FBI file reveals coverups in Iran-Contra and October Surprise cases

While a recently released copy of Senator Tower’s FBI file dealt mostly with the background check performed by the FBI when he was nominated to become the Secretary of Defense (a position he ultimately did not receive), it included several important revelations concerning the Senator. While most reviews of his nomination process and the scrutiny that he received focused on allegations of heavy drinking and womanizing (one contested accusation that’s repeated throughout the file is that the Senator would chase his female employees around the room), it also dealt with the long under-examined allegations that the Tower Commission, officially known as the President’s Special Review Board, was part of a whitewash for the Iran-Contra affair – which, it turns out, Senator Tower had connections to along with the October Surprise. In exchange for whitewashing the affair, Tower was allegedly to be rewarded with the nomination to become Secretary of Defense.

Other sources were both more specific and less anonymous. One such source, former State Senator Hank Grover, made the same connection for the FBI. This allegation would later be repeated by others, including retired Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe. While Grover mentioned several other points of concern which would also be investigated by the Bureau, there is not room in this article to explore either the questionable campaign contributions, the connections to ILLWIND, the womanizing or the accusations that he slept with a KGB agent while in Geneva. Instead, this article will focus on Tower’s ties to Iran-Contra and the October Surprise, and how he hobbled the investigations.

Tower Tied to Iran-Contra and October Surprise from the Beginning

As it turns out, Senator Tower played a small but significant role in the early days of the October Surprise, back in 1980. An FBI memo from 1988 reveals that they were investigating allegations that Senator Tower had been approached by a representative of the Khomeini regime in 1980 about supplying Iran with replacement parts for planes, planes which would be used in Iran’s war with Iraq.

The meeting being referred to was the infamous L’Enfant Plaza meeting, which is one of the well-documented aspects of the October Surprise lead-up. While the meeting deserves additional investigation and examination (FOIA requests are pending), Robert Parry provides a worthwhile summary of the event and several accounts of it at Consortium News.

The short version is that at least one representative from Iran approached Senator Tower about replacement parts for American F-14s in Iran, and the possibility of releasing the hostages. Senator Tower had his then aide, Robert “Bud” McFarlane handle the issue and meet with the individual to determine his credibility.

According to some versions of the meeting, the Americans dismissed him because he didn’t seem credible. However, it was common knowledge that the individual, Houshang Lavi, had played a role in getting the F-14s to Iran in the first place. Significantly, none of the witnesses changing stories have been able to provide an explanation for how Lavi seemed “not credible.”

McFarlane brought several people with him to the meeting at L’Enfant Plaza, including Richard V. Allen. Allen’s presence was significant because of his involvement in the October Surprise working group, which sought to monitor any attempts to arrange a last minute release of the hostages, including “U.S. shipments of arms to Iran in exchange for the hostages.”

According to the version of events told by Houshang Lavi, the Iranian that was being met with, and Ari Ben-Menashe, the offer was refused by McFarlane, Allen and Silberman (a third party present at the meeting) because they were already involved in negotiations. The existence of these negotiations are mentioned in some of the notes produced by Richard Allen, notes which he says exonerates him.

It would be possible to dismiss Tower’s involvement as innocent or naive, except it was not disclosed during his time on the Tower Commission, which investigated the transfer of arms to Iran and involved the freeing of hostages. More damningly, he denied the entire affair to the FBI. This explicitly implicates him in a coverup of October Surprise activities and a failure to properly disclose information and a potential personal conflict of interest, but most significantly this act is itself a crime (a 1001 violation).

Although Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh was informed of these allegations, it’s unknown how much more his office was told. L’Enfant Plaza and the allegations against Senator Tower do not seem to appear in the Walsh Report. As Lawrence Walsh critically noted, “high officials cannot be tried for their crimes.”

Covering-up the cover-up

These allegations were not lost on the House of Representative’s October Surprise Task Force, which was then investigating the matter. The Task Force wrote to FBI Director Sessions and asked for access to certain files as part of their investigation.

The FBI Director apparently received permission to release the files but provided only a limited selection of redacted documents. Partially as a result of this extremely limited selection, the Task Force largely accepted Allen’s newest account of events, despite the many contradictions between it and the accounts of others – including previous accounts given by Allen himself.

One of the interviews that does appear to have been included puts forward an unlikely story that seems to have been omitted from the October Surprise Task Force’s report (which has been falsely reported to have been unanimous and without dissenting opinion from the Task Force’s members). According to this account, at the L’Enfant Plaza meeting Lavi was instructed to go to the Carter administration with the offer.

This seems extremely unlikely given the fact that, as mentioned above, Richard Allen held a senior position on the Reagan October Surprise group. This group was obsessed with countering attempts by the Carter team to do exactly this.

