Hamilton diverted the probe away from how the Reagan administration countenanced drug traffickers in the contra operation and how neoconservatives under Reagan had conducted what amounted to a domestic covert propaganda operation to manage the "perceptions" of the American public about the contras. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
To get a veneer of bipartisanship, Hamilton toned down the final report, going especially softly on Reagan and Bush. Also with ill-advised grants of immunity, Hamilton gummed up subsequent prosecutions of North and Poindexter, allowing right-wing justices on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to cite the congressional immunity as the reason to throw out the convictions.
Ironically, it would an 80-year-old patrician Republican "" special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh--who would make the most progress in achieving some measure of accountability for the Iran-Contra scandal by breaking through what Walsh called a White House "firewall" that Hamilton had failed to detect.
Walsh indicted Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for concealing key evidence about the Iranian arms sales. Walsh also showed that Secretary of State George Shultz, who had wowed Hamilton's committee with the words "trust is the coin of the realm," had then proceeded to lie to the Congress (although Shultz was not indicted).
The October Surprise Opening
Walsh's investigators reached a tentative conclusion, too, that the Iran-Contra arms sales, which occurred in 1985-86, may have had an antecedent in earlier arms shipments related to the so-called October Surprise case in which the Reagan-Bush campaign allegedly went behind President Jimmy Carter's back in 1980 to sabotage his negotiations with Iran about freeing 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran.
Those suspicions led Walsh's investigators to polygraph former CIA officer Donald Gregg, who worked as Vice President Bush's national security adviser in the 1980s. In 1990, an FBI polygraph examiner deemed Gregg deceptive when he answered no to the question: "Were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?" [See the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, 501]
Yet when the House of Representatives finally got around to investigating the October Surprise allegations in 1991, it was again Lee Hamilton who was put in charge, and the new investigation followed Hamilton's trademark pattern of seeking answers that wouldn't upset the Republicans.
Hamilton even gave the Republicans effective veto power over Democratic staff, when he let Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, block the appointment of House International Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver as one of the investigators, apparently because Oliver believed that the October Surprise charges might well be true.
Under the Hamilton-Hyde leadership, the "investigation" turned into a determined effort to disprove the allegations raised by Iranian, Israeli, American and European officials and intelligence operatives. The debunking largely focused on the creation of alibis to cover the whereabouts of George H.W. Bush and Reagan's campaign chief William Casey on key dates.
Although those alibis turned out to be flawed or clearly bogus, they carried the day throughout most of the year-long probe. When one false alibi for Casey's whereabouts over a crucial weekend in late July 1980 collapsed in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hamilton's task force simply concocted a new equally false alibi. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Where's Bill Casey?" or Parry's Secrecy & Privilege for details.]
Avoiding the Truth
Hamilton's commitment to avoid painful truths proved crucial for the October Surprise cover-up in December 1992 as his task force was completing its inquiry with a strong determination to see no Republican wrongdoing.
However, just a month after Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush for the presidency, the dam that had held back the 12-year-old secrets finally gave way. The task force suddenly found itself inundated by a flood of new evidence of Republican guilt.
Task force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella, who had been onboard for the debunking, was stunned by the late surge of new evidence. He concluded that it couldn't be ignored and that it justified extending the investigation at least a few more months.
Years later, Barcella told me that he recommended a three-month extension to Hamilton, but the Indiana Democrat rejected the idea of taking the extra time to check out the new evidence. Hamilton told Barcella to wrap up the inquiry with the previous conclusion of Republican innocence.