While the Senate Intelligence Committee has finally started the process of declassifying at least some of the $40 million, 6,300 page report about the CIA’s torture efforts, we’re getting more and more leaks about what’s in the report. Previous leaks showed that the torture program was completely useless and that the CIA simply lied about its effectiveness (in fact, taking information gleaned by others through normal interrogations, and claiming they got it via torture). The latest leak highlights how, despite claims by the CIA’s supporters, that the torture was done in “good faith” and was approved by the DOJ and the CIA, it turns out (of course), that the CIA’s torturers actually went much further than they were approved to go.
CIA officers subjected terror suspects it held after the Sept. 11 attacks to methods that were not approved by either the Justice Department or their own headquarters and illegally detained 26 of the 119 in CIA custody, the Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded in its still-secret report, McClatchy has learned.
The spy agency program’s reliance on brutal and harsh techniques _ much more abusive than previously known _ and its failure to gather valuable information from the detainees, harmed the U.S.’s credibility internationally, according to the committee’s findings in its scathing 6,300 page report on the CIA’s interrogation and detention program.
So, again, we have evidence that the CIA tortured people, did so beyond any actual authority (as sketchy as such an authority might be), got nothing of value from the torture, and then repeatedly lied about the torture and the value of it to Congress and the American public. And… no one is going to jail over this. Well, except for the guy who blew the whistle. In fact, many of those responsible for the torture program are still in positions of power. This is a total disgrace.
Feinstein and the CIA
Senator Dianne Feinstein’s blistering attack on the CIA’s conduct in searching the computers used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was deemed a remarkable salvo. The search was engendered by the Committee’s official request for a final version of the named “Internal Panetta Review”. The Review had been created for internal use by the CIA as a record of assessing what documents should be turned over to the Committee in connection with its investigation of the torture program. Once the CIA got wind that their precious internal documentation was finding its way into the hands of the committee, the hackers got itchy.
Senator Feinstein herself charged the CIA with violating the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and Executive Order 12333. This raises the first problem. The CFAA is a legislative creation that exempts authorised law enforcement and intelligence activities. Legal commentary from former Chief Counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence, Chris Donesa at Lawfare (March 12) puts the question as whether “the CIA’s investigation and search was in fact ‘lawfully authorised’ or merely a pretext for deliberate efforts to obstruct or interfere with the SSCI investigation.”
The point is valid – after all, the CIA may well have been doing what it is empowered to do – snoop, hack and conduct “counter” intelligence activities, even against a Congressional committee. A gray area exists in the CFAA as to the rights of access set by the owner and operator of the necessary computers. The Washington political establishment have only themselves to blame if that was the case. The demon is merely consuming its creators.
One thing Donesa is willing concede is that the agreement and understanding between the CIA and the SSCI was significant in its violation. In so doing, it has raised questions touching on the separation of powers “and, more importantly, the budget and authorities of any Agency that dares to breach it.” He is concerned, in fact, that the SSCI was also rather cheeky, scurrying off with documents at points befitting the CIA’s own conduct. A subpoena might have been sought, but was conspicuously lacking. Feinstein herself alluded to such behaviour, largely because the CIA had shown form in destroying evidence, notably videotapes.
There have been occasional remarks that the CIA would have been justified in chasing down the source of leaks in the event that a confidential document had found its way into “unauthorised” channels. Sometime in 2010, Feinstein claims that SSCI staff accessed documents connected with the Panetta Review. Feverish speculation is making its way around the intelligence traps as to whether that access was warranted, the result of intentional disclosure by the CIA, or an illicit revelation of a whistleblower.
Given the CIA’s well established reputation for gold medal incompetence, it might very well be that the agency enabled, quite unwittingly, the Committee access to the Review documents. The jury may well be out on that one for some time to come. In either case, be it the whistleblower thesis, or that of unwitting disclosure, the episode has brushed up, if not scraped, a good deal of constitutional gunk. James Madison would not so much be turning as standing up in his grave.
Not all have warmed to Feinstein’s agitated response. A split has developed in Senate ranks. Republicans are concerned, but many would prefer to await the findings of a full investigation into the matter. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was particularly concerned. “If what they’re saying is true about the CIA this is Richard Nixon stuff. This is dangerous to democracy. Heads should roll. People should go to jail, if it’s true.” Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was less certain. “Right now we don’t know what the facts are” (NPR, March 11).
Neither Feinstein, nor the CIA, can claim much of a high ground in this debate. The SSCI was the subject of a hacking enterprise, a snooping venture that would have been appropriate for the Senator in other cases. In fact, the rationale employed by the CIA was the very one that she has been defending with almost manic determination. If classified documents find their way into certain hands (that is, the likes of Edward Snowden), revealing the extent of state abuse, the messenger is the one at fault.
Given Feinstein’s legislative efforts to shore up the surveillance state, and her inflexible stance in limiting reform to the intelligence community, this would have come as a rude, yet richly deserved rebuke. In Snowden’s own words on the episode, this involved “an elected official [who] does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies” only to be scandalized “when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: email@example.com.
A federal judge has told the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other federal offices to continue looking for records pertaining to the disappearance of four transport planes in 1980.
The case was brought before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly by plaintiff Stephen Whitaker, who has attempted to obtain information about four DC-3 aircraft, one of which was flown by his father, Harold William Whitaker.
Stephen Whitaker filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA, as well as the Department of Defense and the State Department, to learn if they possessed records that might explain what happened to the DC-3s.
The CIA refused to tell Whitaker if its archives held any relevant documents pertaining to his search. The agency cited various exemptions under federal law, including the CIA Act of 1949 (pdf), which allow it to avoid responding to certain FOIA inquiries.
Whitaker argued in his lawsuit that the CIA improperly invoked FOIA Exemption (b) (3) (pdf), which authorizes the agency to keep from revealing information on agency “functions” and “intelligence sources and methods.”
Kollar-Kotelly sided with Whitaker, ruling (pdf) that “the CIA has too broadly applied the CIA Act to withhold information pursuant to Exemption (b) (3).” However, she agreed with two other exemptions cited by the CIA that pertain to attorney-client privilege and the withholding of personnel and medical records.
The plaintiff’s search for information seems to be both personal and more.
He said the plane piloted by his father disappeared somewhere over Spain in October 1980. It had been purchased at auction from the Spanish Air Force and was being flown to Germany to become part of a museum.
A report from Spain’s Civil Aviation Commission on Accidents says the aircraft’s instruments may not have been fully functional, and that the radio may only have been capable of sending messages but not receiving them.
The report added that there was no record of a distress call from the pilot, or co-pilot Lawrence Eckmann, a major in the U.S. Army.
Stephen Whitaker also sought records from the government about Eckmann. The State Department claimed its search turned up nothing on Eckmann. The plaintiff challenged this assertion, and Kollar-Kotelly agreed that Eckmann had been excluded from the search, which was found to be “inadequate and should have been revised….”
The plaintiff seems to suspect that some of the DC-3s he has sought information on were used by the CIA in its covert operations.
His FOIA request to the spy agency asked for any information that would reveal whether “any of these persons or aircraft were later found to be employed or contracted by the CIA for service in Central America or elsewhere.”
The CIA has a long history of using DC-3s that ranges from the Vietnam War to the recent conflict in Libya that ousted the Gaddafi regime.
To Learn More:
Missing-Plane Records From 1980 Dissected (by Kevin Lessmiller, Courthouse News Service)
Stephen Whitaker v. Central Intelligence Agency (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) (pdf)
Technical Report on the Disappearance of a DOUGLAS DC-3 Aircraft, Registration # ECT-025, on the 3rd of October, 1980, to the North of Palm of Majorca (Civil Aviation Commission on Accidents, Spain) (pdf)
CIA: We Only Spied On Senate Intelligence Committee Because They Took Classified Documents That Prove We’re Liars
Earlier this week, we wrote about the accusations that the CIA was spying on Senate staffers on the Senate Intelligence Committee as they were working on a massive $40 million, 6,300-page report condemning the CIA’s torture program. The DOJ is apparently already investigating if the CIA violated computer hacking laws in spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee computers. The issue revolved around a draft of an internal review by the CIA, which apparently corroborates many of the Senate report’s findings — but which the CIA did not hand over to the Senate. This internal report not only supports the Senate report’s findings, but also shows that the CIA has been lying in response to questions about the terror program.
In response to all of this, it appears that the CIA is attempting, weakly, to spin this as being the Senate staffers’ fault, arguing that the real breach was the fact that the Senate staffers somehow broke the rules in obtaining that internal review. CIA boss John Brennan’s statement hints at the fact that he thinks the real problem was with the way the staffers acted, suggesting that an investigation would fault “the legislative” branch (the Senate) rather than the executive (the CIA).
In his statement on Wednesday Brennan hit back in unusually strong terms. “I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts,” Brennan said.
“I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or legislative branch,” Brennan continued, raising a suggestion that the Senate committee itself might have acted improperly.
A further report detailed what he’s talking about. Reporters at McClatchy have revealed that the Senate staffers working on this came across the document, printed it out, and simply walked out of the CIA and over to the Senate with it, and the CIA is furious about that. Then, in a moment of pure stupidity, the CIA appears to have confronted the Senate Intelligence Committee about all of this… directly revealing that they were spying on the Committee staffers.
Several months after the CIA submitted its official response to the committee report, aides discovered in the database of top-secret documents at CIA headquarters a draft of an internal review ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta of the materials released to the panel, said the knowledgeable person.
They determined that it showed that the CIA leadership disputed report findings that they knew were corroborated by the so-called Panetta review, said the knowledgeable person.
The aides printed the material, walked out of CIA headquarters with it and took it to Capitol Hill, said the knowledgeable person.
“All this goes back to what is the technical structure here,” said the U.S. official who confirmed the unauthorized removal. “If I was a Senate staffer and I was given access to documents on the system, I would have a laptop that’s cleared. I would be allowed to look at these documents. But with these sorts of things, there’s generally an agreement that you can’t download or take them.”
The CIA discovered the security breach and brought it to the committee’s attention in January, leading to a determination that the agency recorded the staffers’ use of the computers in the high-security research room, and then confirmed the breach by reviewing the usage data, said the knowledgeable person.
There are many more details in the McClatchy report, which I highly recommend reading. And, yes, perhaps there’s an argument that Senate staffers weren’t supposed to take such documents, but the CIA trying to spin this by saying it was those staffers who were engaged in “wrongdoing” is almost certainly going to fall flat with Congress. After all, the intelligence committee is charged with oversight of the CIA, not the other way around. “You stole the documents we were hiding from you which proved we were lying, so we spied on you to find out how you did that” is not, exactly, the kind of argument that too many people are going to find compelling.
Still, the latest is that the CIA has successfully convinced the DOJ to have the FBI kick off an investigation of the Senate staffers, rather than of the CIA breaking the law and spying on their overseers.
Of course, the CIA may still have one advantage on its side: there are still some in Congress who are so supportive of the intelligence community itself that even they will make excuses for the CIA spying on their own staff. At least that seems to be the response from Senate Intelligence vice chair Senator Saxby Chambliss, one of the most ardent defenders of the intelligence community he’s supposed to be watching over. When asked about all of this, he seemed to be a lot more concerned about the staffers supposedly taking “classified” documents than about the CIA spying on those staffers:
“I have no comment. You should talk to those folks that are giving away classified information and get their opinion,” Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said when asked about the alleged intrusions.
WASHINGTON – The CIA’s inspector general is investigating whether the agency may have been monitoring the computer usage of Senate Intelligence Committee staff members, according to articles today by The New York Times and McClatchy. The inspector general’s office has reportedly referred the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:
“If it turns out that the CIA was spying on the Senate committee that oversees the agency, it would be an outrageous violation of separation of powers. The CIA is prohibited from spying in the United States itself, and there can be few greater violations of that rule than spying on congressional staff carrying out the constitutional duty of being a check on the CIA’s powers. CIA surveillance of Congress would be another sign that the intelligence community has come to believe that they are above the law, and should get only deference from the other branches of government, not the meaningful oversight that’s required by the Constitution. Checks and balances, especially for agencies like the CIA and NSA that have many secret operations, are essential for democratic government. At the very least, these reports should spur the committee to vote quickly for the declassification and release of its full report into the CIA’s torture program so the American people can see what it is that the CIA is so eager to hide.”
In December 2012, the committee adopted a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s Bush-era rendition, secret detention, and torture program. The report concluded that abusive methods were ineffective, and the CIA wrote an extensive response, countering many of the Senate report’s conclusions. There is also a secret CIA report commissioned by former CIA Director Leon Panetta, which is reportedly consistent with the Senate report findings and contradicts the CIA’s response to the Senate report. All three reports are classified.
The US Central Intelligence Agency is seeking new drone bases in unnamed countries in Central Asia, fearing the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would affect the targeted killings in neighboring Pakistan.
The spy agency asserts that if the US fails to sign a bilateral security deal with Afghanistan and secure an enduring military presence there, it would not be able to fly drones from its Afghan bases because drone operations are covert and need US military protection.
The security deal, which Washington says “ought to be signed” and is not renegotiable, could allow thousands of US troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
However, despite pressures from the White House and Congress, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign the deal and the US intelligence community is hoping that the next Afghan president will agree to sign it.
Worried that its drone killings can become a casualty of strained relations between Kabul and Washington, the CIA is reportedly making contingency plans to use bases in other countries.
“There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north,” an unnamed US official briefed on the matter told the Los Angeles Times without specifying the countries.
According to Brian Glyn Williams, a University of Massachusetts professor, the CIA and the Pentagon used to fly drones from an airbase in Uzbekistan until the US was evicted in 2005.
Michael Nagata, commander of US special operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, also traveled last month to Tajikistan, which is Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, to discuss “issues of bilateral security cooperation” and “continued military cooperation.”
Meanwhile, US officials say a new jet-powered drone, called Avenger, which will be able to “get to ‘hot’ targets in Pakistan much faster,” could soon be flying from bases outside Afghanistan.
The CIA is in charge of drone strikes in Pakistan since the country is not officially a war zone and the CIA’s program is covert.
US President Barack Obama has already stated that the responsibility for Washington’s deadly drone attacks could gradually shift from the CIA to the Pentagon. However, the idea of putting the US military in charge of drone attacks is not favored by US lawmakers.
Over more than a decade, the rise of the left in Latin American governance has led to remarkable advances in poverty alleviation, regional integration, and a reassertion of sovereignty and independence. The United States has been antagonistic toward the new left governments, and has concurrently pursued a bellicose foreign policy, in many cases blithely dismissive of international law.
So why has Human Rights Watch (HRW)—despite proclaiming itself “one of the world’s leading independent organizations” on human rights—so consistently paralleled U.S. positions and policies? This affinity for the U.S. government agenda is not limited to Latin America. In the summer of 2013, for example, when the prospect of a unilateral U.S. missile strike on Syria—a clear violation of the UN Charter—loomed large, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth speculated as to whether a simply “symbolic” bombing would be sufficient. “If Obama decides to strike Syria, will he settle for symbolism or do something that will help protect civilians?” he asked on Twitter. Executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies John Tirman swiftly denounced the tweet as “possibly the most ignorant and irresponsible statement ever by a major human-rights advocate.”1
HRW’s accommodation to U.S. policy has also extended to renditions—the illegal practice of kidnapping and transporting suspects around the planet to be interrogated and often tortured in allied countries. In early 2009, when it was reported that the newly elected Obama administration was leaving this program intact, HRW’s then Washington advocacy director Tom Malinowski argued that “under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place” for renditions, and encouraged patience: “they want to design a system that doesn’t result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured,” he said, “but designing that system is going to take some time.”2
Similar consideration was not extended to de-facto U.S. enemy Venezuela, when, in 2012, HRW’s Americas director José Miguel Vivanco and global advocacy director Peggy Hicks wrote a letter to President Hugo Chávez arguing that his country was unfit to serve on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Councilmembers must uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, they maintained, but unfortunately, “Venezuela currently falls far short of acceptable standards.”3 Given HRW’s silence regarding U.S. membership in the same council, one wonders precisely what HRW’s acceptable standards are.
One underlying factor for HRW’s general conformity with U.S. policy was clarified on July 8, 2013, when Roth took to Twitter to congratulate his colleague Malinowski on his nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). Malinowski was poised to further human rights as a senior-level foreign-policy official for an administration that convenes weekly “Terror Tuesday” meetings. In these meetings, Obama and his staffers deliberate the meting out of extrajudicial drone assassinations around the planet, reportedly working from a secret “kill list” that has included several U.S. citizens and a 17-year-old girl.4
Malinowski’s entry into government was actually a re-entry. Prior to HRW, he had served as a speechwriter for Secretary of State Madeline Albright and for the White House’s National Security Council. He was also once a special assistant to President Bill Clinton—all of which he proudly listed in his HRW biography. During his Senate confirmation hearing on September 24, Malinowski promised to “deepen the bipartisan consensus for America’s defense of liberty around the world,” and assured the Foreign Relations Committee that no matter where the U.S. debate on Syria led, “the mere fact that we are having it marks our nation as exceptional.”5
That very day, Obama stood before the UN General Assembly and declared, “some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional.” Assuming that by “exceptional” Obama meant exceptionally benevolent, one of those who disagreed was Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who had opened the proceedings at the same podium by excoriating Obama’s “global network of electronic espionage,” which she considered a “disrespect to national sovereignty” and a “grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties.” Rousseff contrasted Washington’s rogue behavior with her characterization of Brazil as a country that has “lived in peace with our neighbors for more than 140 years.” Brazil and its neighbors, she argued, were “democratic, pacific and respectful of international law.”6 Rousseff’s speech crystallized Latin America’s broad opposition to U.S. exceptionalism, and therefore shed light on the left’s mutually antagonistic relationship with HRW.
