Bob Parry RIP: The Reporter Who Broke the Iran-Contra Story

An independent journalist who never got the credit he deserved.

Photo Credit: Common Dreams

Bob Parry, the veteran journalist who died Saturday at age 68, was a reporter’s reporter, a cheerful, dogged, independent fact-gatherer who didn’t give a damn about respectable Washington. More than any other reporter, Parry uncovered the national scandal that would become known as the Iran-contra affair. Yet he received little credit and no glory for his achievement.

I first met Parry in 1985 when I was an assistant editor at the New Republic (TNR) in search of writers who knew something about the civil wars of Central America. After Congress approved the so-called Boland Amendment in 1984, barring military aid to counterrevolutionary forces in Nicaragua, Reagan administration officials—and their apologists in the press—were open about their intention to flout the law.

Parry and fellow Associated Press reporter Brian Barger were the only journalists writing about a story I heard off the record more than once: that a National Security Council staff member named Oliver North was in charge of arranging “private” funding of the contras. In a string of well-reported AP stories in 1984 and 1985, they illuminated a secret war involving former CIA officials, mercenaries and suspected drug traffickers.

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Parry was rare among Washington reporters of that era in that he did not take his cues from the White House or defer to Reagan’s popularity. While others tried to spin U.S. support for death squads as a defense of democracy, Parry penetrated the veil of official secrecy. He became a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1985 for his exclusive on the CIA's assassination manual for Nicaraguan rebels.

Perils of Access

In early 1986, I asked Parry and Barger if they would pull together their various reports into a single magazine piece. The only reason Parry listened was that I had published a New Republic cover story in 1985 on how the CIA created the contra movement. He liked the idea of publishing in TNR, then at the height of its editorial prestige, but wondered if the magazine would publish it. After all, the once-liberal magazine supported the contra cause, and senior editors like Charles Krauthammer boasted of friendships with top Reagan officials.

Young and naïve, I assured Parry I could get his reporting in print. He and Barger soon produced a draft story that depicted a secret effort in the White House to bypass the intent of the Congress, and they supplied reams of supporting details.

North had drafted a memo to bypass the Boland Amendment and Reagan had approved verbally. North had recruited former general John Singlaub to raise money and provide advice. In an interview, Singlaub acknowledged a working relationship with North. Former CIA officers Donald Gregg and Nestor Sanchez, now working at the Pentagon, were also involved.

Their story was eminently newsworthy because it punctured the official statements that the Reagan White House was respecting “the letter and the spirit” of the Boland Amendment. And yet week after week, the story was delayed by TNR publisher Martin Peretz and other contra supporters on staff who said there was “nothing new” in their reporting.

Parry listened to my explanations for the delays with bemused good humor. “It's new to them because they’ve believe the lies of their White House sources,” he said with a laugh.

As we reworked the story, incorporating new material and explaining a convoluted tale, I learned a lot from Parry about the craft of reporting: how to track private airplanes, how to get people to talk, how to piece together bits of information—and most of all, what to avoid, namely high-level sources.

Price of Success

By October 1986, I was just about out of excuses for not running his story, when front-page headlines proved he had been right all along. A U.S. supply plane had crashed in Nicaragua and a surviving crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, confessed he was working for U.S. officials working out of a U.S. airbase in El Salvador.

Parry and Barger rewrote the top of the story to incorporate the news. In a tense editorial meeting, Peretz and Krauthammer could not dispute the story was newsworthy and promised to run it. It finally appeared as a cover story, "Reagan’s Shadow CIA," in early November 1986. (Thirty-two years later, the CIA still has a copy on its website while TNR does not, which proves Parry’s reporting lives on where it counts and has been forgotten where it doesn’t.)

The TNR story had just hit the newsstands when more sensational news came from Lebanon. A Beirut newsweekly reported that National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had been meeting with Iranian intermediaries to sell them anti-tank weapons. Not only was the NSC running a secret aid network for the contras, it was selling arms to Iran, which the Reagan White House had accused of sponsoring terrorism.

When Reagan acknowledged the Beirut meeting, the connection between the two stories was revealed. The Reagan White House had used the proceeds from the Iranian arms deals to fund the off-the-book contra aid network first described by Parry and Barger. The sensational revelations sent Reagan’s popularity into a tailspin from which he never recovered.

Subsequent investigations bore out the accuracy of Parry and Barger’s reporting. Oliver North became a household name. The truth of their allegation that contra gun runners had also smuggled drugs was borne out by Senator John Kerry’s investigators. Thus Parry also paved the way for Gary Webb’s courageous reporting on the connections between the CIA and drug traffickers.

Yet Parry did not reap accolades from the mainstream news organizations he had scooped. The New Republic never published him again. As the Iran-contra scandal unfolded in 1987 and 1988, most Washington reporters pretended they had seen it coming, when in fact they mostly averted their eyes.

I published a profile of Parry and Barger for Rolling Stone, in which I dubbed them “The Real Heroes of Contra-gate.” Their accomplishment, I wrote with co-author Tina Rosenberg, rivaled that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on Watergate: a string of shoe-leather scoops that revealed a story that rattled the White House. But times had changed in Washington and true investigative reporters were no longer in fashion.

Bob went on to work at Newsweek and then founded Consortium News, where his independence was secure and his voice could be heard loud and clear. In recent years, I didn’t share his skeptical take on the Trump-Russia investigation, but agreed that he’d earned the right to make it.

When I learned of his passing, I heard again his cackling laugh and timeless advice for investigative reporters: “You can always get access in Washington, and you’ll always pay too much for it.”

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Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the editor of the JFK Facts blog and author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press). Follow him on Twitter @JeffersonMorley.