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Forget the smoking gun

I've had the extraordinary experience in the past few weeks of finding myself closeted, or hunkered down with, a bunch of spies. I hasten to assure MI5, MI6 and the CIA there was nothing furtive in this.

It just happened that like millions of other people in the north-eastern states, I was outraged every time I walked out the front door into the boiling furnace of the streets, that I decided to reduce my excursions to a minimum. A trip round the corner for a carton of milk, orange juice, bread, chilli, newspapers – the staples – and then retreat into my study and sit back in the purr of the air-conditioning and look over the latest batch of books from the bookseller.

I bunched them in some sort of order for the arrival of a guest the other evening and when he came in, he looked over the neat piles and said, 'Well, well! Where do we begin?' I hadn't noticed till then that six piles of books were topped by such titles as, 'The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA', 'The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century', 'Witness: From the Shah to the Secret Arms Deal', 'An Affair of State: The Profumo Case and the Framing of Stephen Ward', 'Mole-Hunt: The Full Story of the Soviet Spy in MI5' and a new, shiny book with the catchy title, 'Spycatcher'.

Of these six, the only one that appears to be rocketing on to the bestseller list is the last one, 'Spycatcher', which at first glance seems very odd, since the search for a Soviet agent in the top echelon of British intelligence during and after the Second War is packed with hundreds of names unfamiliar to Americans, but the reason for its success is not hard to seek.

Its publication, as I speak, is banned in Britain and so the American reader at once sniffs the odour of forbidden fruit and, like British and American readers of 50-odd years ago, who were similarly denied James Joyce's 'Ulysses' and D. H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', they leapt for it, even though they had no prior interest in the day of the low life of Dublin or in the gamey life of a North Country gamekeeper.

Now 'Spycatcher', as everyone must know by now, has very little to do and only incidentally with sexual shenanigans and, I imagine, thousands of Americans are going to be deeply disappointed, not to say baffled, on every page by a huge cast of characters and assumptions about British government that are meaningless to all but political scholars.

The sales of this book have been briskly quickened by the arrival, via transatlantic jet, of people who purchase trunks, fill the trunks with copies of 'Spycatcher' at $20 a throw and fly them back to England and, we are told, offer them on the black market at anything from $100 to $150 each. The most venerable of American publishers once said that there are three kinds of books that will always sell in America. Books on Abraham Lincoln, on sex and, figuratively, on how to build a better mousetrap.

Well, it seems today that while there's no doubt the bookshops and newsstands of the airports and the supermarkets throughout the Western world groan with the pantings of paperback bosoms, the audience that can afford hardback books has switched its allegiance from sex to spies and, today, in spite of the assurance from European newspaper leader writers that nobody is watching the congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair, the fact is that the three national television networks are each taking their turn in covering them throughout the day and, in the process, gradually losing over a million dollars a day in revenue from the suspended commercials.

I'm not going to go into or go over the interminable testimony and even more interminable cross-examination of the latest witnesses before the select committees of the Senate and the House, but I think we have to notice that the target of the hearings has significantly shifted. Since last November and on and on through all the revelations and rumours of the winter and spring, the question has always been, what did the president know, and it was assumed that the chief object of the congressional search was a smoking gun, preferably one whose lingering smell came from the White House.

Might be worth looking back to the origin of this vivid and tantalising phrase. The first use of it I can find comes from a Sherlock Holmes story written by Conan Doyle in 1894 in which, it is written, 'the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand' – the inference to be drawn from then on, from any such spectacle, was the guilt of the man with the gun.

At some time, I can't discover when, the phrase passed into the lingo of the intelligence services, but it didn't come into common use until the Watergate hearings, during the Senate select committee's hearings in the spring of 1973. The date reminds us that if you think the Iran-Contra thing goes on and on, President Nixon didn't resign for another 15 months after those hearings.

Throughout the whole Watergate investigation, after the Senate hearings, on through the labours of two special prosecutors and then the impeachment hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, President Nixon's defenders kept on saying and correctly that there was no proof of obstruction of justice – that was the main charge – that could be pinned on the president himself.

Nor was there, but at the very end of July 1974, over a year since the Senate hearing, two years since the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment building, in July 1974, President Nixon was compelled by the Supreme Court to release yet another batch of tapes that had been held back. Among them was one briefed taped conversation between Mr Haldeman, the president's closest staff adviser and the president himself. In it, Haldeman said that the CIA could be called on to stop the FBI investigating the source, the chief instigator of the Watergate break-in.

Then followed a simple, two lines of dialogue. Haldeman: 'And you seem to think the thing to do is to get the FBI to stop?' The president replied, 'Right, fine!' Those two words, 'Right, fine!' were Nixon's sentence of execution as president because they were spoken only five days after the break-in itself, way back in June 1972 and a Republican congressman whose name will, I suppose, go into the history books, as surely as Representative Gerry of Massachusetts who coined 'gerrymandering'.

We ought to give his name – one Barber Conable remarked that that brief taped conversation between President Nixon and Mr Haldeman looked like a smoking gun. The phrase was picked up everywhere and only a few days later, Mr Nixon gave up and left the White House forever.

Since the Iran-Contra affair is the biggest political scandal since Watergate and since the main question of guilt seemed to be directed at the president himself, everybody was looking, from the first day of the present hearings, for a smoking gun. It's not too much to say that they have stopped looking. From the testimony of Colonel North, of Admiral Poindexter, most persuasively of Secretary of State Shultz, it's pretty clear that the president did not know, never mind whether he ought to have known, did not know about the diversion of funds from the arms sales to Iran to the Contras, the insurgents in Nicaragua.

More than anyone, Admiral Poindexter relieved the president of this charge. The admiral purloined President Truman's famous phrase by saying 'the buck stopped with me'. Of course it oughtn't to in the American system. Ultimate responsibility stops where Harry Truman said it stops, at the president's desk, but Admiral Poindexter, frankly, blatantly, said he had deliberately kept the president in ignorance of the diversion of funds to the Contras. So he is the self-declared smoking gun and it's universally agreed that there will be no more talk of impeachment.

However, in losing its obsession with a smoking gun, the joint committee has gained a far more important insight into the root mischief of the whole Iran-Contra business, which is the problem of final accountability. There have been newspaper editorials, stand-up comic jokes, savage cartoons across the country picturing Colonel North as a military president or a loose cannon with medals, Admiral Poindexter as a sailor prepared to go down with his ship, President Reagan as a bewildered or snoozing onlooker.

But it was left to the New Yorker to write the most crisp, pointed little leader in its Talk of the Town on how long we'd been blinded to the main issue by our obsession with a smoking gun. Here's the gist of it.

The Watergate tapes narrowed the question to one of guilty knowledge on the part of the president and thus helped us all to avoid harder and more crucial constitutional questions. To what degree is the president responsible not only for his own actions, but for acts of illegality and attempts to subvert constitutional government on the part of his aides? And from the Iran-Contra hearings, the New Yorker deduces that 'the president is protected by his ignorance and his subordinates are protected by their belief that they were acting solely for the president as he would have wished'.

This was precisely the issue that should have been confronted during Watergate. As long as it remains possible for a president to shrug off unconstitutional acts by his aides on the ground that he wasn't aware of the details, we find ourselves moving frighteningly toward a system of government by plebiscite and junta.

This is essentially the theory of government which has been proposed by witnesses over the last weeks and it suggests that we've been conducting the wrong kind of search. The object in question is the body of the constitution. When we find it with a hundred stab wounds, there's no point in looking for a smoking gun.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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