In July 1987, Oliver North was living proof of what could happen when obscure government staffers exercise power on their own. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who’d been assigned to work on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff, sat upright in his olive-green uniform before a joint congressional committee. As television cameras rolled, the staffer recounted his role in the scheme to sell weapons to Iran and funnel the proceeds to Contras battling a socialist government in Nicaragua.
On paper, North and others at the NSC were supposed to support the president’s policy-making process, but Reagan staffers had cooked up their own plans and then carried them out. Amid what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, North and the rest of the NSC looked to many like, in the words of one observer, “reckless cowboys, off on their own on a wild ride.” Today conspiracy theorists would have simply called them part of a “deep state”—shadowy, unelected officials controlling government even as presidents come and go.
Like just about everyone else in the United States, I watched North’s hearing. I was 8 years old. As rain ruined a family-vacation day that July, I sat in a hotel room with my mother and siblings, captivated by the testimony of a man whose deeds, I realize now, could have besmirched the NSC’s reputation for posterity. Yet when I began research for a book on the people and power of the NSC—a project that eventually included reviewing 10,000 archival documents and almost 100 interviews with policy makers from the Reagan administration and more—I was surprised how seldom Iran-Contra came up.