Key figure in ex-Reagan adviser McFarlane in Iran, opposition affair dies

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane attends a foreign policy speech by Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, U.S., April 27, 2016.Reuters/Jimberg

Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House adviser Robert McFarlane, who used members of the Saudi royal family to fund a secret war in Nicaragua and sold to Iran on a covert mission in a scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has died. Weapon, he has died.

He is 84 years old.

McFarland, who was visiting family in Michigan, died Thursday from complications from a previous illness, his family said in a statement.

McFarlane worked in the White House under Richard Nixon as a military aide to foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger, and previously visited Vietnam twice as a Marine Corps officer.

The journalist Robert Timberg wrote that McFarland was taciturn and expressionless, “under the cover of dullness” in Reagan’s White House. Reagan appointed him national security adviser in 1983, largely because he was the least controversial candidate.

Four years later, televised congressional hearings revealed that McFarland was a key figure in the so-called “Iran-opposition” scandal that captivated millions of Americans.

McFarland led the sale of weapons to what he believed to be moderates in Tehran in the hope that they would free seven American hostages held in Lebanon by Iran-linked Hezbollah. The failed attempt to free them bypassed the U.S. arms embargo on Iran and came only a few years after Iranian militants took 52 hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for more than a year.

During the hearing, McFarland told lawmakers he had no idea that profits from arms sales were being diverted to fund Nicaragua’s opposition to the Sandinista socialist government — until his protégé and Marine Oliver North tell him.

But several years ago, McFarland had set out to fund the opposition, which was fighting the elected Nicaraguan government without Congress’ knowledge. In the end, the scandal has highlighted the ability of White House officials to conduct foreign policy on their own and bypass the constitutional system of checks and balances to prevent such policies from spiraling out of control.

While McFarland worked in Reagan’s White House on nuclear weapons control and many other thorny issues, he feared that he would eventually be remembered for his Iranian opposition. He regretted resigning from the White House halfway through, but he got deeper and deeper after leaving.

Vietnam to the White House

Robert Carl McFarlane, son of Democratic Congressman from Texas, was born on July 12, 1937, grew up in Washington, and graduated from the United States Naval Academy. Between his two trips to Vietnam, he earned a master’s degree in strategic studies in Geneva.

After returning to Washington and holding several jobs in the government, he found a job at the White House. As Kissinger’s assistant, McFarland witnessed the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. In 1975, he led the helicopter evacuation of U.S. diplomats from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy, ​​where he handled communications between the White House and the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.

Earlier, Kissinger helped open up relations with China after secret talks, piqued McFarland’s interest in quietly shaping relations with great powers.

As a Reagan White House aide, McFarland helped launch a study known as Reaganism, which sought to shift the influence of Soviet communism from Latin America to the Middle East. Soon, Reagan appointed him as National Security Adviser. MacFarlane kept this doctrine in mind.

In Nicaragua, McFarland argues, the socialist Sandinista government formed “a beachhead of our own continent…from there it began to spread communism in our backyard”.

Reagan’s CIA tried to help the opposition by bombing airfields and mining ports. But news reports about the attacks prompted Congress to pass the Boland Amendment, which bars U.S. intelligence agencies from helping the rebels.

Still, Reagan saw the opposition as the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers, and he told McFarland to bring him solutions, not problems. McFarland argued that the Boland Amendment was not binding on White House officials, and so secretly sought funding through other means.

He visited the Saudi ambassador in his mansion overlooking the Potomac River and suggested that if the opposition failed, Reagan could lose re-election. Soon, the Saudis were depositing $1 million a month into a bank account in the Cayman Islands.

Farther from home, McFarland worried that Moscow would lure neighboring Iran into the Middle East. An Israeli contact has floated the idea of ​​selling U.S. weapons through Israel to moderate Iranians at war with Iraq. In addition to the possibility of releasing the hostages, McFarland believes that forging ties with moderates could lead to the eventual overthrow of Ayatollah Khomeini and a reset of potentially history-making Iran-U.S. relations.

He brought the idea of ​​freeing the hostages to Reagan, who was recovering from cancer surgery. For Reagan, who was already addicted to hostage plight including the CIA station chief, a deal could set them free.

“Asked to Play God”

The Iranians told McFarland to choose which hostages they wanted to release. “I was asked to play God,” McFarland said. His choice was simple: Webmaster William Barkley. Washington approves delivery of missiles from Israel. But Barkley is dead. When the hostages were released, the others were taken away.

McFarlane felt he had failed Reagan and resigned in late 1985.

Before leaving, however, McFarland got in touch with the White House National Security Council.

In May 1986, McFarland and Oliver North flew to Tehran to meet with what they believed to be moderates. In addition to a tray of missile parts, they brought gifts: pistols and a chocolate cake with a key symbolizing diplomatic openness.

Instead of moderates, they encountered the Ayatollah’s elite army, the Revolutionary Guard. Days go by. No hostages were released, and the Americans were defeated and returned home.

On the trip back to the north, he revealed that he had diverted some of the sales profits to the opposing team. “At least we used some of the ayatollah’s money in Central America,” North told McFarland.

Another surprise is on the horizon: a report in a Lebanese magazine exposes the catastrophe to the world. This led to a US investigation that damaged Reagan’s reputation and plunged McFarland into depression.

In February 1987, the night before McFarlane’s second appearance on Capitol Hill, before a committee investigating Iran’s opposition, he downed 30 Valium pills with a glass of wine and went to bed.

Attempted suicide.

McFarland was sentenced in 1988 to probation, a $20,000 fine and community service after pleading guilty to lying to Congress to raise funds for paramilitary activities in Nicaragua.

Unlike other figures in the scandal, McFarland did not use his constitutional rights to sidestep the issue.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned McFarland on the advice of then-Attorney General Bill Barr, who went on to do the same job under Donald Trump.

Star Wars As national security adviser, managing the nuclear weapons race with the Soviet Union was an important part of McFarland’s responsibilities. Fearing a nuclear war, Reagan wanted to develop the Strategic Defense Program, or “Star Wars” laser that could launch nuclear missiles from the air. Many scientists are skeptical, and some Pentagon officials believe it will fuel the arms race.

Reagan directed McFarland to persuade British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to support SDI. McFarland told her that Reagan believed the system could win $300 million in contracts for British companies. “Thatcher sat up a little refreshed,” McFarland wrote. “In the end she looked back at me and said, ‘You know there could be a problem with this after all!'”

McFarland is proud of helping reach the first nuclear non-proliferation deal with Moscow, but worries that the Iranian opposition will cover it up.

He also regrets stepping down during that crisis. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he told the Fiasco Podcast about his resignation in 2020. “The only person who can stop (the Iranian opposition) is me.”

After leaving politics, McFarland co-founded a company that used American technology to develop nuclear power plants abroad.

Once again, Russia is important in his thinking. McFarland believes that if the United States does not provide reactor technology to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia or China will too. He met with Trump administration officials to discuss the possibility of bringing the technology to Saudi Arabia, a move critics say could spark an arms race in the Middle East.

McFarland is left behind by his wife Jonda and their three children.

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