What Congress Didn’t Ask

New York Times op-ed

Lieut. Colonel Oliver L. North said during the Congressional hearings into the Iran-contra affair that he has fought in two American wars, Vietnam and Angola. During his examination by the Iran-contra committees, he proudly offered information about his service in Vietnam but never mentioned what he was doing in Angola. And no one on the committees bothered to ask him.

Colonel North's statement was part of a mountain of circumstantial evidence pointing to close links between the arms pipeline to the contras and efforts to supply Unita rebels fighting the Marxist Government of Angola. Just as the Boland Amendment banned assistance to the contras, the Clark Amendment, until its repeal in August, 1985, barred aid to Unita.

The evidence strongly suggests that the same people involved in the Iran-contra diversions were responsible for the illegal arming of the Unita rebels.

Though elements of the Africa connection surfaced on a few occasions during testimony, committee members never pursued the angle, never asked a single question or subpoened a single document relating to charges that the Federal Government was arming Unita.

The committee's questioning focused on Iran and Nicaragua even though an investigation of the Angola connection might have shed more light on efforts to build the ''privately funded off-the-shelf covert operations capability'' that Colonel North described. Without consideration of the African dimension of this covert foreign policy, the final report of the Iran-contra committees is at best incomplete.

Representative Howard E. Wolpe, Democrat of Michigan, wrote several letters to the chairman of the Iran-contra committees explaining the ties between southern Africa and the Iran-contra affair. Similarities included ''key personalities initiating and directing events, the principal sources of financing and the commercial cargo carriers employed,'' he wrote.

Mr. Wolpe's aides even supplied a witness who was willing to testify that Saudi Arabia had agreed to arm and train Unita forces in exchange for United States Awacs planes, which it received in 1982. The committees declined to question him, and questions pertaining to southern Africa were pushed aside.

Why the omission? Some Congressional staffers placed the blame on the hurried nature of the hearings; investigators employed by the committees neither knew the issues nor cared much about Africa. Moreover, in their single-minded pursuit of Presidential culpability, members of the committees might have viewed the Angolan question as a superfluous element that only complicated an already complex picture.

Also, there was less public pressure to explore the African aspects of the scandal. Much of what had happened in Nicaragua had already been exposed by the press, and the public expected some answers.

Finally, the Angolan and Nicaraguan affairs are, indeed, quite different. While much of the blame for the contra situation could be laid on individuals, the Unita arms pipeline is supported by the Governments of Zaire, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and South Africa - all friendly nations that the committees' members may have been reluctant to embarrass. While the Iran-contra affair is history, covert aid to Unita continues.

The Iran-contra committees' condemnation of the people who operated a clandestine foreign policy in the Middle East and Central America could, in principle, be extended to activities in Africa. Their failure to make such a connection implies that a different standard of conduct is permissible where Africa is concerned.

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