It was the longest mission in the history of the Israeli air force. Jet fighters crossed the desert into Iraq and bombed an atomic reactor about 10 miles outside of Baghdad. The date: June 8, 1981. The presence of nuclear power in Saddam Hussein"s domain wasn"t anything new. As long ago as 1974, the Israelis had learned Iraq had offered the French government millions of dollars for nuclear technology, including a 70-megaton atomic reactor. This was hardly a secret, especially in intelligence circles. The project had been named Tammuz, marking the month in the Arabic calendar when Hussein"s party ascended to power in 1968. The CIA began monitoring the transactions, but the matter was not of major concern to the U.S., not even to George H.W. Bush when he became CIA director in 1977. However, much had happened between 1977 and 1981. In late 1979, Iranian extremists took 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In September 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. And in 1981, with Bush at his side, Ronald Reagan became president, pledging that America would never negotiate with terrorists. The June 8, 1981, bombing had been ordered because Israel had intelligence revealing that 26.4 kilos of weapons-grade uranium 235 was about to be installed. After the raid, Israel told the CIA it wanted to see top-secret spy satellite photos to assess the damage. Surprisingly, the CIA said no. The Israelis turned to other sources. To their shock, they learned the damage had been minimized. Saddam Hussein had been warned in advance. But by whom? They soon would realize Iraq had been tipped off by the Reagan administration. As we now know, the administration was aiding Hussein in his war against Iran. One conduit, Miami-based arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, regularly flew administration representatives and CIA agents to Baghdad on his private plane. Soghanalian also informed the U.S. that the Israelis themselves secretly were supplying Iran with U.S.-made weapons and spare parts. The U.S. began pressuring Israel to desist. This accelerated in 1983 when 241 Marines were killed in Beirut by a suicide bomber reportedly assisted by an Iranian intelligence officer. Yet today"s ally can be tomorrow"s enemy, and vice versa. By 1985, more than 500 anti-tank missiles were being secretly shipped to Tehran from Tel Aviv, with U.S. approval, as part of a Syrian-brokered deal for the release of hostages or prisoners by Lebanon and Israel. In this were the seeds of what became known as the Iran-Contra affair. Most people who recall the scandal over selling arms to Iran and using the money to fund the Nicaraguan rebels will remember as central figures Oliver North, the loyal Marine who now flourishes his patriotic sword on national TV, and Adm. John Poindexter, who retired to his Indiana homestead. They might not remember the role of George H.W. Bush. Whatever else he did, Bush issued presidential pardons for six officials who had been charged with or convicted of lying or withholding evidence, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. They might not remember independent counsel Lawrence Walsh"s assertion that Bush was a "subject" of the investigation for allegedly withholding information himself. How quickly all of this faded away in the sweep of events, especially when Bill Clinton arrived in the White House and the country focused on his sexual indiscretions instead of the government"s ability to "wag the dog." With so much to remember, it was easy to forget. But as historian Theodore Draper wrote, "The Iran-Contra affairs showed where arbitrary power can lead us. They were made possible by a breakdown in the American system of government. The most important thing we can learn from them is what broke down and why. If the lesson is not learned, we can expect similar trouble every time a president takes some critical action in foreign policy on his own and overreaches himself." Sept. 11, 2001, marked the first great intelligence failure of this young century. We owe it to the victims to demand accountability from the new Bush administration and to make sure the mistakes of the 1980s aren"t repeated behind the wall of secrecy set up in the name of security.

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