blind eye to it in order to use the traffickers to (illegally) fund the Contras. The report also found these "drug links" included:

  • Involvement in narcotics trafficking by individuals associated with the Contra movement
  • Participation of narcotics traffickers in Contra supply operations through business relationships with Contra organizations.
  • Provision of assistance to the Contras by narcotics traffickers, including cash, weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials, on a voluntary basis by the traffickers
  • Payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies
Showing that they were aware of things (and lying previously about how much they did), the CIA's Central American Task Force Chief testified in 1987 about Contra/drug trafficker connections, saying that "it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people" and that "we knew that everybody around Pastora was involved in cocaine... His staff and friends (redacted) they were drug smugglers or involved in drug smuggling." The report found that "U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies [failed] to respond properly to allegations concerning criminal activity relating to the Contras."

It also found a series of denials, refusals to testify, and some evidence from a prosecutor that had been "advised that some officials in the Justice Department had met in 1986 to discuss how 'to undermine' Senator Kerry's attempts to have hearings regarding the allegations." This was adamently denied.

Later (1996), Oliver North stated that claims about Contra drug-trafficking was "absolute garbage." A page in his notebook dated "9 AUG 1985" specifically reads:

Honduran DC-6 which
is being used for
runs out of New Orleans
is probably being used
for drug runs into U.S

Perhaps he changed his mind. "Plausible deniability."

The Independent Counsel's Report
The Independent Counsel charged with investigating the Iran-Contra activities concluded that:

  • the sales of arms to Iran contravened United States Government policy and may have violated the Arms Export Control Act
  • the provision and coordination of support to the contras violated the Boland Amendment ban on aid to military activities in Nicaragua
  • the policies behind both the Iran and contra operations were fully reviewed and developed at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration
  • although there was little evidence of National Security Council level knowledge of most of the actual contra-support operations, there was no evidence that any NSC member dissented from the underlying policy keeping the contras alive despite congressional limitations on contra support;
  • the Iran operations were carried out with the knowledge of, among others, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, and national security advisers Robert C. McFarlane and John M. Poindexter; of these officials, only Weinberger and Shultz dissented from the policy decision, and Weinberger eventually acquiesced by ordering the Department of Defense to provide the necessary arms; and
  • large volumes of highly relevant, contemporaneously created documents were systematically and willfully withheld from investigators by several Reagan Administration officials.
  • following the revelation of these operations in October and November 1986, Reagan Administration officials deliberately deceived the Congress and the public about the level and extent of official knowledge of and support for these operations
  • In addition, Independent Counsel concluded that the off-the-books nature of the Iran and contra operations gave line-level personnel the opportunity to commit money crimes

Violations of the Arms Export Act and the Boland Amendment were not charged because they were "not criminal statutes and do not contain any enforcement provisions." It also noted that two who had their convictions turned over on appeal (North and Poindexter) had it done so "on constitutional grounds that in no way cast doubt on the factual guilt of the men convicted." North's was overturned because it was decided that "trial witnesses were tainted by North's nationally televised, immunized testimony before Congress" and Poindexter also on "immunization issues."

It also

[emphasized] that both the Iran and contra operations, separately, violated United States policy and law. The ignorance of the "diversion" asserted by President Reagan and his Cabinet officers on the National Security Council in no way absolves them of responsibility for the underlying Iran and contra operations.

After certain events that led to the leaking of the story and questions and allegations, the report continues, "senior Reagan Administration officials engaged in a concerted effort to deceive Congress and the public about their knowledge of and support for the operations Further, it concluded that the

President's most senior advisers and the Cabinet members on the National Security Council participated in the strategy to make National Security staff members McFarlane, Poindexter and North the scapegoats whose sacrifice would protect the Reagan Administration in its final two years. In an important sense, this strategy succeeded. Independent Counsel discovered much of the best evidence of the cover-up in the final year of active investigation, too late for most prosecutions.

The "conspiracy to defraud the United States" charges (against four of the people, including North and Poindexter) were:

(1) supporting military operations in Nicaragua in defiance of congressional controls;
(2) using the Iran arms sales to raise funds to be spent at the direction of North, rather than the U.S. Government; and
(3) endangering the Administration's hostage-release effort by overcharging Iran for the arms to generate unauthorized profits to fund the contras and for other purposes.

The first was dismissed because the "Reagan Administration refused to declassify information necessary to North's defense" but concluded that trial on the count "would have disclosed the Government-wide activities that supported North's Iran and contra operations." Explaining why the administration was not forthcoming.

North used two political fundraisers to help raise money (millions) from wealthy Americans. This was illegal due to the use of a tax-exempt organization. The fundraisers pled guilty to "[defrauding] the Government by illegal use of a tax-exempt foundation to raise contributions for the purchase of lethal supplies for the contras. They named North as an unindicted co-conspirator."

President and Vice President
As for Reagan, the report could not find any "credible evidence" that he had violated criminal statutes or prove he was "aware of the diversion" or had "knowledge of the extent of North's control of the contra-resupply network." That said, it noted that his

disregard for civil laws enacted to limit presidential actions abroad specifically the Boland Amendment, the Arms Export Control Act and congressional-notification requirements in covert-action laws created a climate in which some of the Government officers assigned to implement his policies felt emboldened to circumvent such laws.

Reagan had given the directive to keep the Contras "alive 'body and soul'", which North had taken as an "invitation to break the law." Also, his authorization for the sale of arms to Iran remained even after being warned by Weinberger and Shultz that it might violate the law. Even though Poindexter claimed that the decisions were his and he did not tell the president, he felt that Reagan "would have approved."

George Bush was fully aware of the arms sales (despite publicly claiming the contrary). Again the investigation didn't find any proof that he knew of the "diversion" of the money. In 1987 and 1992, Bush refused to turn over a diary that had notes relevant to Iran-Contra. He also refused to be interviewed a final time and when he later pardoned Weinberger, he avoided a trial in which the defense planned to call on him as a witness.

Many believe Reagan really did not know of the worst of the offenses and that Poindexter (among others) was telling the truth about him not being informed. He is portrayed to be unaware of the implementation of his foreign policy, making him look like the caricature standup comedians made him out to be. Unfortunately it cannot be determined how much he knew, but while absolute proof seems unavailable (much of it deliberately), the evidence suggests he was not quite the buffoon he was made out to be and knew much more than he was telling—democrats and republicans alike were pushing for a resolution that would restore "credibility" to the president. He did willfully violate the Boland Amendment and the Hughes-Ryan Act, as noted, and lied about the nature of the support to the Contras. He was clearly aware of the Iran arms for hostages part of the dealings—this coming from a president who had vociferously proclaimed to the American people that he would not deal with terrorists under any circumstances.

Bush, as former head of the CIA and likely still tied to information through them, seems to have been aware of much, much more than he let on. The refusal to testify and hand over the diary strongly support that. The many pardons of those involved—particularly Weinberger—further suggest covering up involvement or knowledge on some level much higher than admitted.

Further, of all the criminal and borderline criminal (certainly unethical) acts charged, the ones that led to convictions in most of the cases were pertaining to lying to ("perjury" and "false statements") and withholding information from Congress. It seems nearly all involved, at some point, participated in both—whether it could be proven or not. And it seems much effort was put into making that determination unlikely if not impossible.

1The US Code defines "covert action" as "an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." Clearly what was involved in Iran-Contra.

2The Sandinistas were helping leftist rebels in El Salvador. Given the United States' strong support economically and militarily of the country's corrupt right-wing government (guilty of atrocious human and civil rights abuses, including but not limited to: "disappearances," extralegal arrests, torture, assassinations, and massacres) it is no wonder this would occur to Reagan (an almost hyperparanoid anticommunist) as a terrible thing, indeed.

3Particularly amusing was his claim that "we are cooperating with the other Central American countries in the region to trying and bring democracy and peace to Central America."

(Sources: quotes taken from there unless otherwise noted; Reagan press conference transcript from; US Code can be found at;;;; www.nytimes/books/97/06/29/reviews/iran-chronology.html)