Iran, the Contras, and the Manufacturing of a Conspiracy

While ‘Trilogy’ has other scandalous stories to tell, Peter Coyote’s narration of Richard Brenneke’s activities is worth savoring because he catches the mania of a man determined to put himself at the center of a bogus conspiracy.

AP/Lana Harris
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who was very visible during the Iran-Contra scandal, is sworn in before the Iran Contra Committee prior to his testimony at Washington, D.C., July 7, 1987. AP/Lana Harris

‘Trilogy: Three True Stories of Scoundrels and Schemers’
By Peggy Adler
BearManor Media, 102 pages
Narration by Peter Coyote for

The story begins in 1991, when Richard Brenneke engages Peggy Adler to assist him with his autobiography: an account of arms dealing involving Iran (the so-called October surprise — the trading of weapons for American hostages) that purportedly implicates President George H.W. Bush and other high-ranking government officials in illegal dealings.

“Trilogy” has other scandalous stories to tell, but Peter Coyote’s narration of Brenneke’s activities is worth savoring because he catches the mania of a man determined to put himself at the center of a bogus conspiracy. Ms. Adler arrives at Brenneke’s home, where he hands over 70 boxes containing material, he claims, that will document his connections with the CIA and those involved in what came to be known as Iran-Contra, the use of arms sales to Iran to fund the Contras, an anti-Sandinista rebel group in Nicaragua.

Ms. Adler methodically examines the boxes and finds credit card receipts that actually prove Brenneke had not been in the places dealing with the people he said could vouch for his significant contacts with the CIA. Ms. Adler, after suffering Brenneke’s blustering rebuttal, bows out as his collaborator.

“Trilogy” provides an extraordinary record of how certain quarters of the press took Brenneke seriously. He kept calling journalists touting his sources, and then he would contact his so-called sources to implicate them as accomplices in his ruse.

In the book’s most telling episode, Brenneke phones Robert Benes, who supposedly witnessed a meeting between Bush and the Iranians, somehow arranged by the CIA director, William Casey. Brenneke told journalists that Casey had few friends, but Benes was one of  them and served as the crucial link to explaining how the arms for hostages deal got done.

The brash Brenneke recorded a 24-minute call to Benes, a Frenchman whose English was shaky, attempting to make it look like Benes knew something that in fact he did not. Ms. Adler’s technique is worthy of study: She allows Brenneke to expose himself rather than commenting on his ploys. The effect is like listening in on a phone call and trying to make sense of what the interlocutors are saying when they are at odds.

It is quite entertaining to listen to Mr Coyote’s re-enactment of Brenneke’s relentless and maniacally comical effort to foment a story of monumentally clandestine proportions that could only be disclosed by Brenneke’s dogged efforts.

An exasperated Benes tells Brenneke in broken English that he has “had many, many telephone of journalists.” To which Brenneke replies, “Your name was in the paper [on] Sunday—in the United States.” Benes calls the journalist “a liar.” Brenneke then tells him, “Your name is coming up more and more. In fact, I tell you—that some [journalists] are now considering paying you for interviews—and for looking at your papers.” Benes begins to laugh and says, “This is very stupid.” 

A frustrated Benes keeps denying having anything at all to do with Bush or Casey. The indefatigable Brenneke persists: “Well I know that people say ’yes, yes, Robert’ — in 1980, he was talking to Mr. Bush and Mr. Casey.” A puzzled Benes replies: “For what I talk with Mr. Casey and Mr. Bush? For what?”All Brenneke can say is “Uh — I don’t know,” then adds: “They say Mr. Bush was in Paris in 1980. And I say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ But they say Robert knows Mr. Casey — and maybe Robert saw Mr. Bush in 1980. They then ask, ‘What does Robert know?’ and I tell them, ‘I don’t know. I have no answer.’” Maybe money might induce Benes to talk, Brenneke suggests. A baffled Benes repeats: “For what?”

If the conversation between Brenneke and Benes — and there is a lot more of it that could be quoted — seems circular and repetitious, that’s because it is, and because it starts and ends with the criminal imagination of Richard Brenneke, who came to a no good end, as you can imagine, or listen to in Mr. Coyote’s dramatic enactment of how conspiracies are perpetuated.

Mr. Rollyson is the host of a podcast, “A Life in Biography.”

The New York Sun

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