Malinowski’s background is but one example of a larger scenario. HRW’s institutional culture is shaped by its leadership’s intimate links to various arms of the U.S. government. In her HRW biography, the vice chair of HRW’s board of directors, Susan Manilow, describes herself as “a longtime friend to Bill Clinton,” and helped manage his campaign finances. (HRW once signed a letter to Clinton advocating the prosecution of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes; HRW made no case for holding Clinton accountable for NATO’s civilian-killing bombings despite concluding that they constituted “violations of international humanitarian law.”)7 Bruce Rabb, also on Human Rights Watch’s Board of Directors, advertises in his biography that he “served as staff assistant to President Richard Nixon” from 1969-70—the period in which that administration secretly and illegally carpet bombed Cambodia and Laos.8
The advisory committee for HRW’s Americas Division has even boasted the presence of a former Central Intelligence Agency official, Miguel Díaz. According to his State Department biography, Díaz served as a CIA analyst and also provided “oversight of U.S. intelligence activities in Latin America” for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.9 As of 2012, Díaz focused, as he once did for the CIA, on Central America for the State Department’s DRL—the same bureau now to be supervised by Malinowski.
Other HRW associates have similarly questionable backgrounds: Myles Frechette, currently an advisory committee member for the Americas Division, served as Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean from 1990-93, and then became U.S. Ambassador to Colombia from 1994-97. Frechette subsequently worked as the executive director of a “nonprofit” group called the North American-Peruvian Business Council, and championed the interests of his funders in front of Congress. His organization received financing from companies such as Newmont Mining, Barrick Gold, Caterpillar, Continental Airlines, J.P. Morgan, ExxonMobil, Patton Boggs, and Texaco.10
Michael Shifter, who also currently serves on HRW’s Americas advisory committee, directed the Latin America and Caribbean program for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental entity whose former acting president Allen Weinstein told The Washington Post in 1991 that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”11 Shifter, as current president of a policy center called the Inter-American Dialogue, oversees $4 million a year in programming, financed in part through donations from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the embassies of Canada, Germany, Guatemala, Mexico and Spain, and corporations such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, J.P. Morgan, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Boeing, and Western Union.
To be sure, not all of the organization’s leadership has been so involved in dubious political activities. Many HRW board members are simply investment bankers, like board co-chairs Joel Motley of Public Capital Advisors, LLC, and Hassan Elmasry, of Independent Franchise Partners, LLP. HRW Vice Chair John Studzinski is a senior managing director at The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm founded by Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire who has passionately sought to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. And although Julien J. Studley, the Vice Chair of the Americas advisory committee, once served in the U.S. Army’s psychological warfare unit, he is now just another wealthy real-estate tycoon in New York.
That HRW’s advocacy reflects its institutional makeup is unremarkable. Indeed, an examination of its positions on Latin America demonstrates the group’s predictable, general conformity with U.S. interests. Consider, for example, HRW’s reaction to the death of Hugo Chávez. Within hours of his passing on March 5, 2013, HRW published an overview—“Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy”—to enormous online response. In accordance with its headline’s misleading terminology, HRW never once mentioned Chávez’s democratic bona fides: Since 1998, he had triumphed in 14 of 15 elections or referenda, all of which were deemed free and fair by international monitors. Chávez’s most recent reelection boasted an 81% participation rate; former president Jimmy Carter described the voting process as “the best in the world.”12 The article neglected to cite a single positive aspect of Chávez’s tenure, under which poverty was slashed by half and infant mortality by a third.
In contrast, HRW’s August 21, 2012 statement regarding the death of Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi was decidedly more muted: “Ethiopia: Transition Should Support Human Rights Reform,” read the headline. Leslie Lefkow, HRW’s deputy Africa director, urged the country’s new leadership to “reassure Ethiopians by building on Meles’s positive legacy while reversing his government’s most pernicious policies.” Regarding a leader whose two-decade rule had none of Chávez’s democratic legitimacy (HRW itself documented Ethiopia’s repressive and unfair elections in both 2005 and 2010), the organization argued only that “Meles leaves a mixed legacy on human rights.”13 Whereas HRW omitted all mention of Chávez-era social improvements, it wrote, “Under [Meles’s] leadership the country has experienced significant, albeit uneven, economic development and progress.”
The explanation for this discrepancy is obvious: as a New York Times obituary reported, Meles was “one of the United States government’s closest African allies.” Although “widely considered one of Africa’s most repressive governments,” wrote the Times, Ethiopia “continues to receive more than $800 million in American aid each year. American officials have said that the Ethiopian military and security services are among the Central Intelligence Agency’s favorite partners.”14
HRW has taken its double standard to cartoonish heights throughout Latin America. At a 2009 NED Democracy Award Roundtable, José Miguel Vivanco described Cuba, not the United States, as “one of our countries in the hemisphere that is perhaps the one that has today the worst human-rights record in the region.” As evidence, he listed Cuba’s “long- and short-term detentions with no due process, physical abuse [and] surveillance”—as though these were not commonplace U.S. practices, even (ironically) at Guantánamo Bay.15 Vivanco was also quoted in late 2013, claiming at an Inter-American Dialogue event that the “gravest setbacks to freedom of association and expression in Latin America have taken place in Ecuador”—not in Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country for trade union leaders, or in Honduras, the region’s deadliest country for journalists (both, incidentally, U.S. allies).16
Latin America scholars are sounding the alarm: New York University history professor Greg Grandin recently described HRW as “Washington’s adjunct” in The Nation magazine.17 And when Vivanco publicly stated that “we did [our 2008] report because we wanted to show the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone,” over 100 academics wrote to the HRW’s directors, lamenting the “great loss to civil society when we can no longer trust a source such as Human Rights Watch to conduct an impartial investigation and draw conclusions based on verifiable facts.”18
HRW’s deep ties to U.S. corporate and state sectors should disqualify the institution from any public pretense of independence. Such a claim is indeed untenable given the U.S.-headquartered organization’s status as a revolving door for high-level governmental bureaucrats. Stripping itself of the “independent” label would allow HRW’s findings and advocacy to be more accurately evaluated, and its biases more clearly recognized.
In Latin America, there is a widespread awareness of Washington’s ability to deflect any outside attempts to constrain its prerogative to use violence and violate international law. The past three decades alone have seen U.S. military invasions of Grenada and Panama, a campaign of international terrorism against Nicaragua, and support for coup governments in countries such as Venezuela, Haiti, Honduras, and Guatemala. If HRW is to retain credibility in the region, it must begin to extricate itself from elite spheres of U.S. decision-making and abandon its institutional internalization of U.S. exceptionalism. Implementing a clear prohibition to retaining staff and advisers who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy would be an important first step. At the very least, HRW can institute lengthy “cooling-off” periods—say, five years in duration—before and after its associates move between the organization and the government.
After all, HRW’s Malinowski will be directly subordinate to Secretary of State John Kerry, who conveyed the U.S. attitude toward Latin America in a way that only an administrator of a superpower could. In an April 17, 2013 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, a member of Congress asked Kerry whether the United States should prioritize “the entire region as opposed to just focusing on one country, since they seem to be trying to work together closer than ever before.” Kerry reassured him of the administration’s global vision. “Look,” he said. “The Western Hemisphere is our backyard. It is critical to us.”19
1. Kenneth Roth, followed by John Tirman’s response, Twitter, August 25, 3013, http://twitter.com/KenRoth/status/371797912210407424.
2. Greg Miller, “Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool,” Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2009.
3. José Miguel Vivanco and Peggy Hicks, “Letter to President Chavez on Venezuela’s Candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council,” Human Rights Watch, November 9, 2012.
4. Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012.
5. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Statement for the Record by Tom Malinowski,” September 24, 2013.
6. “Text of Obama’s Speech at the U.N.,” The New York Times, September 24, 2013. Statement by H.E. Dilma Rousseff, United Nations, September 24, 2013.
7. Human Rights Watch, “Major Rights Groups Oppose Immunity for Milosevic,” October 6, 2000. HRW, “New Figures on Civilian Deaths in Kosovo War,” Februrary 8, 2000.
8. Human Rights Watch, “Board of Directors,” www.hrw.org, accessed November 16, 2013.
9. U.S. Department of State, “Franklin Fellows Alumni,” September 8, 2011, http://careers.state.gov/ff/meet-the-fellows/franklin-fellows/miguel-diaz, accessed November 16, 2013.
10. Ways and Means Committee, “Statement of Myles Frechette, the North American Peruvian Business Council,” U.S. House of Representatives, May 8, 2001.
11. David Ignatius, “Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups,” The Washington Post, September 22, 1991.
12. Keane Bhatt, “A Hall of Shame for Venezuelan Elections Coverage,” Manufacturing Contempt (blog), nacla.org, October 8, 2012.
13. Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopia: Government Repression Undermines Poll,” May 24, 2010.
14. Jeffrey Gettleman, “Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dies at 57,” The New York Times, August 22, 2012.
15. National Endowment for Democracy, “José Miguel Vivanco: 2009 NED Democracy Award Roundtable,” Youtube.com, Jun 29, 2009.
16. Eva Saiz, “Indígenas de Ecuador denuncian en EEUU la norma de libre asociación de Correa,” El Pais, October 28, 2013.
17. Greg Grandin, “The Winner of Venezuela’s Election to Succeed Hugo Chávez Is Hugo Chávez,” The Nation, April 16, 2013.
18. Venezuelanalysis.com, “More Than 100 Latin America Experts Question Human Rights Watch’s Venezuela Report,” December 17, 2008.
19. Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, “Hearing: Securing U.S. Interests Abroad: The FY 2014 Foreign Affairs Budget,” April 17, 2013.
By Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham | January 21, 2009
Here we build a prima facae case supporting the idea that Hollywood continues to be a target for infiltration and subversion by a variety of state agencies, in particular the CIA. Academic debates on cinematic propaganda are almost entirely retrospective, and whilst a number of commentators have drawn attention to Hollywood’s longstanding and open relationship with the Pentagon, little of substance has been written about the more clandestine influences working through Hollywood in the post-9/11 world. As such, our work delves into the field of what Peter Dale Scott calls “deep politics”; namely, activities which cannot currently be fully understood due to the covert influence of shadowy power players.
The Latest Picture
A variety of state agencies have liaison offices in Hollywood today, from the FBI, to NASA and the Secret Service. Few of these agencies, though, have much to offer in exchange for favourable storylines, and so their influence in Hollywood is minimal. The major exception here is the Department of Defense, which has an ‘open’ but barely publicized relationship with Tinsel Town, whereby, in exchange for advice, men and invaluable equipment, such as aircraft carriers and helicopters, the Pentagon routinely demands flattering script alterations. Examples of this policy include changing the true identity of a heroic military character in Black Hawk Down (2001) due to his real-life status as a child rapist; the removal of a joke about “losing Vietnam” from the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and cutting images of Marines taking gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers in Windtalkers (2002). Instances such as these are innumerable, and the Pentagon has granted its coveted “full cooperation” to a long list of contemporary pictures including Top Gun (1986), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Air Force One (1997), The Sum of All Fears (2002), Transformers (2007), Iron Man (2008), as well as TV series such as JAG (1995-2005).
Such government activity, whilst morally dubious and barely advertised, has at least occurred within the public domain. This much cannot be said of the CIA’s dealings with Hollywood, which, until recently, went largely unacknowledged by the Agency. In 1996, the CIA announced with little fanfare the dry remit of its newly established Media Liaison Office, headed by veteran operative Chase Brandon. As part of its new stance, the CIA would now openly collaborate on Hollywood productions, supposedly in a strictly ‘advisory’ capacity.
The Agency’s decision to work publicly with Hollywood was preceded by the 1991 “Task Force Report on Greater CIA Openness,” compiled by CIA Director Robert Gates’ newly appointed ‘Openness Task Force,’ which secretly debated –ironically– whether the Agency should be less secretive. The report acknowledges that the CIA “now has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation,” and the authors of the report note that this helped them “turn some ‘intelligence failure’ stories into ‘intelligence success’ stories, and has contributed to the accuracy of countless others.” It goes on to reveal that the CIA has in the past “persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests…”
These admissions add weight to several reports and Congressional hearings from the 1970s which indicated that the CIA once maintained a deep-rooted and covert presence in national and international media, informally dubbed “Operation Mockingbird.” In its 1991 report, the CIA acknowledged that it had, in fact, “reviewed some film scripts about the Agency, documentary and fictional, at the request of filmmakers seeking guidance on accuracy and authenticity.” But the report is at pains to state that, although the CIA has “facilitated the filming of a few scenes on Agency premises,” it does “not seek to play a role in filmmaking ventures.” But it seems highly implausible that the CIA, whilst maintaining a decades-long presence in media and academia, would have shown no interest in the hugely influential Cinema industry.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the CIA has been involved in a number of recent blockbusters and TV series.The 2001 CBS TV series, The Agency, executive produced by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) was actually co-written by ex-CIA agent and Marine Bazzel Baz, with additional ex-CIA agents working as consultants. The CIA gladly opened its doors to the production, and facilitated both external and internal shots of its Langley headquarters as the camera gazed lovingly at the CIA seal. This arrangement was comparable to the Feds’ efforts on the popular TV series The FBI (1965-74) which was shaped by the Bureau in cooperation with ABC and which thanked J. Edgar Hoover in the credits of each episode. Similarly, The Agency glorified the actions of US spooks as they fought predictable villains including the Russian military, Arab and German terrorists, Columbian drug dealers, and Iraqis. One episode even shows the CIA saving the life of Fidel Castro; ironically, since the CIA in real life had made repeated attempts to assassinate the Cuban President. Promos for the show traded on 9/11, which had occurred just prior to its premiere, with tag lines like “Now, more than ever, we need the CIA.”
A TV movie, In the Company of Spies (1999) starring Tom Berenger depicted a retired CIA operative returning to duty to save captured Agency officers held by North Korea. The CIA was so enthusiastic about this product that it hosted its presentation, cooperated during production, facilitated filming at Langley, and provided fifty off-duty officers as extras, according to its website.
Espionage novelist Tom Clancy has enjoyed an especially close relationship with the CIA. In 1984, Clancy was invited to Langley after writing The Hunt for Red October, which was later turned into the 1990 film. The Agency invited him again when he was working on Patriot Games (1992), and the movie adaptation was, in turn,granted access to Langley facilities. More recently, The Sum of All Fears (2002) depicted the CIA as tracking down terrorists who detonate a nuclear weapon on US soil. For this production, CIA director George Tenet gave the filmmakers a personal tour of the Langley HQ; the film’s star, Ben Affleck also consulted with Agency analysts, and Chase Brandon served as on-set advisor.
Media sources indicate that the CIA also worked on the Anthony Hopkins/Chris Rock feature Bad Company (2002) and the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster Enemy of the State (2001). However, no details whatsoever about these appear to be in the public domain. Similarly, Spy Game director Tony Scott’s DVD commentary for said film indicates that he visited Langley whilst in pre-production but, according to one report, endorsement appeared to have been withheld after Chase Brandon read the final draft of the script.
More details than usual emerged about CIA involvement in the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilsons War (2007) and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006) – but not many. Milt Beardon had traveled to the Moscow Film Festival with De Niro and claims the pair then “disappeared and hung out with the mob and KGB crowd for a while. I introduced him to generals and colonels, the old guys I had been locked with for so many years.” De Niro later tagged along with Beardon to Pakistan. “We wandered around the North-West Frontier Province,” Bearden recalls, “crossed the bridge [to Afghanistan] I built years ago, hung out with a bunch of guys firing off machine guns and drinking tea.” Still, The Good Shepherd didn’t fulfill the CIA’s earnest hopes of being the CIA equivalent of Flags of Our Fathers (2006), which the Agency’s official historian says it should have been – all in the interests of what he calls a “culture of truth.”
Charlie Wilson’s War depicted the United States’ covert efforts to supply arms to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s which had the real-life consequence of America’s old ally turned against it in the form of al-Qaeda (as Crile explains in the book of the film). However, Beardon, who was the CIA agent who supplied the weapons, worked as consultant on the film and said prior to its release that it “will put aside the notion that because we did that, we had 9/11.” CIA involvement in the film therefore appears to have paid dividends.
The real reasons for the CIA adopting an “advisory” role on all of these productions are thrown into sharp relief by a solitary comment from former Associate General Counsel to the CIA, Paul Kelbaugh. In 2007, whilst at a College in Virginia, Kelbaugh delivered a lecture on the CIA’s relationship with Hollywood, at which a local journalist was present. The journalist (who now wishes to remain anonymous) wrote a review of the lecture which related Kelbaugh’s discussion of the 2003 thriller The Recruit, starring Al Pacino. The review noted that, according to Kelbaugh, a CIA agent was on set for the duration of the shoot under the guise of a consultant, but that his real job was to misdirect the filmmakers: “We didn’t want Hollywood getting too close to the truth,” the journalist quoted Kelbaugh as saying.
Peculiarly, in a strongly-worded email to the authors, Kelbaugh emphatically denied having made the public statement and claimed that he remembered “very specific discussions with senior [CIA] management that no one was ever to misrepresent to affect [film] content – EVER.” The journalist considers Kelbaugh’s denial “weird,” and told us that “after the story came out, he [Kelbaugh] emailed me and loved it… I think maybe it’s just that because [the lecture] was ‘just in Lynchburg’ he was okay with it – you know, like, no one in Lynchburg is really going to pay much attention to it, I guess. Maybe that’s why he said it, and maybe that’s why he’s denying it now.” The journalist stands by the original report, and Kelbaugh has pointedly refused to engage us in further discussion on the matter.
