Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power

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9780700619917: Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power

Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Everything began to unravel on October 5, 1986, when a Nicaraguan soldier downed an American plane carrying arms to “Contra” guerrillas, exposing a tightly held U.S. clandestine program. A month later, reports surfaced that Washington had been covertly selling arms to Iran (our sworn enemy and a state sponsor of terrorism), in exchange for help freeing hostages in Beirut. The profits, it turned out, were going to support the Contras, despite an explicit ban by Congress.

In the firestorm that erupted, shocking details emerged, raising the prospect of impeachment, and the American public confronted a scandal as momentous as it was confusing. At its center was President Ronald Reagan amid a swirl of questions about illegal wars, consorting with terrorists, and the abuse of presidential power.

Yet, despite the enormity of the issues, the affair dropped from the public radar due to media overkill, years of legal wrangling, and a vigorous campaign to forestall another Watergate. As a result, many Americans failed to grasp the scandal’s full import.

Through exhaustive use of declassified documents, previously unavailable investigative materials, and wide-ranging interviews, Malcolm Byrne revisits this largely forgotten and misrepresented episode. Placing the events in their historical and political context (notably the Cold War and a sharp partisan domestic divide), he explores what made the affair possible and meticulously relates how it unfolded—including clarifying minor myths about cakes, keys, bibles, diversion memos, and shredding parties.

Iran-Contra demonstrates that, far from being a “junta” against the president, the affair could not have occurred without awareness and approval at the very top of the U.S. government. Byrne reveals an unmistakable pattern of dubious behavior—including potentially illegal conduct by the president, vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director and others—that formed the true core of the scandal.

Given the lack of meaningful consequences for those involved, the volume raises critical questions about the ability of our current system of checks and balances to address presidential abuses of power, and about the possibility of similar outbreaks in the future.

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About the Author:

Malcolm Byrne is Deputy Director and Research Director at the National Security Archive. He is the coauthor of Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations in the Iran-Iraq War, 1979–1988.


"The research is thorough, yet Byrne is able to narrate the intricacies of covert actions and legal processes in a digestible way."—Political Science Quarterly

"It is difficult to write dispassionately about the Iran-Contra affair and Byrne deserves praise for maintaining his objectivity while laying bare a tale of abuse of power, incompetence, and illegal behavior. the issues he raises are too important to ignore."—Journal of American History

"A high-quality, meticulously researched book that sheds much light on a controversy that, nearly three decades ago, shook the American political system to its core. . . . [Malcolm] Byrne, the deputy director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, has been studying the scandal since it first erupted, and he has now pulled together years of research into a very good book that lays the scandal’s ugly intricacies bare."—Wall Street Journal

"The contest between the United States and Iran, however, outlasted the sudden collapse of the Soviet power from 1989-1991. As Malcolm Byrne demonstrates in his very fine book, the Iran-Contra affair belongs as a key chapter in that longer story."—History News Network

"Provides fascinating details about US ignorance about Iran, which contributed to the largely botched effort to free US hostages in Lebanon and hindered a possible breakthrough in US-Iran ties 30 years ago."—Al-Monitor

"Byrne does not portray Reagan as a passive, disengaged president victimized by maverick policy makers. Through the use of primary sources, the author demonstrates that Reagan was actively involved in every stage of Iran-Contra from its initiation through the cover up. . . . Byrne provides readers with a cautionary tale about structural issues in the American political system that perpetuate the unchecked abuse of power by the executive branch. this work is a must read for students of the presidency. Highly recommended."—Choice

"At last, the Iran-Contra affair has a comprehensive history worthy of the scandal which, if the system had worked, should have landed many senior White House officials in the slammer. Malcolm Byrne has told this complex story in brilliant fashion."—Seymour M. Hersh, author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

"A riveting book about a remarkable scandal and a warning about the excesses of secrecy and partisanship in American foreign policy."—Bruce Riedel, author of Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future

“An impressive, compelling and revelatory work.”—David Farber, author of Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam

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