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Robert McFarlane, national security adviser involved in Iran-Contra affair, dies at 84

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Former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane gestures while testifying before the House-Senate panel investigating the Iran-Contra affair on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 13, 1987.

Lana Harris | AP

Former White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, a top aide to President Ronald Reagan who pleaded guilty to charges for his role in an illegal arms-for-hostages deal referred to as the Iran-Contra affair, has died. He was 84.

McFarlane, who lived in Washington, died Thursday from complications of a previous illness at a hospital in Michigan, where he was visiting family, in line with a family statement.

“As his family we want to share our deep sadness on the lack of our beloved husband, father and grandfather, and note his profound impact on our lives,” the family said within the statement. “Though recognized as a strategic political thinker, we remember him for his warmth, his wisdom, his deep belief in God, and his commitment to serving others.”

McFarlane, a former Marine lieutenant colonel and Vietnam combat veteran, resigned his White House post in December 1985. He was later pressed into service by the administration as a part of secret — and illegal — plan to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the liberty of Western hostages within the Middle East and pass along the proceeds to the contra rebels in Nicaragua for his or her fight against the Marxist Sandinista government.

He played a significant role within the affair, leading the key delegation to Tehran, then as now a U.S. adversary, to open contact with so-called moderate Iranians who were thought to carry influence with kidnappers of American hostages. He brought with him a cake and a Bible signed by Reagan.

The scheme began to unfold a after a cargo plane carrying a CIA-arranged shipment of arms was shot down in October 1986 by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, setting off what eventually became one among the most important modern political scandals.

McFarlane was rushed to a Washington-area hospital in February 1987 after taking an overdose of Valium the day before he was scheduled to testify before a presidential commission investigating the affair.

He pleaded guilty in March 1988 to 4 misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. His lawyer said he was being unfairly singled out because he, unlike other key figures within the affair, testified willingly before investigative panels. He also admitted his role.

″I did indeed withhold information from the Congress,” he told reporters on the time. “I think strongly that, throughout, my actions were motivated by what I believed to be within the foreign policy interest of the US.″

He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, together with five other figures from the scandal.

McFarlane, a profession Marine referred to as “Bud” to his friends, had risen to lieutenant colonel and to positions within the Nixon and Ford administrations. He served as national security special assistant to Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford during their presidencies.

In the course of the Carter administration, he was on the Republican staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He returned to the chief branch with Reagan’s election, serving as a State Department counselor until moving to the White House as national security adviser William Clark’s deputy in January 1982. He was appointed to the highest national security post in 1983.

McFarlane, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was the son of a former Democratic congressman from Texas, William Doddridge McFarlane, who served from 1932 to 1938. He’s survived by his wife of 63 years, two daughters and a son.

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