Robert McFarlane Admitted Guilt in Iran-Contra Scandal

Reagan's national security adviser fell into despair when the scheme unraveled
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 13, 2022 5:05 PM CDT
Robert McFarlane Admitted Guilt in Iran-Contra Scandal
Robert McFarlane, left, is escorted by Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for national security adviser, at Trump Tower in New York in 2016.   (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(Newser) – Robert McFarlane, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan who pleaded guilty to four counts in the Iran-contra scandal, has died. He was 84. The son of a congressman, McFarlane was a lieutenant colonel in the Marines and decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War before serving in congressional staff positions and the Reagan administration. He moved to the White House in 1983 as national security adviser and became involved in the illegal arms-for-hostages scheme, the Washington Post reports. The shame and guilt later pushed him to attempt suicide. "What really drove me to despair was a sense of having failed the country," McFarlane said after his recovery.

McFarlane was praised at the time for his role in complex arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, per the New York Times, as well as helping with the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's antimissile program that never left the drawing table. Also called "Star Wars," the plan nevertheless was credited with causing the Soviets to increase defense spending to a level that helped lead to the government's demise. But then came Iran-contra, the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for its assistance in freeing US hostages being held in Lebanon. Profits from the arms sales were secretly sent to the contras, rebels in Nicaragua working to bring down that country's Marxist regime, the Sandinistas. Both halves of the operation were against the law.

The scheme was run out of the White House with the CIA's knowledge. Its exposure stained Reagan, who had publicly said he would not trade arms for hostages, and brought questions about how much the president knew about the operation. McFarlane later said part of his guilt was over his failure to protect Reagan from the fallout. The night before he was to be questioned about the operation, McFarlane took 30 Valium pills and went to sleep next to his wife. When she couldn't wake him in the morning, he was hospitalized and revived. Weeks of psychiatric treatment followed. At the time, he thought killing himself was "the honorable thing to do," McFarlane said in 2016. "I so let down the country." Many officials were involved in the Iran-contra scheme; only McFarlane accepted blame unequivocally. (Read more obituary stories.)

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