The American Conservative Union (ACU) has asked retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Oliver North to present the “American Heroes Award” at this year’s upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In 1989, North was convicted for his role in Iran-Contra, a scheme that included illegally selling weapons to the Iranian military and using the proceeds to fund the overthrow of the democratically-elected Nicaraguan government. The man is, for all intents-and-purposes, a war criminal, and yet, one could hardly be surprised. Last year, the ACU had former-Vice President Dick Cheney confer its “Defender of the Constitution” award to former-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom are guilty of numerous war crimes, most especially the operation of a secret international kidnapping and torture regime.
North is the perfect person to follow Cheney since in many ways, the lawlessness that North advocated under Reagan was fully realized and openly defended under Cheney. North personally constructed the plan to thwart an explicit Congressional ban on weapons sales to Iran (who was at war with U.S. ally Iraq) and an explicit Congressional ban on funding the Nicaraguan Contras. Then, North and his superior National Security Advisor John Poindexter shredded thousands of documents to cover up the program, including President Reagan’s signed-authorization.
It makes sense that North would have risen to such fame among hard-line neo-cons who want zero limits on presidential authority. Glenn Greenwald in his recent book Liberty and Justice for Some explains that “tellingly, North became a beloved folk hero on the right because of how proudly he boasted of lying to Congress. Consider the following exchange between North and John Nields, counsel to the congressional joint committee investigating Iran-Contra–an exchange that boosted North into superstardom among the Republican faithful and many in the media class.” This is that exchange:
Mr. NORTH: I will tell you right now, counsel, and all the members here gathered, that I misled the Congress. I misled
Mr. NIELDS: At that meeting?
Mr. NORTH: At that meeting.
Mr. NIELDS: Face to face?
Mr. NORTH: Face to face.
Mr. NIELDS: You made false statements to them about your activities in support of the Contras?
Mr. NORTH: I did. Furthermore, I did so with a purpose, and I did so with a purpose of hopefully avoiding the very kind of thing that we have before us now, and avoiding a shut-off of help for the Nicaraguan Resistance, and avoiding an elimination of the Resistance facilities in three Central American countries wherein we had promised those heads of state on my specific orders, on specific orders to me—I had gone down there and assured them of our absolute and total discretion.
North then proceeded to proclaim that lying to Congress had been the patriotic thing to do. Days later, North’s loyal secretary, Fawn Hall, captured the prevailing ethos at the Reagan National Security Council when she declared, “Sometimes you have to go above the written law.”
Indeed, many of the key culprits from Iran-Contra–including Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, John Negroponte, and Otto Reich–went on to occupy important positions in George W. Bush’s administration, while several others ascended to positions of influence in the political and media establishment. Less than a decade after his indictment Oliver North became the GOP Senate nominee in Virginia. After almost unseating the incumbent, Senator Chuck Robb, he was rewarded with a Fox News contract. Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, left the government under a heavy cloud of scandal but soon ascended to the position of publisher at Forbes magazine. In 2002, he was the featured witness at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, where he advocated an attack on Iraq while all the senators in attendance–led by committee chairman Joe Biden–treated him with the utmost deference.
For many years, North has defended the Contras as “freedom fighters,” but it’s an entirely self-serving description. The Contras were notorious murderers who smuggled drugs (even into the U.S.), with the CIA and North’s full knowledge, as a way to fund their activities against the Sandinista government. As one human rights group noted at the time, “the contra attacks were marked by extreme savagery. Torture, mutilation and rape were common.” North still denies that he was motivated by anything other than his desire for freedom.
That the ACU would invite this unrepentant war criminal to give an “American Heroes Award” makes me cringe when I think who the possible recipient might be. In any case, it would be hard to beat last year’s ACU “Defender of the Constitution Award” winner: Donald Rumsfeld, the chief designer of Bush’s torture regime. Rumsfeld was booed and heckled by libertarian-leaning Ron Paul supporters who had just listened to his son Sen. Rand Paul speak. The poor timing resulted in both Rumsfeld and Cheney being called war criminals, which as many commentators noted at the time was quite accurate. The ACU failed to invite Ron Paul this year, expelled the Republicans only gay rights organization GOProud, and cut ties with several libertarian-leaning organizations in the vain hope that this spectacle might not be repeated–vain, because these days, libertarians have become bigger, louder, and far more enthusiastic than conservatives.
In many ways, libertarianism’s rise is due in large part to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the ACU neo-cons who supported them. Traditional anti-war, small government conservatives had nowhere to turn until Ron Paul popularized his particular form of conservative libertarianism in 2008. Today, this group has largely coalesced into an independent force under the “libertarian” banner, so if the ACU is annoyed with rowdy libertarians, they only have themselves to blame.
This video still makes me a little queasy.