Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

Takeover document: The Iran-Contra minority report

The first quarter or so of Takeover is a history of executive power before the Bush-Cheney administration, primarily from Watergate to the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, interwoven with an intellectual history of Dick Cheney – how he came to develop his beliefs about strong executive powers. A key moment, recounted in Chapter 3, Section 6, was the Iran-Contra investigation. But it’s hard to find that report online. My colleague Robert Pear dug up an electronic copy of it for me, so I’ve uploaded it to Document Cloud. It is posted at the end of this post with some moments marked that are interesting for presidential power issues.

During the investigation, Representative Cheney was the leader of the minority that tried to defend the Reagan administration, in part on the grounds that the law the White House violated, the Boland Amendment, was an unconstitutional usurpation of presidential authority. This was a kind of origin story for the sweeping theory of commander-in-chief powers that the Bush-Cheney administration later advanced. (Not coincidentally, this was when Cheney first connected with David Addington – a staffer on the committee contributed by another Republican lawmaker who quickly went to work for Cheney, first as a key aide at his Pentagon in 1989 and later the Office of Vice President. Addington was the chief architect of the Bush-Cheney legal team’s views on executive power.) Years later, when the New York Times revealed that the Bush-Cheney administration was wiretapping without warrants in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Cheney told reporters to look up his minority report for a better understanding of his views about the limits of Congress’s ability to regulate executive power.

I do have the view that over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority, that it’s reflected in a number of developments … a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both, in the ’70s served to erode the authority, I think, the President needs to be effective especially in a national security area. If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran Contra Report in about 1987. Nobody has ever read them, but we — part of the argument in Iran Contra was whether or not the President had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the President’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective.

Bonus: here’s a clip I made of an interesting moment in the video of the press conference in which Cheney and his colleagues announced their minority report, in which Cheney puts his concerns in a broader historical context that traces back to the end of the Nixon and then the Ford administration, when he was White House chief of staff. (I didn’t know about this at the time I wrote Takeover.)

(See also this long-lost, never-presented 42-page draft paper by Cheney in 1989, in which he further developed his views about why he believed in interpreting the Constitution in a way that gave the executive pre-eminent control of foreign affairs.)

Here’s the Iran-Contra report: