and Contra Aid Controversy
March 4, 1987
My fellow Americans: I've
spoken to you from this historic office on many occasions
and about many things. The power of the Presidency is often
thought to reside within this Oval Office. Yet it doesn't
rest here; it rests in you, the American people, and in
your trust. Your trust is what gives a President his powers
of leadership and his personal strength, and it's what
I want to talk to you about this evening.
For the past 3 months,
I've been silent on the revelations about Iran. And you
must have been thinking: "Well,
why doesn't he tell us what's happening? Why doesn't he
just speak to us as he has in the past when we've faced
troubles or tragedies?" Others of you, I guess, were
thinking: "What's he doing hiding out in the White
House?" Well, the reason I haven't spoken to you before
now is this: You deserve the truth. And as frustrating
as the waiting has been, I felt it was improper to come
to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous
statements, which would then have to be corrected, creating
even more doubt and confusion. There's been enough of that.
I've paid a price for my silence in terms of your trust
and confidence. But I've had to wait, as you have, for
the complete story. That's why I appointed Ambassador David
Abshire as my special counselor to help get out the thousands
of documents to the various investigations. And I appointed
a special review board, the Tower board, which took on
the chore of pulling the truth together for me and getting
to the bottom of things. It has now issued its findings.
I'm often accused of
being an optimist, and it's true I had to hunt pretty
hard to find any good news in the Board's report. As
you know, it's well-stocked with criticisms, which I'll
discuss in a moment; but I was very relieved to read
this sentence: "... the Board is convinced
that the President does indeed want the full story to be
told." And that will continue to be my pledge to you
as the other investigations go forward.
I want to thank the members of the panel: former Senator
John Tower, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and
former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. They
have done the Nation, as well as me personally, a great
service by submitting a report of such integrity and depth.
They have my genuine and enduring gratitude.
I've studied the Board's report. Its findings are honest,
convincing, and highly critical; and I accept them. And
tonight I want to share with you my thoughts on these findings
and report to you on the actions I'm taking to implement
the Board's recommendations.
First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own
actions and for those of my administration. As angry as
I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge,
I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed
as I may be in some who served me, I'm still the one who
must answer to the American people for this behavior. And
as personally distasteful as I find secret bank accounts
and diverted funds - well, as the Navy would say, this
happened on my watch.
Let's start with the part that is the most controversial.
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade
arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still
tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell
me it is not As the Tower board reported, what began as
a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation,
into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my
own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original
strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened,
but no excuses. It was a mistake.
I undertook the original Iran initiative in order to develop
relations with those who might assume leadership in a post-Khomeini
government. It's clear from the Board's report, however,
that I let my personal concern for the hostages spill over
into the geo-political strategy of reaching out to Iran.
I asked so many questions about the hostages' welfare that
I didn't ask enough about the specifics of the total Iran
Let me say to the hostage families: We have not given
up. We never will. And I promise you we'll use every legitimate
means to free your loved ones from captivity. But I must
also caution that those Americans who freely remain in
such dangerous areas must know that they're responsible
for their own safety.
Now, another major aspect of the Board's findings regards
the transfer of funds to the Nicaraguan contras. The Tower
board wasn't able to find out what happened to this money,
so the facts here will be left to the continuing investigations
of the court-appointed Independent Counsel and the two
congressional investigating committees. I'm confident the
truth will come out about this matter, as well. As I told
the Tower board, I didn't know about any diversion of funds
to the contras. But as President, I cannot escape responsibility.
Much has been said about my management style, a style
that's worked successfully for me during 8 years as Governor
of California and for most of my Presidency. The way I
work is to identify the problem, find the right individuals
to do the job, and then let them go to it. I've found this
invariably brings out the best in people. They seem to
rise to their full capability, and in the long run you
get more done.
