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The New Press, 412 pages, $40; paperback $24.95

In the early ’80s, President Ronald Reagan publicly justified his military support of the Nicaraguan contras and the El Salvadoran government by asserting that Nicaragua’s Sandinistas were providing arms to the FMLN, the opposition forces in El Salvador. Of course, this Reagan “fact” was a lie, as members of Congress opposing Reagan’s policy learned in the early ’80s when they asked for the intelligence information to back up this claim. The intelligence bureaucrats told them in secret briefings that no such evidence existed. Yet, because the information that would unveil this lie was classified, privy members of Congress were unable to tell the public the truth. Not until 1992 did Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) finally reveal this small piece of what eventually turned into the Iran-contra affair.

At least Congress was let in on that lie. As Iran-contra activities progressed and Reagan authorized the secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, Congress would be completely cut out. And after that, even the president claims to have been ignorant of the super-secret “diversion” of profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contras, the subsequent revelation of which launched what is now seven years of Iran-contra investigations and scrutiny.

In what Theodore Draper has described as this country’s closest encounter with a constitutional coup d’état, the Iran-contra affair continues to provide fundamental insights into the workings and failings of American democracy. One such insight was articulated by Moynihan when he finally revealed what he once knew but could not say about Reagan and the contras. This public deception, he wrote, “could not have happened without the secrecy system. Millions and millions of secret documents every year—some 7 million to be semi-exact, for the number itself is a secret. The effect is to hide things from the American people that they need to know. And within the executive branch to hide things from each other.”

In The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne have uncovered some of those secrets and laid them out on the open page for all to see. Theirs is a unique contribution to the expanding universe of Iran-contra literature: Not only do Kornbluh and Malcolm tell the story, but they back it up with the actual documents. By coupling an extremely clear, concise, and up-to-date narrative of the Iran-contra affair with the full text of 101 key documents, blacked-out portions and all, they have made this book the most accessible Iran-contra source for the hard-core aficionado and the uninitiated alike.

Few can take the time to study the more than 50,000 pages of documents and transcripts that comprise the complete public record. The early reports by the president’s Tower Commission and the congressional Iran-contra committees are limited by the focus of their respective inquiries—in each case, what did the president know about the various activities, particularly the diversion, and when did he know it—with little attention paid to the administration’s efforts to cover up its involvement following the initial revelations. A Very Thin Line by Theodore Draper (author of The Declassified History‘s foreword) is certainly the most thorough analysis, but it predates the most recent round of document disclosures and is a dense and slow, although ultimately satisfying, read.

The final history of Iran-contra is a long way away. Every year new facts arise that provide more pieces to a massive puzzle whose dimensions continue to grow. This past year, for example, brought Weinberger’s notes and Bush’s diaries, not to mention the Christmas Eve pardon of all of the government defendants. Coming next will be Iran-contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s final report, expected any day now. Indeed, The Declassified History is the perfect prelude to what is expected to be an exhaustive account of the lone prosecutor’s seven-year run-in with an obstinate government bent on constant obstruction.

The Declassified History is the brainchild of the National Security Archive, and the second in a series of “documents readers” that the archive is producing with its publisher, the New Press. (The first documents reader was The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962.) The archive is a nonprofit organization that was created to collect, analyze, and disseminate declassified government records on U.S. foreign policy. This end-product is only equaled by the efforts of the archive and others that have gone into collecting the actual records reproduced in the volume. Indeed, the book acknowledges the work of this reviewer and his colleagues in uncovering a number of documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

The bulk—and essence—of The Declassified History are the documents themselves. They supplement the narrative as a visual side show, not unlike three-D foot notes. Right there at the end of each chapter are the primary sources to which the narrative refers. And by venturing through these documents, the reader can come upon abundant digressions to the main story that would otherwise be lost and forgotten.

Thus do we learn, for example, that Robert Gates wanted to scrap the covert action against Nicaragua and bomb the Sandinistas outright. Kornbluh and Byrne quote from a 1984 memorandum from then-CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates to Director William Casey (Document 15) to demonstrate that the administration knew in secret what it refused to admit to the public—that “the contras, even with American support, cannot overthrow the Sandinista regime.” But deeper in this five-page document, which was not released until Gates’ troubled 1991 confirmation hearings to become CIA director, Gates proposes “that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.” “Everything” to Gates meant U.S. “air strikes to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup.” As he anticipated in the memo, this extreme recommendation went unheeded because it was “politically unacceptable.”

On the lighter side, we learn that the U.S. payback to the Costa Rican security minister who assisted North in setting up the Southern Front was a “photo-op” with Reagan (Document 40). As CIA Costa Rican Station Chief Joseph Fernandez recounted it to CIA investigators: “Piza asked for “one thing…I would like to meet the President…President Reagan.’…Piza and his wife, with me and my wife, saw the President on 19 March [1986]…at 0930. North lead [sic] us into the Oval Office. There were the President, Poindexter, and Regan….We had the photo opportunity….The wives left. Piza, North, and I went into the area outside of Poindexter’s office.”