Clandestine agencies have a long history of interference in the cinema industry. Letters discovered in the Eisenhower Presidential Library from the secret agent Luigi G. Luraschi (identified by British academic John Eldridge), the Paramount executive who worked for the CIA’s Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), reveal just how far the CIA was able to reach into the film industry in the early days of the Cold War, despite its claims that it sought no such influence. For instance, Luraschi reported that he had secured the agreement of several casting directors to subtly plant “well dressed negroes” into films, including “a dignified negro butler” who has lines “indicating he is a free man” in Sangaree (1953) and in a golf club scene in the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle The Caddy (1953). Elsewhere, CIA arranged the removal of key scenes from the film Arrowhead (1953), which questioned America’s treatment of Apache Indians, including a sequence where a tribe is forcibly shipped and tagged by the US Army. Such changes were not part of a ham-fisted campaign to instill what we now call “political correctness” in the populace. Rather, they were specifically enacted to hamper the Soviets’ ability to exploit its enemy’s poor record in race relations and served to create a peculiarly anodyne impression of America, which was, at that time, still mired in an era of racial segregation.
Other efforts were made. The PSB tried –unsuccessfully– to commission Frank Capra to direct Why We Fight the Cold War and to provide details to filmmakers about conditions in the USSR in the hope that they would use them in their movies. More successfully, in 1950, the CIA –along with other secretive organizations like the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) and aided by the PSB– bought the rights to and invested in the cartoon of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1954), which was given an anti-Soviet spin to satisfy its covert investors. Author Daniel Leab has pointed to the fact it took decades for the rumours about CIA involvement in Animal Farm to be properly documented; this, he observes, “Speaks volumes about the ability of a government agency to keep its activities covert.”
Additionally, the production of the Michael Redgrave feature Nineteen-Eighty Four (1956) was in turn overseen by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, which was supervised by the CIA. Key points in the movie were altered to demonise the Soviets.
The CIA also tampered with the 1958 film version of The Quiet American, provoking the author, Graham Greene, to denounce the film. US Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale, the CIA operative behind Operation Mongoose (the CIA sabotage and assassination campaign against Cuba) had entered into production correspondence with director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who accepted his ideas. These included a change to the final scene in which we learn that Redgrave’s anti-hero has been hoodwinked by the Communists into murdering the suspicious American, who turns out not to be a bomb-maker as we had been led to believe, but instead a manufacturer of children’s toys.
Behind the Scenes
It would be a mistake to regard the CIA as unique in its involvement in Hollywood. The industry is in fact fundamentally open to manipulation by a range of state agencies. In 2000, it emerged that the White House’s drug war officers had spent tens of millions of dollars paying the major US networks to inject anti-drug plots into the scripts of primetime series such as ER, The Practice, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Chicago Hope. Despite criticism for this blatant propagandizing, the government continued to employ this method of spreading its message on drugs.
The White House went to Tinsel Town again the following year when, on November 11, 2001 a meeting was held in Hollywood between President Bush’s then Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, and representatives of each of the major Hollywood studios to discuss how the film industry might contribute to the ‘War on Terror.’ Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America said with a straight face that, “content was off the table”, but Rove had clearly outlined a series of requests. It is hard to gauge the consequences of the meeting, but a Rambo sequel, for instance, was certainly discussed, and duly produced. Similarly, several series with national security themes emerged within a short time of the meeting including She Spies (2002-2004) and Threat Matrix (2003).
The meeting was, in fact, just one in a series between Hollywood and the White House from October to December, 2001. On October 17, in response to 9/11, the White House announced the formation of its “Arts and Entertainment Task Force,” and by November, Valenti had assumed leadership of Hollywood’s new role in the ‘War on Terror’. As a direct result of meetings, Congress sought advice from Hollywood insiders on how to shape an effective wartime message to America and to the world. In November 2001, John Romano, writer-producer of the popular US TV series Third Watch, advised the House International Relations Committee that the content of Hollywood productions was a key part of shaping foreign perceptions of America.
On December 5, 2001, the powerful Academy of Television Arts & Sciences convened its own panel entitled “Hollywood Goes to War?” to discuss what the industry might do in response to 9/11. Representing the government at the meeting were Mark McKinnon, a White House advisor, and the Pentagon’s chief entertainment liaison, Phil Strub. Also in attendance, among others, were Jeff Zucker, President of NBC Entertainment, and Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of the White House drama The West Wing (1999-2006). Immediately after, Sorkin and his team set about producing a special episode of the show dealing with a massive terrorist threat to America entitled “Isaac and Ishmael”. The episode was given top priority and was successfully completed and aired within just ten days of the meeting. The product championed the superiority of American values whilst brimming with rage against the Islamist jihadists.
The interlocking of Hollywood and national security apparatuses remains as tight as ever: ex-CIA agent Bob Baer told us, “There’s a symbiosis between the CIA and Hollywood” and revealed that former CIA director George Tenet is currently, “out in Hollywood, talking to studios.” Baer’s claims are given weight by the Sun Valley meetings, annual get-togethers in Idaho’s Sun Valley in which several hundred of the biggest names in American media –including every major Hollywood studio executive– convene to discuss collective media strategy for the coming year. Against the idyllic backdrop of expansive golf courses, pine forests and clear fishing lakes, deals are struck, contracts are signed, and the face of the American media is quietly altered. The press has yet to be granted permission to report on these corporate media gatherings and so the exact nature of what is discussed at the events has never been publicly disclosed. It is known, however, that Tenet was keynote speaker at Sun Valley in 2003 (whilst still CIA head) and again in 2005.
Many would recoil at the thought of modern Hollywood cinema being used as a propagandist tool, but the facts seem to speak for themselves. Do agencies such as the CIA have the power, like the Pentagon, to affect movie content by providing much-sought-after expertise, locations and other benefits? Or are they able to affect script changes through simple persuasion, or even coercion? Do they continue to carry out covert actions in Hollywood as they did so extensively in the 1950s, and, beyond cinema, might covert government influence play some part in the creation of national security messages in TV series such as 24 and Alias (the star of the latter, Jennifer Garner, even made an unpaid recruitment video for the CIA)? The notion that covert agencies aspire to be more open is hard to take seriously when they provide such scant information about their role within the media, even regarding activities from decades past. The spy may have come in from the cold, but he continues to shelter in the shadows of the movie theatre.
In ancient Rome, especially during the late Republic, oligarchs resorted to mob violence to block, intimidate, assassinate or drive from power the dominant faction in the Senate. While neither the ruling or opposing factions represented the interests of the plebeians, wage workers, small farmers or slaves, the use of the ‘mob’ against the elected Senate, the principle of representative government and the republican form of government laid the groundwork for the rise of authoritarian “Caesars” (military rulers) and the transformation of the Roman republic into an imperial state.
Demagogues, in the pay of aspiring emperors, aroused the passions of a motley array of disaffected slum dwellers, loafers and petty thieves (ladrones) with promises, pay-offs and positions in a New Order. Professional mob organizers cultivated their ties with the oligarchs ‘above’ and with professional demonstrators ‘below’. They voiced ‘popular grievances’ and articulated demands questioning the legitimacy of the incumbent rulers, while laying the groundwork for the rule by the few. Usually, when the pay-master oligarchs came to power on a wave of demagogue-led mob violence, they quickly suppressed the demonstrations, paid off the demagogues with patronage jobs in the new regime or resorted to a discrete assassination for ‘street leaders’ unwilling to recognize the new order’. The new rulers purged the old Senators into exile, expulsion and dispossession, rigged new elections and proclaimed themselves ‘saviors of the republic’. They proceeded to drive peasants from their land, renounce social obligations and stop food subsidies for poor urban families and funds for public works.
The use of mob violence and “mass revolts” to serve the interests of oligarchical and imperial powers against democratically-elected governments has been a common strategy in recent times.
Throughout the ages, the choreographed “mass revolt” played many roles: (1) it served to destabilize an electoral regime; (2) it provided a platform for its oligarch funders to depose an incumbent regime; (3) it disguised the fact that the oligarchic opposition had lost democratic elections; (4) it provided a political minority with a ‘fig-leaf of legitimacy’ when it was otherwise incapable of acting within a constitutional framework and (5) it allowed for the illegitimate seizure of power in the name of a pseudo ‘majority’, namely the “crowds in the central plaza”.
Some leftist commentators have argued two contradictory positions: On the one hand, some simply reduce the oligarchy’s power grab to an ‘inter-elite struggle’ which has nothing to do with the ‘interests of the working class’, while others maintain the ‘masses’ in the street are protesting against an “elitist regime”. A few even argue that with popular, democratic demands, these revolts are progressive, should be supported as “terrain for class struggle”. In other words, the ‘left’ should join the uprising and contest the oligarchs for leadership within the stage-managed revolts!
