Today, Fox News' Oliver North took to the airwaves to complain that President Obama didn't seek congressional authorization before intervening in Libya.
"Quite frankly, it's unparalleled in my entire experience in the military going all the way back to the 1960s," North complained. "Every president has gone to the Congress to get a resolution to support whatever it is he wanted to do. And [Obama] doesn't ask the Congress because he doesn't know what he wants to do."
People whose memories extend further back than the start of the Obama administration might find North's statement a bit surprising.
They might, for instance, remember that back when North was a Marine colonel serving in President Reagan's White House, he helped run a secret -- and illegal -- operation to sell weapons to Iran (in an ill-conceived effort to win the release of American hostages there) while using the proceeds to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Beyond simply not authorizing the scheme, Congress had explicitly prohibited it.
Here's how independent counsel Lawrence Walsh described the Reagan administration's violations of U.S. law and efforts to "deceive Congress" in the Iran-Contra Scandal:
The Iran/contra affair concerned two secret Reagan Administration policies whose operations were coordinated by National Security Council staff. The Iran operation involved efforts in 1985 and 1986 to obtain the release of Americans held hostage in the Middle East through the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran, despite an embargo on such sales. The contra operations from 1984 through most of 1986 involved the secret governmental support of contra military and paramilitary activities in Nicaragua, despite congressional prohibition of this support.
The Iran and contra operations were merged when funds generated from the sale of weapons to Iran were diverted to support the contra effort in Nicaragua. Although this "diversion" may be the most dramatic aspect of Iran/contra, it is important to emphasize 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.
The secrecy concerning the Iran and contra activities was finally pierced by events that took place thousands of miles apart in the fall of 1986. The first occurred on October 5, 1986, when Nicaraguan government soldiers shot down an American cargo plane that was carrying military supplies to contra forces; the one surviving crew member, American Eugene Hasenfus, was taken into captivity and stated that he was employed by the CIA. A month after the Hasenfus shootdown, President Reagan's secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran was reported by a Lebanese publication on November 3. The joining of these two operations was made public on November 25, 1986, when Attorney General Meese announced that Justice Department officials had discovered that some of the proceeds from the Iran arms sales had been diverted to the contras.
When these operations ended, the exposure of the Iran/contra affair generated a new round of illegality. Beginning with the testimony of Elliott Abrams and others in October 1986 and continuing through the public testimony of Caspar W. Weinberger on the last day of the congressional hearings in the summer of 1987, senior Reagan Administration officials engaged in a concerted effort to deceive Congress and the public about their knowledge of and support for the operations.
Walsh extensively outlined North's role in Iran-Contra, his efforts to withhold information from Congress, and his subsequent destruction of potentially incriminating documents:
While he endeavored to hide his activities from the Congress in the summer of 1986, North was becoming progressively more explicit in his discussions with other U.S. officials about what he was doing for the contras. His efforts to sell ``his planes'' to the CIA were only the beginning. On August 28, 1986, during a breakfast with the RIG at the offices of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Richard Armitage, North ran through a list of his contra activities, including his cash payments to contra leaders and organizations, provisions of food, and money for air operations. North's question for the RIG was simple: Should he continue his efforts? Fiers told North yes.
Meese gathered his team around mid-day on November 21, 1986. He then called Poindexter to tell him he wanted to get all relevant documents from the NSC. Following Meese's call, Poindexter had Thompson gather the documents, including the only known signed copy of the December 1985 "retroactive" Finding that clearly stated that the HAWK shipment was an arms-for-hostages deal. With Thompson and North present, Poindexter destroyed the Finding. He said he feared that it would be a political embarrassment.
Document destruction at the NSC did not stop with Poindexter. North returned to his offices in the early evening of November 21 and shredded stacks of memoranda and messages. Meanwhile, Meese's staff had begun reviewing pertinent intelligence and interviewing witnesses. Meese himself handled the President's most senior advisers. Meeting with Meese on the morning of November 22, 1986, Shultz told him that the President had acknowledged only two days earlier knowing about the November 1985 HAWK shipment.
While Meese was conducting interviews, two Justice attorneys were at the NSC reviewing documents. They discovered one that North had not shredded: a copy of his April 1986 memorandum that explained the diversion. Meese was told of the memorandum during lunch on November 22. His inquiry continued, culminating in the questioning of North on November 23, 1986. North lied about his knowledge of the cargo of the November 1985 HAWK shipment, claiming as he had in the November 20 meeting that he thought at the time that the cargo was oil-drilling equipment. He also denied knowing about any retroactive Finding that covered the shipment, although he suggested that "someone ought to step up and say it was authorized." Meese then confronted North with the diversion memorandum. A shaken North admitted that the diversion had occurred but attributed it to the Israelis.