The case of Fernandez is one of the most emblematic Iran-contra stories, touching on every level of the scandal: The initial illegalities—Fernandez’s efforts in league with North and his cohorts to supply arms to the contras in violation of the Boland Amendment; the cover-up—Fernandez’s deliberate dissembling before government investigators; the independent counsel prosecutions—Fernandez’s perjury charge is scuttled on account of the Bush administration’s refusal to release classified documents necessary for the trial; and finally, the continuing cover-up—the CIA still keeps secret many of its Fernandez files that it should have made public long ago.

Kornbluh and Byrne run through Fernandez’s role in setting up the Southern Front and then give an apt description of how the Bush administration “used its control over classified documentation to abort Walsh’s prosecution of” Fernandez. Walsh charged him with four counts of perjury in 1989 for lying to the Tower Commission and CIA investigators. Indeed, Document 41, a “sequence of events” prepared by the CIA concerning Fernandez’s activities, anticipates these charges in noting that the CIA “subsequently learned that Fernandez had not been completely truthful in [his] interview” with the agency, and that “even in his second session with the [Tower] Commission, he failed to be completely truthful in regard to his contact with Secord.”

In his defense, Fernandez sought to introduce classified documents about his activities in Costa Rica that he claimed would show he had no reason to lie. The court deemed the information relevant and ordered its release for use in the public trial pursuant to a special law, the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA), that governs the use of classified information in criminal trials. The attorney general, however, has the last word on whether to release such information or risk dismissal of the case. With Bush and the CIA’s blessings, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh certified that the information was too precious to release. Walsh immediately cried foul, asserting that the so-called “drop-dead” documents contained nothing but “fictional secrets.”

The authors then tell us what those fictional secrets were, citing press reports and an interview with Curtin Winsor Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica: The locations of three CIA stations and facilities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and three CIA programs in Costa Rica—“the development of “an intelligence net for the Costa Ricans’…a training program for an elite eight-hundred-man border patrol, [and] a sophisticated radio communications program.”

There is, however, a better source for this information. In perhaps the most unfortunate omission to this collection, Kornbluh and Byrne left out a document that explicitly refers to these supposed secrets. On July 27, 1989, Walsh filed a legal brief in open court that quoted from an official summary that had been approved for release by the CIA but rejected by the court. Although the brief was subsequently sealed from the public, copies made available at the time laid bare the supposed secrets that the Bush administration sought to protect at the expense of this important criminal prosecution.

In defiance of these well-established facts about what it was up to, the CIA still insists on keeping them secret. In 1991, the Center for National Security Studies filed a lawsuit under FOIA seeking release of the three summaries along with the actual documents that the attorney general withheld in the Fernandez case. The FOIA, unlike the CIPA, lets the judge decide whether the information at issue should be released. In the face of such scrutiny, the CIA has begrudgingly released more than 20 of the 89 documents (totaling more than 200 of over 300 pages) that it demanded be withheld from the trial. But it is tenaciously hanging on to the remaining fictional secrets against both common sense and any continuing need to protect the national security.

The standards by which agencies like the CIA should still be able to classify this type of information is now the center of a major governmental review. Within the first 100 days of his presidency, Bill Clinton issued a directive calling on the bureaucracy to present him with a new classification system that takes into account the end of the Cold War. Clinton seems to have recognized early on what Moynihan also came to learn: Too many documents stamped “secret” and “top secret” contain nothing that could harm the national security. Clinton’s review represents a historic opportunity to revamp an outmoded system that has done significant damage to our democratic government by sanctioning excessive government secrecy in the name of national security.

Many of Clinton’s predecessors have delighted in a classification system that allowed them to keep a lid on controversial policies and activities by stamping them “secret.” Iran-contra could not have happened without a mechanism that encourages deception and shields corruption. With Clinton already feeling the heat of intense press scrutiny, it is essential that his task force on the classification of national security information work fast to establish a new, more open executive order before he and his administration are tempted by the secret “conveniences” of the current system.

The problem is that the bureaucrats in charge of this task force are the same people who were responsible for creating and enforcing the old one. They therefore might not favor requiring that all classifiers balance the need to protect information with the public interest in that information, given that the Reagan executive order removed just such a provision from its predecessor. Similarly, the need for automatic declassification after five years, except in unusual circumstances, might not appeal to government officials who are used to waiting from 30 to 50 years before releasing classified records.

The Declassified History is an inval uable showcase into one of the greatest constitutional debacles in American history. Although it remains to be seen what kind of new classification system the Clinton administration will produce, one hopes that it will increase the National Security Archive’s ability to obtain declassified records for many more documents readers about secret past practices of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, if Clinton succeeds in creating a more open system, then he may diminish the likelihood of, not to mention the stock of material for, future foreign-policy scandals worthy of compilation in such a volume.