What progressives are unwilling to recognize is that the oligarchs orchestrating the mass revolt are authoritarians who completely reject democratic procedures and electoral processes. Their aim is to establish a ‘junta’, which will eliminate all democratic political and social institutions and freedoms and impose harsher, more repressive and regressive policies and institutions than those they replace. Some leftists support the ‘masses in revolt’ simply because of their ‘militancy’, their numbers and street courage, without examining the underlying leaders, their interests and links to the elite beneficiaries of a ‘regime change’.
All the color-coded “mass revolts” in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR featured popular leaders who exhorted the masses in the name of ‘independence and democracy’ but were pro-NATO, pro-(Western) imperialists and linked to neo-liberal elites. Upon the fall of communism, the new oligarchs privatized and sold off the most lucrative sectors of the economy throwing millions out of work, dismantled the welfare state and handed over their military bases to NATO for the stationing of foreign troops and the placement of missiles aimed at Russia.
The entire ‘anti-Stalinist’ left in the US and Western Europe, with a few notable exceptions, celebrated these oligarch-controlled revolts in Eastern Europe and some even participated as minor accomplices in the post-revolt neo-liberal regimes. One clear reason for the demise of “Western Marxism” arose from its inability to distinguish a genuine popular democratic revolt from a mass uprising funded and stage-managed by rival oligarchs!
One of the clearest recent examples of a manipulated ‘people’s power’ revolution in the streets to replace an elected representative of one sector of the elite with an even more brutal, authoritarian ‘president’ occurred in early 2001 in the Philippines. The more popular and independent (but notoriously corrupt) President Joseph Estrada, who had challenged sectors of the Philippine elite and current US foreign policy (infuriating Washington by embracing Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez), was replaced through street demonstrations of middle-class matrons with soldiers in civvies by Gloria Makapagal-Arroyo. Mrs. Makapagal-Arroyo, who had close links to the US and the Philippine military, unleashed a horrific wave of brutality dubbed the ‘death-squad democracy’. The overthrow of Estrada was actively supported by the left, including sectors of the revolutionary left, who quickly found themselves the target of an unprecedented campaign of assassinations, disappearances, torture and imprisonment by their newly empowered ‘Madame President’.
Past and Present Mass Revolts Against Democracy: Guatemala, Iran, and Chile
The use of mobs and mass uprisings by oligarchs and empire builders has a long and notorious history. Three of the bloodiest cases, which scarred their societies for decades, took place in Guatemala in 1954, Iran in 1953, and Chile in 1973.
Democratically-elected Jacobo Árbenz was the first Guatemalan President to initiate agrarian reform and legalize trade unions, especially among landless farm workers. Árbenz’s reforms included the expropriation of unused, fallow land owned by the United Fruit Company, a giant US agro-business conglomerate. The CIA used its ties to local oligarchs and right-wing generals and colonels to instigate and finance mass-protests against a phony ‘communist-takeover’ of Guatemala under President Arbenz. The military used the manipulated mob violence and the ‘threat’ of Guatemala becoming a “Soviet satellite”, to stage a bloody coup. The coup leaders received air support from the CIA and slaughtered thousands of Arbenz supporters and turned the countryside into ‘killing fields’. For the next 50 years political parties, trade unions and peasant organizations were banned, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were murdered and millions were displaced.
In 1952 Mohammed Mossadegh was elected president of Iran on a moderate nationalist platform, after the overthrow of the brutal monarch. Mossadegh announced the nationalization of the petroleum industry. The CIA, with the collaboration of the local oligarchs, monarchists and demagogues organized ‘anti-communist’ street mobs to stage violent demonstrations providing the pretext for a monarchist- military coup. The CIA-control Iranian generals brought Shah Reza Pahlavi back from Switzerland and for the next 26 years Iran was a monarchist-military dictatorship, whose population was terrorized by the Savak, the murderous secret police.
The US oil companies received the richest oil concessions; the Shah joined Israel and the US in an unholy alliance against progressive nationalist dissidents and worked hand-in-hand to undermine independent Arab states. Tens of thousands of Iranians were killed, tortured and driven into exile. In 1979, a mass popular uprising led by Islamic movements, nationalist and socialist parties and trade unions drove out the Shah-Savak dictatorship. The Islamists installed a radical nationalist clerical regime, which retains power to this day despite decades of a US-CIA-funded destabilization campaign which has funded both terrorist groups and dissident liberal movements.
Chile is the best-known case of CIA-financed mob violence leading to a military coup. In 1970, the democratic socialist Dr. Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. Despite CIA efforts to buy votes to block Congressional approval of the electoral results and its manipulation of violent demonstrations and an assassination campaign to precipitate a military coup, Allende took office.
During Allende’s tenure as president the CIA financed a variety of “direct actions” –from paying the corrupt leaders of a copper workers union to stage strikes and the truck owners associations to refuse to transport goods to the cities, to manipulating right-wing terrorist groups like the Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Liberty) in their assassination campaigns. The CIA’s destabilization program was specifically designed to provoke economic instability through artificial shortages and rationing, in order to incite middle class discontent. This was made notorious by the street demonstrations of pot-banging housewives. The CIA sought to incite a military coup through economic chaos. Thousands of truck owners were paid not to drive their trucks leading to shortages in the cities, while right-wing terrorists blew up power stations plunging neighborhoods into darkness and shop owners who refused to join the ‘strike’ against Allende were vandalized. On September 11, 1973, to the chants of ‘Jakarta’ (in celebration of a 1964 CIA coup in Indonesia), a junta of US-backed Chilean generals grabbed power from an elected government. Tens of thousands of activists and government supporters were arrested, tortured, forced into exile or killed. The dictatorship denationalized and privatized its mining, banking and manufacturing sectors, following the free market dictates of Milton Friedman-trained economists (the so-call “Chicago Boys”). The dictatorship overturned 40 years of welfare, labor and land-reform legislation which had made Chile the most socially advanced country in Latin America. With the generals in power, Chile became the ‘neo-liberal model’ for Latin America. Mob violence and the so-called “middle class revolt”, led to the consolidation of oligarchic and imperial rule and a 17-year reign of terror under General Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. The whole society was brutalized and with the return of electoral politics, even former ‘leftist’ parties retained the dictatorship’s neo-liberal economic policies, its authoritarian constitution and the military high command. The ‘revolt of the middle class’ in Chile resulted in the greatest concentration of wealth in the hands of the oligarchs in Latin America to this day!
The Contemporary Use and Abuse of “Mass Revolts”: Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Argentina
In recent years “mass revolt” has become the instrument of choice when oligarchs, generals and other empire builders seek ‘regime change’. By enlisting an assortment of nationalist demagogues and imperial-funded NGO ‘leaders’, they set the conditions for the overthrow of democratically elected governments and stage-manage the installment of their own “free market” regimes with dubious “democratic” credentials.
Not all the elected regimes under siege are progressive. Many ‘democracies’, like the Ukraine, are ruled by one set of oligarchs. In the Ukraine, the elite supporting President Viktor Yanukovich, decided that entering into a deep client-state relationship with the European Union was not in their interests, and sought to diversify their international trade partners while maintaining lucrative ties with Russia. Their opponents, who are currently behind the street demonstrations in Kiev, advocate a client relationship with the EU, stationing of NATO troops, and cutting ties with Russia. In Thailand, the democratically-elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, represents a section of the economic elite with ties and support in the rural areas, especially the North-East, as well as deep trade relations with China. The opponents are urban-based, closer to the military-monarchists and favor a straight neo-liberal agenda linked to the US against the rural patronage-populist agenda of Ms. Shinawatra.
Egypt’s democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi government pursued a moderate Islamist policy with some constraints on the military and a loosening of ties with Israel in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. In terms of the IMF, Morsi sought compromise. The Morsi regime was in flux when it was overthrown: not Islamist nor secular, not pro-worker but also not pro-military. Despite all of its different pressure groups and contradictions, the Morsi regime permitted labor strikes, demonstrations, opposition parties, freedom of the press and assembly. All of these democratic freedoms have disappeared after waves of ‘mass street revolts’, choreographed by the military, set the conditions for the generals to take power and establish their brutal dictatorship – jailing and torturing tens of thousands and outlawing all opposition parties.
Mass demonstrations and demagogue-led direct actions also actively target democratically elected progressive governments, like Venezuela and Argentina, in addition to the actions against conservative democracies cited above. Venezuela, under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Vicente Maduro advances an anti-imperialist, pro-socialist program. ‘Mob revolts’ are combined with waves of assassinations, sabotage of public utilities, artificial shortages of essential commodities, vicious media slander and opposition election campaigns funded from the outside. In 2002, Washington teamed up with its collaborator politicians, Miami and Caracas-based oligarchs and local armed gangs, to mount a “protest movement” as the pretext for a planned business-military coup. The generals and members of the elite seized power and deposed and arrested the democratically-elected President Chavez. All avenues of democratic expression and representation were closed and the constitution annulled. In response to the kidnapping of ‘their president’, over a million Venezuelans spontaneously mobilized and marched upon the Presidential palace to demand the restoration of democracy and Hugo Chavez to the presidency. Backed by the large pro-democracy and pro-constitution sectors of the Venezuelan armed forces, the mass protests led to the coup’s defeat and the return of Chavez and democracy. All democratic governments facing manipulated imperial-oligarchic financed mob revolts should study the example of Venezuela’s defeat of the US-oligarch-generals’ coup. The best defense for democracy is found in the organization, mobilization and political education of the electoral majority. It is not enough to participate in free elections; an educated and politicized majority must also know how to defend their democracy in the streets as well as at the ballot box.
