Official Washington's favorite quote from the Iran-Contra scandal was from Secretary of State George Shultz who famously assured congressional investigators that "trust is the coin of the realm." What is never acknowledged is that Shultz's coin was counterfeit, that he then lied through his teeth.
At the time, in 1987, to protect the myth that Shultz was the principled opponent of the secret Iran-Contra arms deals who was then cut out of the project, Shultz and his senior aide, Charles Hill, withheld key documents about Shultz's actual role and knowledge.
However, in 1992, after Iran-Contra prosecutors discovered the hidden notes that undercut Shultz's testimony, they altered Shultz's status in the criminal investigation from "witness" to "subject" one step short of becoming a "target." At that point, Shultz agreed to some closed-door interviews.
"Over the course of the interviews, Shultz's attitudes evolved from combative to contrite," the final Iran-Contra report stated. "In the end, after confronting the evidence contained in contemporaneous notes created by his closest aides, he repeatedly admitted that significant parts of his testimony to Congress had been completely wrong." [See Iran-Contra Report, Chapter 24.]
I was reminded of this long-forgotten history by an e-mail that I received from an editor at FAIR, the media watchdog group which has criticized PBS for producing a three-part documentary hailing Shultz as a great public servant and a man of unquestioned integrity.
FAIR noted that the "hagiography" of Shultz, which was largely funded by his friends and associates, presented his Iran-Contra role in line with his false testimony to Congress and ignored the later revelations from the Iran-Contra criminal investigation.
Back in July 1987, Shultz's false testimony to Congress also created problems for me as a Newsweek correspondent who had been aggressively covering the unfolding scandal. It was at that point that I was informed that the magazine's senior editors had concluded that Shultz's testimony represented the end of the story as far as they were concerned; that Shultz's account showed that "the adults were back in charge."
I protested what I considered a rush to judgment based on what I regarded as Shultz's dubious testimony, but I was overruled. From that point forward, Newsweek's top editors were determined to close the door on Iran-Contra, and my resistance opened me to intensifying internal criticism.
When the congressional Iran-Contra report was released in fall 1987, Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas told me that the orders from on high were that I was not even to read it, that Newsweek planned no story.
When I protested and insisted that the magazine needed to do something about what had been the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration, he retreated a bit, saying I could write something on the topic if it wasn't in the report. I noted the difficulty of doing that if I hadn't read the report first.
Newsweek's editors grew increasingly annoyed at my insistence that a high-level cover-up of Iran-Contra was underway. They were so sure that the story was over that when ex-White House aide Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Thomas said the top brass didn't want us to cover the trial, although virtually every other major news organization was doing so.
Knowing that I would get blamed either way whether I sat back and let us get scooped or disobeyed the order I arranged to get trial transcripts sent to my home at night so I could review the day's proceedings. Ironically, the approach led to us getting some scoops because the transcripts included bench conferences that the reporters in the courtroom couldn't hear.
Thomas assured me that my initiative would count in my favor with the senior editors in New York, but I knew that it wouldn't.
Newsweek's animosity toward the story continued. I faced and resisted pressure to join the Washington media herd in ridiculing Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh for continuing to dig into the old scandal, which Newsweek's editors had concluded ended with Shultz's 1987 testimony.
By 1990, it had become clear that my position at Newsweek was untenable and I agreed to leave.