The conventional view of the Iran-Contra scandal is that it covered the period 1985-86, when President Ronald Reagan became concerned about the fate of American hostages in Lebanon and agreed to secretly sell weapons to Iran's Islamist government to gain its help in freeing the captives.
Supposedly, the scheme went awry when White House aide Oliver North and other participants got carried away, including North's decision to divert profits from the arms sales to another one of Reagan's priorities, the Nicaraguan contra rebels whose CIA assistance had been cut off by Congress.
The Iran-Contra scandal was exposed in fall of 1986 after the shooting down of a North supply plane over Nicaragua and revelations in Lebanon of Reagan's arms sales to Iran. A White House staff shake-up, including North's firing, and some wrist-slaps from Congress for Reagan's alleged inattention to details resolved the scandal, at least that was how Official Washington saw it.
The few dissenters who wouldn't accept that tidy conclusion such as Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh were mocked and marginalized by the news media, including the Washington Post (which ran an article concluding that Walsh's consistency in pursuing the scandal was "so un-Washington" and that he would depart as "a perceived loser").
But an accumulating body of evidence suggests that the traditional view of Iran-Contra was mistaken, that this conventional understanding of the scandal was like starting a novel in the middle and assuming you're reading the opening chapter.
Indeed, it now appears clear that the Iran-Contra Affair began five years earlier in 1980, with what has often been treated as a separate controversy, called the October Surprise case, dealing with alleged contacts between Reagan's presidential campaign and Iran.
In view of the latest evidence and the crumbling of the long-running October Surprise cover-up there appears to have been a single Iran-Contra narrative spanning the entire 12 years of the Reagan and Bush-41 administration, and representing a much darker story.
And it was not simply a tale of Republican electoral skullduggery and treachery, but possibly even more troubling, a story of rogue CIA officers and Israel's Likud hardliners sabotaging a sitting U.S. president, Jimmy Carter.
Plus, with Washington's failure to get at the larger truth about the Iran-Contra Affair, crucial patterns were set: Republicans acted aggressively, Democrats behaved timidly, and the U.S. national news media was transformed from Watergate-era watchdogs, to lapdogs and finally to guard dogs protecting national security wrongdoing.
In that sense, the Iran-Contra/October Surprise scandal represented the missing link in a larger American political narrative covering the sweep of several decades, explaining how the United States shifted away from a nation grappling with epochal problems, from energy dependence and environmental degradation to bloated military budgets and an obsession with empire.
For all his shortcomings and half-measures, President Carter had begun promoting solar and other alternative energies; he pushed conservation programs and worked to reduce the federal deficit; and abroad, he advocated greater respect for human rights and pulled back from the imperial presidency.
More on point, he cashiered many of the freewheeling Cold Warriors of the CIA and demanded land-for-peace concessions from Israel.
Carter's potential second term presented unacceptable dangers to some powerful interests at home and overseas. The CIA Old Boys (whom legendary CIA officer Miles Copeland deemed "the CIA within the CIA") thought they understood the true national interests even if the lazy-minded public and weak-kneed politicians didn't.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his Likud Party believed in a "Greater Israel" and were determined not to trade any more land conquered in the Six-Day War of 1967 for promises of peace with Palestinians and other Arabs. In 1980, Begin was still fuming over Carter's Camp David pressure on him to surrender the Sinai in exchange for a peace deal with Egypt.
In other words, the deep-seated concerns of many influential forces intersected in 1980, all with a common desire to sink Carter's reelection campaign. And the best way to do that was to undermine his efforts to gain the freedom of 52 American hostages then held in Iran. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter."]