The lessons of the 2002 coup-debacle were very slowly absorbed by the Venezuelan oligarchy and their US patrons who continued to destabilize the economy in an attempt to undermine democracy and seize power. Between December 2002 and February 2003, corrupt senior oil executives of the nominally ‘public’ oil company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) organized a ‘bosses’ lockout stopping production, export and local distribution of oil and refined petroleum products. Corrupt trade union officials, linked to the US National Endowment for Democracy, mobilized oil workers and other employees to support the lock-out, in their attempt to paralyze the economy. The government responded by mobilizing the other half of the oil workers who, together with a significant minority of middle management, engineers and technologists, called on the entire Venezuelan working class to take the oil fields and installations from the ‘bosses’. To counter the acute shortage of gasoline, President Chavez secured supplies from neighboring countries and overseas allies. The lockout was defeated. Several thousand supporters of the executive power grab were fired and replaced by pro-democracy managers and workers.
Having failed to overthrow the democratic government via “mass revolts”, the oligarchs turned toward a plebiscite on Chavez’ rule and later called for a nation-wide electoral boycott, both of which were defeated. These defeats served to strengthen Venezuela’s democratic institutions and decreased the presence of opposition legislators in the Congress. The repeated failures of the elite to grab power led to a new multi-pronged strategy using: (1) US-funded NGO’s to exploit local grievances and mobilize residents around community issues; (2) clandestine thugs to sabotage utilities, especially power, assassinate peasant recipients of land reform titles, as well as prominent officials and activists; (3) mass electoral campaign marches, and (4) economic destabilization via financial speculation, illegal foreign exchange trading, price gouging and hoarding of basic consumer commodities. The purpose of these measures is to incite mass discontent, using their control of the mass media to provoke another ‘mass revolt’ to set the stage for another US-backed ‘power grab’. Violent street protests by middle class students from the elite Central University were organized by oligarch-financed demagogues. ‘Demonstrations’ included sectors of the middle class and urban poor angered by the artificial shortages and power outages. The sources of popular discontent were rapidly and effectively addressed at the top by energetic government measures: business owners engaged in hoarding and price gouging were jailed; prices of essential staples were reduced; hoarded goods were seized from warehouses and distributed to the poor; the import of essential goods was increased and saboteurs were pursued. The Government’s effective intervention resonated with the mass of the working class, the lower-middle class and the rural and urban poor and restored their support. Government supporters took to the streets and lined up at the ballot box to defeat the campaign of destabilization. The government won a resounding electoral mandate allowing it to move decisively against the oligarchs and their backers in Washington.
The Venezuelan experience shows how energetic government counter-measures can restore support and deepen progressive social changes for the majority. This is because forceful progressive government intervention against anti-democratic oligarchs, combined with the organization, political education and mobilization of the majority of voters can decisively defeat these stage-managed mass revolts.
Argentina is an example of a weakened democratic regime trying to straddle the fence between the oligarchs and the workers, between the combined force of the agro-business and mining elites and working and middle class constituencies dependent on social policies. The elected-Kirchner-Fernandez government has faced “mass revolts” in the a series of street demonstrations whipped up by conservative agricultural exporters over taxes; the Buenos Aires upper-middle class angered at ‘crime, disorder and insecurity’, a nationwide strike by police officials over ‘salaries’ who ‘looked the other way’ while gangs of ‘lumpen’ street thugs pillaged and destroyed stores. Taken altogether, these waves of mob action in Argentina appear to be part of a politically-directed destabilization campaign by the authoritarian Right who have instigated or, at least, exploited these events. Apart from calling on the military to restore order and conceding to the ‘salary’ demands of the striking police, the Fernandez government has been unable or unwilling to mobilize the democratic electorate in defense of democracy. The democratic regime remains in power but it is under siege and vulnerable to attack by domestic and imperial opponents.
Mass revolts are two-edged swords: they can be a positive force when they occur against military dictatorships like Pinochet or Mubarak, against authoritarian absolutist monarchies like Saudi Arabia, a colonial-racist state like Israel, and imperial occupations like against the US in Afghanistan. But they have to be directed and controlled by popular local leaders seeking to restore democratic majority rule.
History, from ancient times to the present, teaches us that not all ‘mass revolts’ achieve, or are even motivated by, democratic objectives. Many have served oligarchs seeking to overthrow democratic governments, totalitarian leaders seeking to install fascist and pro-imperial regimes, demagogues and authoritarians seeking to weaken shaky democratic regimes and militarists seeking to start wars for imperial ambitions.
Today, “mass revolts” against democracy have become standard operational procedure for Western European and US rulers who seek to circumvent democratic procedures and install pro-imperial clients. The practice of democracy is denigrated while the mob is extolled in the imperial Western media. This is why armed Islamist terrorists and mercenaries are called “rebels” in Syria and the mobs in the streets of Kiev (Ukraine) attempting to forcibly depose a democratically-elected government are labeled “pro-Western democrats”.
The ideology informing the “mass revolts” varies from “anti-communist” and “anti-authoritarian” in democratic Venezuela, to “pro-democracy” in Libya (even as tribal bands and mercenaries slaughter whole communities), Egypt and the Ukraine.
Imperial strategists have systematized, codified and made operational “mass revolts” in favor of oligarchic rule. International experts, consultants, demagogues and NGO officials have carved out lucrative careers as they travel to ‘hot spots’ and organize ‘mass revolts’ dragging the target countries into deeper ‘colonization’ via European or US-centered ‘integration’. Most local leaders and demagogues accept the double agenda: ‘protest today and submit to new masters tomorrow’. The masses in the street are fooled and then sacrificed. They believe in a ‘New Dawn’ of Western consumerism, higher paid jobs and greater personal freedom … only to be disillusioned when their new rulers fill the jails with opponents and many former protestors, raise prices, cut salaries, privatize state companies, sell off the most lucrative firms to foreigners and double the unemployment rate.
When the oligarchs ‘stage-manage’ mass revolts and takeover the regime, the big losers include the democratic electorate and most of the protestors. Leftists and progressives, in the West or in exile, who had mindlessly supported the ‘mass revolts’ will publish their scholarly essays on ‘the revolution (sic) betrayed” without admitting to their own betrayal of democratic principles.
If and when the Ukraine enters into the European Union, the exuberant street demonstrators will join the millions of jobless workers in Greece, Portugal, and Spain, as well as millions of pensioners brutalized by “austerity programs” imposed by their new rulers, the ‘Troika’ in Brussels. If these former demonstrators take to the streets once more, in disillusionment at their leaders’ “betrayal”, they can enjoy their ‘victory’ under the batons of “NATO and European Union-trained police” while the Western mass media will have moved elsewhere in support of ‘democracy’.
US intelligence agencies have secretly helped the Colombian government kill at least two dozen leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a report says.
On Saturday, the Washington Post published the report revealing that both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) provided the Colombian government with technology to terminate the rebel leaders.
The report was based on interviews with more than 30 former and current American and Colombian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity since the program is classified and ongoing, the newspaper said.
According to the report, Washington provided Colombia with Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment that can be used to transform regular munitions into so-called smart bombs.
These explosives can accurately pinpoint specific targets, even if the objects are located in dense jungles.
In addition, the NSA provided “substantial eavesdropping help” to the Colombian government, the report stated.
In one of its operations, Colombian forces killed top FARC commander, Raul Reyes, in March 2008, while he was in a FARC-operated jungle camp in neighboring Ecuador. The newspaper reported that a US-made smart bomb was used in the killing.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos commented on the report, telling the newspaper that the CIA has been “of help, providing Colombian forces with “better training and knowledge.” The CIA, however, did not want to give any comments regarding the revelations.
The report also revealed that the multibillion-dollar program was secretly funded on top of the nine billion dollars in aid that the US has openly provided to Colombia, mostly in military assistance. The covert program was authorized by President George W. Bush and has continued under President Barack Obama.
The Colombian government and FARC have been holding peace negotiations since November last year in Cuba.
The two sides have agreed upon the matter of land reform and rural development, while four others issues still remain unsolved, including FARC’s participation in politics.
FARC is Latin America’s oldest insurgent group and has been fighting the government since 1964.
Bogota estimates that 600,000 people have been killed and more than 4.5 million others have been displaced due to the fighting.
