Iran Contra Affair


In May of 1986, in the name of the American people, attorney Daniel Sheehan and the Christic Institute brought charges against 29 civilians who directly participated in the now-legendary Iran-Contra Affair. Christic’s civil prosecution of the criminal enterprise and attendant investigations exposed secret, illegal, and immoral activities that had been going on for decades.

The suit was filed under the provisions of the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Criminal Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal statute that gave Christic broad investigative powers enabling its legal team to compel sworn testimony and subpoena documents. This was the first such use of the RICO Act, typically applied to organized crime as a way of prosecuting leaders for acts they ordered or assisted others to accomplish.

The investigation verified the existence and activities of what Major General Richard V. Secord called an “off-the-shelf, stand alone, self-financing, ‘private,’ criminal, covert operations enterprise”. This decades-long international criminal cabal was simultaneously conducting covert operations within the C.I.A.

The Players

The leadership of this enterprise was falsely attributed, in November 1986, by Attorney General Edwin Meese, to Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who famously pled the fifth amendment. The evidence, however, confirmed Christic’s public charge that the actual ringleader was Theodore G. Shackley, then Vice President George H.W. Bush’s former C.I.A. Covert Operations Director.

The defendants named by Christic included: Theodore G. Shackley, the former Director of worldwide C.I.A. Covert Operations under then-C.I.A. Director George H. W. Bush (1975-to-1977); Shackley’s Chief Covert Operations Deputy, Thomas Clines; two U.S. Major Generals, Secord and John K. Singlaub; several anti-Castro, Miami-based C.I.A. assassins, including Rafael Chi Chi Quintero and Felix Rodriguez; and both of South America’s leading cocaine drug kingpins, Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa.

Drugs, Guns, and Missiles

Covert operations were conducted under the cover of a private corporation (the Egyptian-American Transport & Services Corporation, EATSCO). In carrying out an unconstitutional war on behalf of the C.I.A. against the officially recognized Nicaraguan Sandinista Government, the cabal engaged in illegal gunrunning, a worldwide political assassination program, massive cocaine smuggling into the U.S., and the illegal sale of TOW missiles to Hezbollah in Iran, who held Americans hostage. They channeled moneys from the sale of the missiles to deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somosa’s dreaded former National Guard members (known as “The Contras”). This after congress passed the March, 1984 “Boland Amendment” expressly forbidding any support, “direct or indirect”, to the Contra forces, whom President Ronald Reagan championed as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”  

Six months after Christic filed the lawsuit (which was “sealed” by a Richard Nixon-appointed Chief Federal Judge in Miami), Attorney General Meese publicly acknowledged the existence of the enterprise. Nevertheless, he sought to restrict the scope and authority of any special prosecutor investigation exclusively to the narrow question of “whether President Ronald Reagan had personally authorized, in writing, the sale of TOW missiles to the Hezbollah and the transfer of a portion of the profits generated by that sale to the FDN Contra forces in Central America.”

Christic Presses Forward

In this way, the administration succeeded also in limiting the scope of the congressional investigation to follow. The Christic Institute investigation, however, pressed forward, successfully exposing the full truth, all of the illegalities, and all of the participants in the enterprise.

The investigation uncovered and publicly revealed 40 years of covert C.I.A. “black operations,” led by Shackley. These included: political assassination programs; weapons out of the United States and drug trafficking back into the United States (both heroin and cocaine—the opium from The Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia and the cocaine from Colombia); and secret drug accounts set up in the Nughan-Hand Bank in Australia. They were also revealed to be connected to the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende and the assassination of his American Ambassador, Orlando Letelier, on Embassy Row in Washington, DC.

Each secret war the Central Intelligence Agency conducted resulted in literally tons of narcotics pouring into the U.S. to secretly fund covert ops. The drug money helped to conceal these operations from the American people and to provide “deniability” to each administration and to members of congress. The collateral damage from these ongoing activities was, of course, narcotics addiction for millions of American citizens.

