Political Scandals in American History: The Iran-Contra Affair

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The Iran-Contra affair survives as one of the most dramatic political scandals in American history. Approximately a decade after Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal both shocked and captivated the public. The affair began in Beirut, 1984, when Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group sympathetic to the Iranian government, kidnapped three American citizens. Four more hostages were taken in 1985. The conservative Reagan administration hurriedly sought freedom for the Americans. Despite a 1979 trade embargo prohibiting the sale of weapons between the U.S. and Iran, members of Ronald Reagan’s staff arranged an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran in an attempt to free the American hostages in Lebanon. Meanwhile, back in the Americas, Reagan was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in response to the Cold War. The Reagan administration was doing its best to curb Communist influence in Central and Latin America. In Nicaragua, Reagan wanted to support the democratic rebel Contras against the Marxist Sandinista regime, despite legislation passed in the early 1980s, the Boland Amendment, that made federal aid to the Contras illegal. In 1985, Oliver North, a staff member in the National Security Council, devised the scheme to divert surplus funds from weapons sales with Iran to the Contra cause in Nicaragua, violating the Boland Amendment. Following public exposure of the scandal, Oliver North and many other members of Reagan’s staff were put on trial; however not a single one of them was appropriately punished. Each person involved was either pardoned, granted immunity or had convictions overturned. The Iran-Contra scandal and its aftermath exposed both the executive branch’s lack of accountability to the American people and the other branches of g...

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...in the cover-up; several people shredded documents, lied under oath and obstructed justice. At least if the participants in the scandal had been effectively punished, perhaps it would have curbed some of the power held by the executive branch. But the lack of consequence sends a dangerous message: if staff members of the executive branch are able to accomplish so much behind America’s back and are not held responsible for their actions, pardoned by the president, part of the executive branch itself, then the executive branch is far more powerful than Americans realize. What the government tells us it is doing may not actually be true, and at the end of the day there is nobody to enforce the laws on the members of the executive branch. In this regard, the Iran-Contra affair exposed the true, relentless power of the executive branch – and how little we know about it.

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