On 16 March 1984 the Central Intelligence Agency chief of station in Beirut, Lebanon, William Buckley, was abducted from the basement garage of his apartment block by Hezbollah terrorists. The subsequent efforts of the director of central intelligence (DCI), William Casey, to secure his freedom led to what became known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Casey ordered satellite imagery of the Abdullah barracks and all the other suspected Shiite bases and deployed such agents as there were on the ground to monitor suspected Hezbollah activists, but some evidence suggested that Islamic Jihad, which had claimed responsibility for the abduction, had actually been behind it. Islamic Jihad, an extremist cell led by Imad Mugniyah, a Shiite cleric with strong links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was controlled from Tehran.
The CIA’s channel of communication with Tehran depended upon an expatriate entrepreneur, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who had been known to the agency for more than 20 years and was regarded, after many polygraph tests, as being wholly unreliable. Indeed, he had even been the subject of a burn notice, but he did have a line into the Iranian prime minister’s office. His first direct approach to the Agency, in July 1984, claiming to know who was holding Buckley, had been rejected after a polygraph indicated deception, but negotiations with him were subsequently opened with the DCI’s personal authority. Ghorbanifar claimed that moderate elements in the Tehran government were anxious to trade Buckley for much-needed weapons, which were the subject of a United Nations embargo, so Casey went to President Ronald Reagan and obtained permission to begin talks.
Ghorbanifar’s proposal was to exploit the Iranian demand for TOW antitank missiles by buying a quantity from the Israeli army, which possessed a large stock of the formidable weapon, and selling 508 of them to Iran at a vastly inflated price. The Israelis were willing to cooperate on the condition that their own arsenal would be replenished by the United States. To encourage the Americans to participate, Tehran was apparently willing to free their hostages in Lebanon. Since technically the United States would not be supplying the missiles directly to Iran, there would be no breach of the UN embargo or U.S. law, so there was theoretically an advantage to all the parties involved, apart from the repudiation of the president’s oft-
stated policy that he would not negotiate with terrorists. Thus the DCI outmaneuvered his congressional critics by using a National Security Council staffer, Col. Oliver North, as a surrogate.
While Casey could testify, as he did, that the CIAwas completely unaware at the time that North’s consignment of oil drilling equipment was actually Hawk missiles destined for Tehran in contravention of U.S. law, this was nothing more than semantics, for he personally almost certainly did know of the plan long in advance of its execution, and may even have been its original author. Nevertheless, Casey’s dubious distinction between what he knew and what his organization knew, and when, provided the CIA with a fig-leaf defense never tested with any rigor. However, the really fatal aspect of the entire scheme was that it never achieved its intended purpose of freeing the unfortunate Buckley.
While it could be argued that North’s intervention did obtain the release of two hostages, Benjamin Weir and later Father Lawrence Jenco, it also had the effect of enhancing the status of American captives as a valuable trading commodity. No sooner had Weir and Jenco been freed than another pair, Frank Reed of the Lebanese International School and Joseph Ciccipio of the American University, were abducted—on 9 and 12 September 1984, respectively—almost as though Hezbollah had decided to restock its inventory. Even worse, the terrorists also seized the British churchman, Terry Waite, who had acted for Oliver North as a compliant cover for the hostage releases, which were never under any circumstances to be linked publicly to
the illicit sale of weapons. Thus, far from enjoying the advantage of success, North’s ingenious scheme never accomplished its primary purpose. Indeed, according to some reports, the venture actually served to infuriate the Iranians, who had been told by Ghorbanifar to expect a different model of antiaircraft missile, and instead received outrageously overpriced Hawks, stamped with the Star of David and covered in Hebrew stencils.
The Iran-Contra affair, as it came to be known, and the diversion of the profits from the weapons sales, became the focus of one of a series of congressional investigations. Casey, just back from a grueling tour of the CIA stations in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras, was called to give evidence regarding the CIA’s denial of any knowledge that the “oil drilling equipment” had been Hawk missiles until months after the transaction had taken place. Then, on 15 December 1987, while undergoing a medical examination in his office at Langley, he collapsed and was diagnosed as suffering from a massive brain tumor which killed him on 6 May 1988, just as the first witness began his testimony in the Senate.