Thursday 3 April 2003

The Secret War Machine

The missing link between the Contras and al Qaeda.

It may come as a shock that Vice Admiral John Poindexter has popped up as a visionary cyberguru for Darpa. Until recently, the former national security adviser was best known as a convicted conspirator in the late-'80s Iran-Contra scandal. Poindexter's career move makes sense, though, when you consider the astonishing prescience of his scheme to fund covert operations in Central America. The visionary spirit of Iran-Contra never died, and today it's alive and well and fueling the War on Terror.

People born during Iran-Contra are now nearly old enough to drink, so a quick review is in order. In the mid-'80s, the Republican Reagan administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress differed on how to deal with the menace of the leftist government in Nicaragua. Anticommunist Reaganites favored the classic communist tactic of secretly arming opposition movements ("contra-revolutionaries"), while Congress considered this strategy sneaky, illegal, and destabilizing to the international order. Congress prevailed, cutting off the CIA's funding for a proxy war in Central America.

But Congress was merely a local outfit. The anticommunist faction both privatized and globalized, replacing vanished public subsidies with private funds from right-wing charities like the National Defense Council, the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund, and the Western Goals Foundation, as well as from supportive Muslims with oil money to burn. The conspirators secretly acquired weapons from Israel and sold them to Iran at a hefty profit, which they turned over to guerrillas fighting the Nicaraguan regime.

Admiral Poindexter's PROF interoffice email system (powered by an IBM mainframe) seems pretty backward nowadays, but there was an unmistakable Enron-style genius in routing charity money and Saudi profits through Israeli arms contractors to buy munitions for Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries. John Poindexter, Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, Richard Secord, John Singlaub, Robert MacFarlane, Adnan Khashoggi, Manucher Ghorbanifar: These legendary innovators created something truly new and brilliant - an offshore, autonomous, self-financing, global, anticommunist venture-capital outfit big enough to fight a private war against a sovereign nation. Lieutenant Colonel North liked to call it Project Democracy. It ran loops around Congress the way offshore Internet porn rings dodge the US Customs Service.

Hezbollah, the Islamist terror network that still thrives in the ghastly politics of the Middle East, may have triggered the operation's demise. Iran, which had bought hundreds of small rockets through Oliver North, leaned on Hezbollah to release seven American hostages, a cause close to President Reagan's heart. Somebody, quite likely a Hezbollah terrorist, leaked the truth about arms-for-hostages to Al Shiraa, a Lebanese newsweekly. The leak set in motion a stumbling series of revelations and attempted stonewalls that ended the short, inventive life of Project Democracy.

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