In the 1980s it was the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration, a covert arms-for-hostages overture to Iran -- more popularly known as "Iran-Contra."
Today, a half-dozen alumni of that episode have found prominent jobs in the Bush administration.
The most recent is former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, 65. The retired admiral took over a new Pentagon counterterrorism office last month.
Poindexter was convicted in 1990 on five felony charges of conspiracy, making false statements to Congress and obstructing congressional inquiries. He was sentenced to six months in prison, time he never served.
An appellate court overturned the convictions in 1991, as well as similar ones against former White House aide Oliver North, the Marine lieutenant colonel who ran the illegal operation. The court ruled that their testimony to Congress, for which they had been given immunity from prosecution, had been improperly used against them.
The Iran-Contra scandal is scarcely mentioned today. But it brought near political paralysis to the closing days of the Reagan presidency.
"It involved wrongdoing," said veteran GOP consultant Charles Black. "People didn't serve the president well, and a lot of them paid a price for that."
Another former Iran-Contra defendant is Elliott Abrams. He now serves as Bush's special White House assistant for democracy and human rights. An assistant secretary of state under Reagan, Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress, then was pardoned by the first President Bush.
One of the most outspoken Iran-Contra figures is Otto Reich, the State Department's top official for Latin America, who migrated to the United States shortly after the 1959 revolution in Cuba. In his first speech since joining the department in January, Reich said Tuesday that the United States can speed a democratic transition in Cuba by "not throwing a lifeline to a failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime."
>From 1983 to 1986, Reich led a State Department office accused of a covert domestic-propaganda effort against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
Others given jobs by Bush: --Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Questions linger over the former Defense Department official's 1986 contacts with Israel on the Iran arms sales.
--U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte. His service in the 1980s as ambassador to Honduras, which the U.S.-supported Contra rebels used as a base, has drawn criticism.
--Budget Director Mitch Daniels. As Reagan's political director in 1986 and 1987, Daniels helped oversee a White House damage-control effort.
Senate Democrats raised Iran-Contra objections last year, particularly over the Reich and Negroponte nominations. The appointments of Abrams, and now Poindexter, drew little open criticism. Neither post is subject to Senate confirmation.
Congressional hearings made a celebrity out of North, who came across as a dashing, brash commando. He stood in contrast to Poindexter, round-faced and balding, his unruffled, pipe-smoking boss.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who has written a book on political scandals, said someone with Poindexter's talent and experience "shouldn't be put in the penalty box for life," regardless of past misdeeds.
"I doubt you could find one American in 100,000 who could explain what the Iran-Contra scandal was all about," Sabato said.
With Israel serving as an intermediary, proceeds from the secret U.S. arms sales to Iran were funneled to anti-communist "Contra" fighters in Nicaragua, which defied a congressional ban.
After their convictions were set aside, North made an unsuccessful run for the Senate, then began a new career as a syndicated radio talk show host. Poindexter went into business as a private defense consultant. Poindexter rejected an interview request.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called him "an outstanding American and an outstanding citizen. ... The president thinks that Admiral Poindexter has served our nation very well."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Reagan's last national security adviser, described Poindexter in his 1995 autobiography as "brilliant, but in a narrow, technical sense" and not up to the top National Security Council post. Under Poindexter, North and company, "the NSC had gone off the rails," Powell wrote.
Poindexter graduated at the top of his class at the Naval Academy in 1958 and holds a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology.
An administration critic, Thomas Blanton, director of the private National Security Archive, said Poindexter has a daunting intellect and deep computer-systems expertise.
He also suggested political payback is at work in appointments of so many Iran-Contra figures. "They were good soldiers. They fell on their swords. Good soldiers get rewards -- at least in this administration," Blanton said.
Tom Raum has covered national affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.Copyright © The Associated Press 2002. Reprinted for fair use only.
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