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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983–1988

About this Collection

The documents in this collection include every exhibit released by the official investigations of the Iran-Contra Affair, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Tower Commission, the joint select Congressional committees, and the Independent Counsel. Iran-Contra focuses on the period from Fall 1983, when Congress first put limits on official U.S. assistance to the Contras, to the criminal indictments of Oliver North, Richard Secord, and Albert Hakim in Spring 1988.

Research Value of the Collection

The Iran-Contra collection is unique for many reasons. First, it provides both an index and catalog to the enormous paper record of the most significant foreign policy scandal of our time. Second, this is the first substantive document collection ever produced of a compartmentalized, high-level series of U.S. covert operations. Third, these documents are up-to-date (many being only three years old at the time of publication), broad-ranging and virtually unutilized by either scholars or the news media. Scholars of U.S. national security policy, who are used to delays of up to 50 years before sensitive materials are declassified by the government, will especially appreciate the rare opportunity to examine the inner workings of an administration so soon after the fact.

Many of the documents obtained by the various congressional and legal investigations, such as those from the NSC's System IV channel, belong to extremely sensitive categories of materials that have never been declassified before. Others, such as the White House computer messages (PROFS notes) and decoded KL-43 transmissions, had never been seen outside the White House before the scandal erupted.

The Iran-Contra collection provides an unprecedented portrait of national security decision making at the highest levels. The documents allow researchers into the daily briefings of the president by the national security advisor and into contentious National Security Council meetings where the secretaries of state and defense argue vehemently with the CIA director and the attorney general. The documents include detailed notes for meetings of the National Security Planning Group, an even more elite group than the NSC itself. Additionally, the memoranda, reports, cables, agendas and personal notes record, in considerable detail, the core inter-agency processes through which modern national security decisions are made. These unique materials will be required reading for any researcher examining topics across the range of national security studies, from crisis management to covert operations to comparative presidential decision making.

Documents contained in the Iran-Contra collection also reflect the internal White House bureaucracy, communications and decision making processes with a richness of detail not seen since the Watergate tapes and trial transcripts. The extensive compilation of internal computer messages, drafts of memos, and interchanges among senior White House officials during the Iran-Contra Affair goes far beyond the Watergate materials in their completeness and spontaneity.

For scholars, one of the remarkable aspects of the collection is the access it provides to top secret government analyses of current and past policies, side-by-side with assessments of future international risks to the United States. For instance, the Iran-Contra collection includes multiple drafts of various National Security Decision Directives that reflect the input of the key actors as well as the internal bureaucratic battles over analysis of raw intelligence. Outsiders have never before been allowed this close a view of such sensitive analytical functions performed by the U.S. government.

The Iran-Contra materials also provide multiple case studies in the organization and management of covert operations, beyond even the level of detail made public during the Church and Pike committee investigations of the mid-1970s. Among the documents are internal CIA cables sent by various station chiefs back to headquarters, along with instructions to the stations and extensive reporting on the resulting operational moves. Materials in the collection cover divisive debates within the Reagan Administration over terrorism and hostage rescue operations and provide a detailed road map to enable researchers to reconstruct key covert policy decisions related to the Contra war as well as arms sales abroad.

Another unique component of the Iran-Contra collection is the extensive incorporation of materials on the executive branch's use of propaganda, public relations, and lobbying to shape public opinion and garner congressional backing for the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America. Through research, donations, and the Freedom of Information Act, the Iran-Contra project team has compiled the largest collection of documents available on "public diplomacy" -- the official term for this little-examined aspect of the Reagan Administration's covert Contra operations. These materials include: formerly classified National Security Council memoranda; reports, contracts, budgets, memoranda, draft speeches, and correspondence from the Office of Public Diplomacy on Latin American and the Caribbean; internal office memoranda and records of the key fundraising and lobbying firms working with the National Security Council, including the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty and International Business Communications; Foreign Agent Registration Act papers; Contra lobbying records; detailed voter and media analysis generated by advertising firms hired to create pro-Contra commercials; and personal papers of lobbyists.

Beyond the massive amounts of material on the White House, the National Security Council, the State and Defense Departments and the CIA, the collection also offers substantial documentation on all the other agencies involved in national security policy making and implementation. Particularly interesting to researchers are the documents describing agency actions under pressure, as key players in the scandal attempted to cut short a number of investigations into the scandal by Customs, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others. The materials also provide an inside portrait of congressional oversight, with portions of verbatim transcripts and internal memos describing NSC efforts to hide illicit operations from Congress.

Regional studies scholars will find the materials in this collection of particular value. Government analyses and reports reproduced here provide insight into U.S.-Iran relations, Iranian domestic politics, the Iran-Iraq War, U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf, U.S.-Middle East policy, U.S.-Nicaragua relations, U.S.-Contra policy, and broader U.S.-Central America policy.

Specialists in other fields, whether policymakers in Congress, government contractors or public interest group analysts, will also benefit from materials on U.S. arms transfer policy, Third World arms transfers, U.S. law enforcement, U.S. foreign policy and government decisio nmaking overall.