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
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
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.
Deputy Secretary of State
DEPT. OF DEFENSE
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
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
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.