Notably, this selection of interviews did not include the interview in which Senator Tower lied to the FBI about the L’Enfant Plaza meeting; perhaps the most significant interview missing from that highly limited selection was Samuel Cummings’ – the CIA arms trafficker who had not only been involved in Iran-Contra, but was the brother-in-law to Senator Tower.

A Family Affair

The FBI weren’t the only ones to omit references to Samuel Cummings; Senator Tower completely failed to mention the man in the Tower Commission’s report. He was not, however, ignorant of the man’s work or its possible connections to Iran-Contra. According to the FBI’s interview of Samuel Cummings, the one professional contact that he shared with his brother-in-law was in January 1987 when Senator Tower asked Cummings to testify in the Iran-Contra Hearings.

The interview doesn’t make it clear if Cummings testified or not, but any testimony he gave hasn’t been made public. Nevertheless, his name does appear in the Iran-Contra hearings, including at least one statement that directly implicates him. To understand that and Cummings’ involvement, it’s necessary to take a step back and examine his career as a CIA employee, agent and arms trafficker.

Agent of War

Cummings’ early history is a bit murky, particularly his apparent service in World War II. What’s not unclear, however, is his longtime association with CIA. Cummings’ was officially hired and employed by CIA in 1950, during which time he was one of their most prodigious arms traffickers. Describing his work for the Agency, the New York Times said that while “masquerading as a Hollywood producer buying guns for the movies, he snapped up $100 million worth of surplus German arms on the cheap in Europe and shipped them to Chinese Nationalist forces in Taiwan.” When he left the Agency’s direct employment, however, he didn’t abandon his Agency ties or his career in arms trafficking.

Exactly how Interarmco (AKA International Armament Corporation AKA Interarms AKA ARMCO) was founded is a matter of slight discrepancy. The most common version of events is that Cummings himself founded the company, however one CIA document states that while he was involved from the beginning, he didn’t gain controlling interest until later. This document states that Cummings became the principle agent in 1954 and assumed sole ownership in early 1958. Another document refers to a different arms trafficker, William Stelz, incorporating the company about twenty years after it was allegedly founded. Notably, according to other documents Stelz was in monthly contact with confirmed CIA employee Lt. Colonel Douglas Haldane.

What’s undisputed, however, is the company’s longstanding association with the Agency. When the United States still supported Fidel Castro, it was through Cummings and Interarmco that Frank Sturgis acquired large numbers of weapons. According to Sturgis’ testimony before the Rockefeller Commission, he thought it was a “private enterprise” (words frequently repeated in the Iran-Contra proceedings to describe similar weapons transfers) but later learned the owner was a CIA agent.

Cummings and Interarms would again become connected to Sturgis during the Garrison investigation, as a result of Gordon Novel’s claim that he had seen munitions in crates marked Interarmco.

While Novel has been widely disregarded in terms of credibility, the Agency was paying close attention to the Garrison investigation, especially mentions of Interarmco and Cummings, and the idea that Sturgis acquired the weapons through Cummings and Interarmco is all too credible. CIA documents spell out a long history of using the company to supply their assets and private armies.

One declassified document, for instance, spells out the connection between Interarmco and Manuel Artime’s (AMBIDDY-1) attempts to invade and destabilize Cuba as part of AMWORLD.

Like many other CIA-connected operations, including Iran-Contra and other projects involving Interarmco, this was to be limited to logistical and financial support from the Agency, along with advice. As the CIA dispatch announcing and describing the AMWORLD project, the purpose of this is to be able to deny CIA’s (KUBARK) involvement, “no matter how loud or even how accurate reports of [American] complicity may turn out to be.”

One of these most notable examples would be in Guatemala, where Cummings helped supply the Agency supported 1954 coup and subsequently the new government.

As late as 1969, the Agency was still using Interarmco as a way of supplying foreign governments and resistance movements. When discussing what to do with the Arab-Israeli problem, CIA officer Thomas Karamessines suggested that the U.S. government secretly “intercede with a private U.S. firm such as INTERARMCO that maintains stocks of arms in Europe. The Falange would arrange for delivery without involving the USG as transfer agent, but the U.S. would pick up the tab for the arms. This could be done covertly.”

These facts are important not only because they outline some of Cummings’ history with the Agency and as an arms trafficker, but because they directly contradict his public claims that he is entirely legitimate and “can’t sell to private guerrilla armies (ruling out the Nicaraguan contras).”

Examining the sales performed by Cummings and Interarmco is illuminating, but also a troublesome area. According to Cummings’ congressional testimony, many countries involve him and his subsidiary companies and purchasing partners (such as Merex) to conceal the true nature of a deal and to provide plausible deniability.

Aside from studying some of the more infamous deals he’s arranged, one of the best views of Cummings’ work comes from the Agency’s own files and testimony.

