The last time a Republican administration was put together, there were only two political appointees who didn't make it through the confirmation process. One was John Tower, the elder President Bush's ill-fated pick to head the Defense Department. The other was Richard L. Armitage.

Armitage, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, was to be the new administration's secretary of the Army. Before his nomination could come to a vote, however, he withdrew his name, citing the traditional need to spend more time with his family. Perhaps more relevant was the draft of an article of mine that had just been shown by a right-wing Republican senator to a top Pentagon official. Co-authored by Richard Ryan, this article never appeared in print, but the threat that it would soon be published apparently convinced Armitage and the administration that the confirmation process would not be worth the trouble.

The article was about Armitage's relationship with a woman named Nguyet Thi

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage

O'Rourke, a Vietnamese immigrant convicted of running a gambling operation in Northern Virginia. Armitage had already attracted the attention of the President's Commission on Organized Crime by writing a glowing character reference for her in conjunction with her trial, on Pentagon stationery no less. What our article added was the juicy personal angle that has become a requirement for killing a nomination. It seemed that when the Arlington Police raided O'Rourke's house, they discovered some unusual photographs: They showed a nude O'Rourke holding another photo, which depicted her and Armitage wearing swimsuits.

The most obvious motive for taking such photos was to give O'Rourke some kind of leverage over Armitage; even though they didn't prove anything in themselves, they certainly implied an intimate relationship between a high-ranking government official and an organized crime figure. At the very least, they raised the question of why the official had put himself in a position where a mobster might think she could blackmail him.

Why was a Republican senator showing this article to the Pentagon? There were people on the right, like Ross Perot, who were deeply suspicious of Armitage and his involvement in MIA negotiations. Many conservatives believed that Vietnam still held U.S. prisoners in secret camps, and Armitage's failure to press the Vietnamese harder was seen as evidence of collusion.

Ryan and I, who personally thought it likely that the MIAs were all dead, nonetheless cultivated these conservative sources because their distaste for Armitage was much more intense than any liberal politician's. Perhaps unwisely, we shared an advance copy of our article with them, which became exhibit A in the senator's case against Armitage.

We were interested in Armitage because of his prominent role in the Christic Institute lawsuit. The lawsuit--which was eventually thrown out of court, with sanctions that crushed the nonprofit law firm--alleged that members of the secret Contra resupply effort like Richard Secord were part of a long-standing "Secret Team" of military and intelligence operatives that had been involved in various illegal activities going back at least to 1959.

According to the Christic Institute's affidavit, Armitage was a key player in this team, helping to funnel drug profits from Laos and Thailand into assassination programs in Vietnam and Iran. The Christic Institute's charges have never been proven, or fully investigated, for that matter. But Armitage's documented history and associations do tantalizingly track the Christic allegations (see "Pentagon Aide Linked to Drug Ring," July 8, 1987).

Armitage did come under investigation for his role in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal. Though he testified that he didn't know about the administration's secret sale of arms to Iran until November 1986, when they became public knowledge, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's report laid out extensive evidence that he knew about them a year earlier.

In fact, Armitage apparently opposed the arms sales as early as December 1985, on the grounds that Iranians were "sleazebags." Secord later testified that he met with Armitage then in an effort to change his mind. Armitage claimed not to remember meeting with Secord, though Armitage's own meeting logs show that he did. Armitage kept a December 6, 1985 document describing the legal ramifications of the Iran arms sales, entitled "Possibility for Leaks," locked in his Pentagon safe until June 1987, when it was belatedly turned over to Walsh and the congressional Iran-Contra committee.

Armitage also attended a Pentagon meeting in August 1986 in which Oliver North outlined the covert activities in support of the Contras that he had been supervising through the National Security Council. Armitage denied remembering anything about this meeting as well. In his final report, Walsh said he declined to prosecute Armitage for his numerous dubious statements on these issues because he could not prove they were knowingly false.

The withdrawal of Armitage's nomination as Army secretary was by no means an exile. He went on to become a sort of trouble-shooter for the first Bush administration, serving as a special liaison to the Philippines and the Middle East. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he oversaw U.S. aid programs to the former Soviet republics as a special ambassador. With the change to a Democratic administration, he moved into the role of Clinton critic and eventually an adviser to the Bush dynasty's heir.

Now Armitage's loyalty is being rewarded with a new post: He has been tapped as the new deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, a longtime friend. It's unlikely that he'll run into trouble this time around. MIAs are no longer the issue they once were among the right, and, then as now, Democrats who are willing to ask the right questions are hard to find.

Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, covered the Iran-Contra scandal for In These Times.


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