Defend Our Const

Public Education

The Christic Institute initiated a public education campaign, which presented the unfolding evidence to millions of people across the nation. The organizing campaign generated hundreds of Christic Action Teams (“C.A.T. Teams”) and four Christic field offices supporting the Washington, D.C. headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill. Jackson Browne produced a national musical tour to generate funds for the project. Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Crosby, Still & Nash performed at benefit concerts. Bill Moyers produced two major public television programs based on the Christic Institute’s research and analysis. An award-winning documentary by the Empowerment Project entitled “Cover Up” featured Christic attorney Danny Sheehan.

More than 50 national offices of American mainstream religious denominations publicly endorsed and supported this work, along with dozens of other national public interest organizations, including The Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. The Institute briefed more than 100 Methodist bishops when they came to Washington, D.C. to meet with and press their congressional representatives to investigate the information being provided to congress by the Christic Institute.

In 1991, the Institute produced a seven-hour television program entitled “Causes and Cures.” Experts addressed the Iran-Contra-generated cocaine crisis while interacting via satellite with organized coalitions in 100 cities nationwide. Summation videos of each of these presentations were produced in the national Episcopal and Catholic TV studios and distributed to local cable television stations nationwide, resulting in thousands of airings that exposed the relationship between U.S. private and government covert operations, illegal gun running, and heroine/cocaine drug trafficking into the country. Christic aimed to promote a specific “cure”—the shutting down of C.I.A-protected drug trafficking that created the supply and, thus, the demand.

Bush Intervenes

Despite the fact that the defendants named in this lawsuit were criminally indicted by the Costa Rican federal government for murder and cocaine trafficking, and despite the fact that Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh federally indicted six of the midlevel operatives of the enterprise, charging them with virtually identical charges filed against them by the Christic Institute, all six operatives were subsequently pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.

This resulted in the dismissal of the Christic Institute lawsuit, which, in turn, led to a Nixon-appointed Chief Federal Judge ordering the Christic Institute to pay $1 million in legal fees for the defendants.  

When George H.W. Bush became President, he instructed the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Christic’s 501(C) (3) tax-exempt charter for allegedly “engaging in political activity” due to the filing of the Iran-Contra Lawsuit. Vice President Bush’s own office had coordinated with the criminal enterprise before Oliver North took over, and the Christic Institute had deposed Bush’s secretary and proven his role in the illegal war against Nicaragua. He was furious and used to rail against Christic in his speeches, referring to it as the “Cryptic Institute.”

Peter Dale Scott, the widely-respected University of California Berkeley scholar and investigative researcher, has stated:

“But now, in the light of the released FBI documents, I have to recognize that many of the Christic suit’s wilder sounding claims, including some directly denied by authoritative government spokesmen, are in fact true and well-documented. I have to recognize that much of the suit’s RICO hypothesis, of an on-going conspiracy linking gun-running, drug-trafficking, and assassination plots, has since been corroborated, not just by the Kerry Report, but also by a number of Justice Department indictments in August, 1988. Above all, the seriousness of the suit’s claims is underlined by the seriousness of the efforts taken by Secord, North, and one element of the FBI to undermine the case and silence one of its key witnesses. If North took the case so seriously, so must we.”

Other Landmark Cases

American Sanctuary Movement

The first vindicating argument in the American Sanctuary Movement came from Christic’s defense of Catholic workers who provided sanctuary for refugees seeking political asylum. (U.S. v. Stacey Lynn Merkt, et al.)

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Three-Mile Island Incident

When Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, the Christic Institute legal team was called in to help oversee the legal proceedings and represent victims of the disaster.

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Karen Silkwood

The Christic Institute won a record-setting $10.5 million judgement against the Kerr-McGee chemical company, effectively ending construction of all new nuclear power plants in the United States for 30 years. (Silkwood v. Kerr McGee)

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The Greensboro Massacre

Christic won $350,000 in damages for plaintiffs who brought suit against the City of Greensboro, North Carolina, the Greensboro police department, the KKK and American Nazi Party—a rare verdict in the southern United States. (Waller v. Butkovich)

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