As late as 1973, the Agency’s relationship with Interarmco was of considerable interest to both CIA and to Congress. During William Colby’s confirmation hearings, Congress asked about the Agency’s relationship to companies like Air America, Southern Air Transport and Interarmco. The response for all three of those companies was deleted from the public versions of the testimony, and Air America and Southern Air Transport are both generally considered to have been CIA fronts or proprietaries (although the definition of the latter is too mercurial to discuss here).

The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, released the same year, also asserted the company’s improtance to the Agency, stating that “CIA funds and support undoubtedly were available to it at the beginning. Athough Interarmco is now a truly private corporation, it still maintains close ties with the agency. … Interarmco and similar dealers are the CIA’s second most important source, after the Pentagon, of military matériel for paramilitary activities.”

The Agency files themselves, however, shed more light on his career and on how the Agency handles former employees who have become “private” arms traffickers. The files spell out how the Agency can use carefully crafted language to create the appearance of plausible deniability while engaging in the very things they seek to deny doing.

According to the files, Cummings’ had worked for the Agency for several years. During this time, he “travelled abroad extensively, buying foreign weapons.” The memo states that “the arms were intended for resistance elements behind the Iron Curtain.” When he married a German woman in 1953, he officially retired from the Agency and “became a career agent in Guatemala,” where he quickly began supplying weapons to CIA backed forces (and later a CIA installed government).

The document goes on to state that in the 1950s, Cummings was known to be supplying the FBI with information and was “careful about keeping the appropriate U.S. Government agencies informed of his deals.” When he bought Interarmco, he did it with promissory notes – the origin of which is unknown, and appears to be redacted by the Agency.

According to a CIA memo, by 1960 Interarmco was “probably the largest international arms dealer in the world.”

The memo states that it wasn’t long after Cummings left the Agency that they established contact with him and obtained clearance for him to be used as a counterintelligence informant but that his “principle purpose was to dispose of arms.” The Agency is quite insistent that the relationship is not operational and Cummings isn’t being paid for his information, he volunteers it. Considering he’s repeatedly awarded contracts (for operational purposes, no less) by or at the direction of the Agency, this is a distinction without a difference.

This language would later be used by the Agency in part of their “plausibly denial” response to statements that Cummings was being used by the Agency. According to their definitions, this was technically correct.

The memo concludes that “Agency records contain numerous references to INTERARMCO”  but that the company and Cummings’ name had yet to appear in association with the Garrison investigation outside of a Ramparts article. While the document had alleged that Cummings’ relationship with the Agency had been terminated, a later CIA memo flatly stated that this was false and that the document in question hadn’t even originated with the Agency.

By this time, Cummings was famous throughout the underworld. Harold Konigsberg, a Jewish hitman associated with the mob, told the FBI that Cummings was associated with the Agency and “can do anything and get away with it.” Konigsberg admitted to buying and selling guns with Cummings, but it doesn’t appear that the Bureau acted on this information.

This wouldn’t be the only time that Cummings would “get away” with something. General Secord let slip a hint of Cummings’ involvement in Iran-Contra when, during the Iran-Contra hearings, he thought a reference to Colonel Dan Cummings relating to arms transfers referred instead to Sam Cummings. More significantly, Lt. General Robert Schweitzer, who had held senior positions on the NSC and in the Pentagon, named Cummings as having been involved in the transfer of arms during the same hearings. The full context of this, however, remains redacted.

Barbara, who referred the General to Cummings, also referred him to Ernst Werner Glatt, another CIA affiliated arms dealer who had worked for Cummings and at the time either worked for Cummings or with him. Glatt would be mentioned repeatedly in the Iran-Contra hearings, and according to Fortune he was known by his colleagues to have “[gotten] rich supplying the CIA with East bloc weapons for Afghanistan and the contras.”

 

In light of this, it’s unforgivable that Senator Tower never disclosed his relationship with Cummings or had Cummings testify publicly. More significantly, it’s impossible to expect Cummings to have thoroughly investigated a matter that implicated his brother-in-law in illegal CIA gun-running. Even if Senator Tower had made the information known, it was a conflict of interest that would make him unfit to investigate the matter by any reasonable standard. The fact that future investigations never corrected or disclosed this, and that some information was kept from the October Surprise Task Force, not only creates serious doubts about the FBI’s ability to investigation the government and senior officials, it creates doubt about the integrity of the findings of all of the Iran-Contra and October Surprise investigations.

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One comment

  1. So pleased that you have managed to get this into the public forum. I’m enjoying re-reading Bob Woodward’s “Veil” and am reading “Sleepwalking through history” by Haynes Johnson. I remember that the Iran Contra hearings took so much time on the television but I don’t accurately recall the details. I look forward to reading this new material. At this point, nothing would surprise me anymore regarding coverups. I take it as a given.

    Like

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