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How George H.W. Bush’s Pardons for Iran-Contra Conspirators Set the Stage for Trump’s Impunity

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As the media lauds George H.W. Bush’s legacy, we look at his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush Sr. was vice president when the Reagan administration conspired to deceive and defy Congress with its illegal arms sale to Iran in exchange for securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The proceeds from the sale were used to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. In 1992, when Bush Sr. was president, he pardoned several Iran-Contra defendants, including Caspar Weinberger, Robert McFarlane and Elliott Abrams. We speak with Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Greg Grandin, I’m wondering your assessment of the impact of the Panama invasion on the Bush presidency, because he was always battling criticism that he was a wimp, that he was not fit to be president, and how this affected him?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, he was. He was constantly fighting the image of being a wimp and ineffectual, living in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. He was called Reagan’s lapdog. He had a long history of violence in the Third World, starting back from his days in West Texas with the Zapata Oil Company. He was involved with the CIA, which they helped run logistics in the Bay of Pigs. As head of the CIA, he presided over—the head of CIA in 1976 during the height of Operation Condor, which kind of organized national death squads in Latin America into—and coordinated their activity. The single largest run of bombings and executions carried out by Condor happened while Bush was the head of the CIA. Iran-Contra as vice president. And so, Panama—

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say Iran-Contra, just if you could expand on that, especially for young people who don’t understand what this was?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, Iran-Contra was a many—a hydra-headed scandal that involved selling high-tech weaponry to Iran, diverting the profits to support the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. In Central America—

AMY GOODMAN: In violation of U.S. law.

GREG GRANDIN: In violation of U.S. law, but also it meant—my gesture to it meant that it supported the worst kind of death squaders and assassins and fascists in Central America throughout the 1980s. And Bush was deeply involved in that as vice president and coming out of his work with the CIA. So, my point—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s—yeah.

GREG GRANDIN: —to the bleeding of Panama is that Bush had a long history of violence in the Third World as a way of establishing himself, which obviously continued with the first Gulf War.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And a key part of that Iran-Contra is that once Bush becomes president, he pardons all the people who were involved with it.

GREG GRANDIN: No, not once he becomes president. When he’s leaving.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m sorry, when he’s leaving, when he’s leaving.

GREG GRANDIN: After he’s defeated, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When he’s leaving as president.

GREG GRANDIN: After he’s defeated by Clinton in the—Christmas Eve 1992, he pardons six of them. And Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor, says that this completes the cover-up of Iran-Contra. So, in some ways, it’s a precedent for current politics in terms of the limits and limitlessness of presidential power to sweep scandals that they’re involved in under the rug.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, President Bush defended his decision to issue the pardons. He issued a statement saying in part, “First, the common denominator for their motivation—whether their actions were right or wrong—was patriotism. Second, they did not profit or seek to profit from their conduct. Third, each has a record of long and distinguished service to this country.” This is Caspar Weinberger, former secretary of defense for the Reagan administration, speaking shortly after he was pardoned by George H.W. Bush.

CASPAR WEINBERGER: I am completely confident that I would have been acquitted in a real trial, when I and my real attorneys, Bob Bennett and Carl Rauh, who are, I think, the finest in the country, would be participants, and they would present real evidence to a real jury. I am very pleased, however, and very relieved that my family and I have been spared this terrible ordeal of a very long and unjustified trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Lawrence Walsh, who was so utterly frustrated by this, said this was the decapitation of the investigation. He had come out of the Eisenhower administration, actually. Talk about—this was Caspar Weinberger and the other defendants who had their records wiped clean.

GREG GRANDIN: They had their records wiped clean—

AMY GOODMAN: A lesson for President Trump.

GREG GRANDIN: —and the scandal went down the memory hole. Iran-Contra was consequential in the sense that it brought together a lot of the different coalitions that made up the Reagan administration—the evangelical right, the neoconservatives, the militarists and anti-communists. And they gave them Central America to run wild with, basically funding the Contras, which were the anti-communist insurgencies seeking to overthrow the Sandinistas.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff wrote in 1991, “The Medellin cartel, once branded by U.S. officials as the world’s most violent and powerful drug-trafficking organization, made a $10 million contribution to the U.S.-backed contra guerrillas fighting during the 1980s to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, a former cartel leader testified today.”

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I might be wrong, but I think they routed that through Manuel Noriega. That’s how it got to the Contras. So it brought together all of the worst elements. But the larger point, it’s all part of overcoming the Vietnam syndrome. It’s all about the executive branch figuring out how it can reassert and project military power, free from all of this democratic oversight. The Congress had prohibited aid to the Contras, and that was the main kind of prompt that forced the Reagan administration to figure out all of—

AMY GOODMAN: And the main operation run through Vice President George H.W. Bush’s office?

GREG GRANDIN: And Oliver North and an interwar party. Oliver North was the point person. He was—you know, so, there was—and so, that’s Bush’s legacy. But it’s a continuation, because if you look at his work in the 1960s with Zapata Oil Company, it’s all the same dense—and the point isn’t to establish conspiracy theory; it’s to show the sociological overlap between these different sections.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If you could expand on that, because, clearly, even though people say he was the director of the CIA for only about a year—

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —but he had a long-running relationship with the CIA here?

GREG GRANDIN: His father was OSS, which was the CIA precursor, during World War II. His—

AMY GOODMAN: Prescott Bush, before he was senator.

GREG GRANDIN: Prescott Bush. I mean, he went to Yale, Skull and Bones. Every major player in the Bay of Pigs operation came out of Skull and Bones. I mean, there was no daylight.

AMY GOODMAN: The secret society at Yale University.

GREG GRANDIN: The secret society at Yale. The CIA was like Skull and Bones writ large, with a lot—with, you know, millions of dollars’ budget. And so, again, it’s not conspiracy. Because conspiracy theorists are obsessed with the Bush family, and they might and might not have done this or that. But the point is that there was a close relationship between the kind of WASP, pure-blood, East Coast establishment that the Bush family represented and the intelligence community. And Bush represented, in some ways, its radicalization in the—after the Cuban revolution, in Texas, and then Iran-Contra. So, there’s a through line through Bush’s life, which is being completely ignored in all of the obituaries and remembrances of Bush. And that through line is the easy resort to violence in the Third World.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you note in your piece for The Nation that it wasn’t just Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, who was a senator, but even his grandparents.

GREG GRANDIN: Oh, his grandparents. He comes—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about his grandparents. And—

GREG GRANDIN: Comes from the bluest blood—Samuel Bush, Prescott Bush, his uncles. He comes from a family that occupied the highest echelons of Episcopalian capitalism, and in its most expansive period, when finance, industry and energy extraction and militarism were interlocking and fusing together. And Bush was born into that in 1924 in Connecticut. He was sheltered during the Great Depression. He went to Greenwich Day School. He went to Phillips Academy and Yale. And then, what’s interesting, sociologically interesting, about Bush is his move to West Texas. So, that move represents the broader shift of American capitalism from the East Coast to this new center of gravity, more ideological, hostile, which becomes the basis of the new right, which becomes the basis of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and even a lot of the forces that back Trump. So…

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to this discussion. We’ll be joined by Ariel Dorfman, the celebrated Chilean writer. Our guests are Greg Grandin of New York University and José Luis Morín, who was one of the first lawyers to bring a lawsuit against the Bush administration for the U.S. invasion of Panama back in 1989. Stay with us.

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Ariel Dorfman: George H.W. Bush Is Alive in His Many Victims Across the Globe, Including Me

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