On October 5, 1986, the Nicaraguan military shot down an American-piloted plane carrying U.S. weapons intended for the “Contra” guerrillas. That incident revealed a covert U.S. government operation to sell arms to the Iranians and ultimately divert the profits to Nicaragua’s Contra forces. These actions ignited the infamous Iran-Contra affair and eventually raised questions about the limits of Executive Powers—and the possible involvement of President Ronald Reagan in the creation of the overall arms sale scheme. The truth behind the scandal would prove both inflammatory and highly complex.
In a new book, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (University Press of Kansas, 2014), Malcolm Byrne, deputy director of the nongovernmental National Security Archive, offers a comprehensive history of the affair that makes use of previously unavailable materials and wide-ranging interviews with key players. In addition to relating how the scandal unfolded and the political context in which it occurred, Byrne argues that officials at the highest level of government were complicit in Iran-Contra. He also draws lessons from this episode to show the challenges the U.S. faces in recognizing and confronting future abuses of power perpetrated by U.S. officials.
On September 5, the Brookings Intelligence Project hosted Byrne for a discussion of his findings about the scandal and the responsibility of those involved. Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of The Intelligence Project, provided introductory remarks and moderated the discussion.