When it came to managing the NSC staff, let's face it,
my style didn't match its previous track record. I've already
begun correcting this. As a start, yesterday I met with
the entire professional staff of the National Security
Council. I defined for them the values I want to guide
the national security policies of this country. I told
them that I wanted a policy that was as justifiable and
understandable in public as it was in secret. I wanted
a policy that reflected the will of the Congress as well
as of the White House. And I told them that there'll be
no more freelancing by individuals when it comes to our
You've heard a lot about the staff of the National Security
Council in recent months. Well, I can tell you, they are
good and dedicated government employees, who put in long
hours for the Nation's benefit. They are eager and anxious
to serve their country.
One thing still upsetting me, however, is that no one
kept proper records of meetings or decisions. This led
to my failure to recollect whether I approved an arms shipment
before or after the fact. I did approve it; I just can't
say specifically when. Well, rest assured, there's plenty
of recordkeeping now going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For nearly a week now, I've been studying the Board's
report I want the American people to know that this wrenching
ordeal of recent months has not been in vain. I endorse
every one of the Tower board's recommendations. In fact,
I'm going beyond its recommendations so as to put the house
in even better order.
I'm taking action in three basic areas: personnel, national
security policy, and the process for making sure that the
system works. First, personnel - I've brought in an accomplished
and highly respected new team here at the White House.
They bring new blood, new energy, and new credibility and
Former Senator Howard Baker, my new Chief of Staff, possesses
a breadth of legislative and foreign affairs skills that's
impossible to match. I'm hopeful that his experience as
minority and majority leader of the Senate can help us
forge a new partnership with the Congress, especially on
foreign and national security policies. I'm genuinely honored
that he's given up his own Presidential aspirations to
serve the country as my Chief of Staff.
Frank Carlucci, my new national security adviser, is respected
for his experience in government and trusted for his judgment
and counsel. Under him, the NSC staff is being rebuilt
with proper management discipline. Already, almost half
the NSC professional staff is comprised of new people.
Yesterday I nominated
William Webster, a man of sterling reputation, to be
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Webster
has served as Director of the FBI and as a U.S. District
Court judge. He understands the meaning of "rule
So that his knowledge of national security matters can
be available to me on a continuing basis, I will also appoint
John Tower to serve as a member of my Foreign Intelligence
Advisory Board. I am considering other changes in personnel,
and I'll move more furniture, as I see fit, in the weeks
and months ahead.
Second, in the area
of national security policy, I have ordered the NSC to
begin a comprehensive review of all covert operations.
I have also directed that any covert activity be in support
of clear policy objectives and in compliance with American
values. I expect a covert policy that if Americans saw
it on the front page of their newspaper, they'd say, "That makes sense." I
have had issued a directive prohibiting the NSC staff
itself from undertaking covert operations - no ifs, ands,
or buts. I have asked Vice President Bush to reconvene
his task force on terrorism to review our terrorist policy
in light of the events that have occurred.
Third, in terms of the process of reaching national security
decisions, I am adopting in total the Tower report's model
of how the NSC process and staff should work. I am directing
Mr. Carlucci to take the necessary steps to make that happen.
He will report back to me on further reforms that might
be needed. I've created the post of NSC legal adviser to
assure a greater sensitivity to matters of law.
I am also determined to make the congressional oversight
process work. Proper procedures for consultation with the
Congress will be followed, not only in letter but in spirit
Before the end of March, I will report to the Congress
on all the steps I've taken in line with the Tower board's
Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this:
You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then
you move on. That's the healthiest way to deal with a problem.
This in no way diminishes the importance of the other continuing
investigations, but the business of our country and our
people must proceed. I've gotten this message from Republicans
and Democrats in Congress, from allies around the world,
and - if we're reading the signals right - even from the
Soviets. And of course, I've heard the message from you,
the American people. You know, by the time you reach my
age, you've made plenty of mistakes. And if you've lived
your life properly - so, you learn. You put things in perspective.
You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.
My fellow Americans, I have a great deal that I want to
accomplish with you and for you over the next 2 years.
And the Lord willing, that's exactly what I intend to do.
Good night, and God bless you.