A recent investigation has found that an American who went missing in southern Iran in 2007 was working for the Central Intelligence Agency in the US.
Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on March 9, 2007, during a visit to Iran’s Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.
The US State Department insisted that Levinson was a private citizen who had traveled to Kish on private business.
Nevertheless, more than six years after Levinson’s disappearance, the Associated Press has revealed that he was recruited by the CIA to run unauthorized spying operations.
According to the AP, the CIA paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family in a bid to pre-empt a revealing lawsuit.
Even after they learned about Levinson’s CIA ties, officials at the White House, the FBI, and the State Department did not change the official story, insisting that he was “a private citizen involved in private business.”
The AP first found about Levinson’s involvement with the CIA’s spying operations in 2010; however, they withheld the story several times at the behest of the US government.
The AP’s revelation is based on documents obtained or reviewed by the New York-based news agency and interviews with a number of current and former officials from the US and other countries, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The CIA is generally made up of two groups: operatives, who gather intelligence and hire spies, and analysts, who receive strands of intelligence and decode them.
Although Levinson was recruited by a team of CIA analysts and his contract with the CIA, worth about $85,000, required him to write reports for the agency based on his travel and expertise, he started to gather intelligence from the onset instead of writing reports.
In order to keep Levinson’s operations secret, the CIA had instructed him not to mail any packages to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or email documents to US government addresses.
Instead, he had to send the intelligence he had gathered to the private home of a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski in Virginia and contact Jablonski’s personal email account if he needed any instructions.
Levinson’s whereabouts and captors are not known; however, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011 that Washington believed he was “being held somewhere in southwest Asia.”
Nearly a decade before Gary Webb published his investigative series on cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan Contra rebels, U.S. law enforcement received a detailed account of top Contra leader Adolfo Calero casually associating with Norwin Meneses, called “a well-reputed drug dealer” in a “secret” document that I recently found at the National Archives.
Meneses was near the center of Webb’s 1996 articles for the San Jose Mercury-News, a series that came under fierce attack from U.S. government officials as well as major news organizations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The controversy cost Webb his career, left him nearly penniless and ultimately contributed to his suicide on Dec. 9, 2004.
But the bitter irony of Webb’s demise, which will be the subject of a 2014 movie starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, is that Webb’s much-maligned “Dark Alliance” series forced major admissions from the CIA, the Justice Department and other government agencies revealing an even-deeper relationship between President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras and drug cartels than Webb ever alleged.
Typical of the evidence that the Reagan administration chose to ignore was information provided by Dennis Ainsworth, a blue-blood Republican from San Francisco who volunteered to help the Contra cause in 1984-85. That put him in position to witness the strange behind-the-scenes activities of Contra leaders hobnobbing with drug traffickers and negotiating arms deals with White House emissaries.
Ainsworth also was a source of mine in fall 1985 when I was investigating the mysterious sources of funding for the Contras after Congress shut off CIA support in 1984 amid widespread reports of Contra atrocities inflicted on Nicaraguan civilians, including rapes, executions and torture.
Ainsworth’s first-hand knowledge of the Contra dealings dovetailed with information that I already had, such as the central role of National Security Council aide Oliver North in aiding the Contras and his use of “courier” Rob Owen as an off-the-books White House intermediary to the Contras. I later developed confirmation of some other details that Ainsworth described, such as his overhearing Owen and Calero working together on an arms deal as Ainsworth drove them through the streets of San Francisco.
As for Ainsworth’s knowledge about the Contra-cocaine connection, he said he sponsored a June 1984 cocktail party at which Calero spoke to about 60 people. Meneses, a notorious drug kingpin in the Nicaraguan community, showed up uninvited and clearly had a personal relationship with Calero, who was then the political leader of the Contra’s chief fighting force, the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Democratic Force (or FDN).
“At the end of the cocktail party, Meneses and Calero went off together,” Ainsworth told U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello, according to a “secret” Jan. 6, 1987 cable submitted by Russoniello to an FBI investigation code-named “Front Door,” a probe into corruption by the Reagan administration.
After Calero’s speech, Ainsworth said Meneses accompanied Calero and about 20 people to dinner and picked up the entire tab, according to a more detailed debriefing of Ainsworth by the FBI. Concerned about this relationship, Ainsworth said he was told by Renato Pena, an FDN leader in the San Francisco area, that “the FDN is involved in drug smuggling with the aid of Norwin Meneses who also buys arms for Enrique Bermudez, a leader of the FDN.” Bermudez was then the top Contra military commander.
Pena, who himself was convicted on federal drug charges in 1984, gave a similar account to the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a 1998 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich, “When debriefed by the DEA in the early 1980s, Pena said that the CIA was allowing the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds. …
“Pena stated that he was present on many occasions when Meneses telephoned Bermudez in Honduras. Meneses told Pena of Bermudez’s requests for such things as gun silencers (which Pena said Meneses obtained in Los Angeles), cross bows, and other military equipment for the Contras. Pena believed that Meneses would sometimes transport certain of these items himself to Central America, and other times would have contacts in Los Angeles and Miami send cargo to Honduras, where the authorities were cooperating with the Contras. Pena believed Meneses had contact with Bermudez from about 1981 or 1982 through the mid-1980s.”
Bromwich’s report then added, “Pena said he was one of the couriers Meneses used to deliver drug money to a Colombian known as ‘Carlos’ in Los Angeles and return to San Francisco with cocaine. Pena made six to eight trips, with anywhere from $600,000 to nearly $1 million, and brought back six to eight kilos of cocaine each time. Pena said Meneses was moving hundreds of kilos a week. ‘Carlos’ once told Pena, ‘We’re helping your cause with this drug thing … we are helping your organization a lot.”
Ainsworth also said he tried to alert Oliver North in 1985 about the troubling connections between the Contra movement and cocaine traffickers but that North turned a deaf ear. “In the spring some friends of mine and I went back to the White House staff but we were put off by Ollie North and others on the staff who really don’t want to know all what’s going on,” Ainsworth told Russoniello.
When I first spoke with Ainsworth in September 1985 at a coffee shop in San Francisco, he asked for confidentiality which I granted. However, since the documents released by the National Archives include him describing his conversations with me, that confidentiality no longer applies. Ainsworth also spoke with Webb for his 1996 San Jose Mercury-News series under the pseudonym “David Morrison.”
Though I found Ainsworth to be generally reliable, some of his depictions of our conversations contained mild exaggerations or confusion over details, such as his claim that I called him from Costa Rica in January 1986 and told him that the Contra-cocaine story that I had been working on with my AP colleague Brian Barger “never hit the papers because it was suppressed by the Associated Press due to political pressure primarily from the CIA.”
In reality, Barger and I returned from Costa Rica in fall 1985, wrote our story about the Contras’ involvement in cocaine smuggling, and pushed it onto the AP wire in December though in a reduced form because of resistance from some senior AP news executives who were supportive of President Reagan’s foreign policies. The CIA, the White House and other agencies of the Reagan administration did seek to discredit our story, but they did not prevent its publication.
An Overriding Hostility
The Reagan administration’s neglect of Ainsworth’s insights reflected the overriding hostility toward any information – even from Republican activists – that put the Contras in a negative light. In early 1987, when Ainsworth spoke with U.S. Attorney Russoniello and the FBI, the Reagan administration was in full damage-control mode, trying to tamp down the Iran-Contra disclosures about Oliver North diverting profits from secret arms sales to Iran to the Contra war.
Fears that the Iran-Contra scandal could lead to Reagan’s impeachment made it even less likely that the Justice Department would pursue an investigation into drug ties implicating the Contra leadership. Ainsworth’s information was simply passed on to Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh whose inquiry was already overwhelmed by the task of sorting out the convoluted Iran transactions.
Publicly, the Reagan team continued dumping on the Contra-cocaine allegations and playing the find-any-possible-reason-to-reject-a-witness game. The major news media went along, leading to much mainstream ridicule of a 1989 investigative report by Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who uncovered more drug connections implicating the Contras and the Reagan administration.
Only occasionally, such as when the George H.W. Bush administration needed witnesses to convict Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega did the Contra-cocaine evidence pop onto Official Washington’s radar screens.
During Noriega’s drug-trafficking trial in 1991, U.S. prosecutors called as a witness Colombian Medellín cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who — along with implicating Noriega — testified that the cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, an allegation first unearthed by Sen. Kerry. “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991, acknowledged. “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.”
But the Post offered its readers no explanation for why Kerry’s hearings had been largely ignored, with the Post itself a leading culprit in this journalistic misfeasance. Nor did the Post and the other leading newspapers use the opening created by the Noriega trial to do anything to rectify their past neglect.
Everything quickly returned to the status quo in which the desired perception of the noble Contras trumped the clear reality of their criminal activities. Instead of recognizing the skewed moral compass of the Reagan administration, Congress was soon falling over itself to attach Reagan’s name to as many public buildings and facilities as possible, including Washington’s National Airport.
Meanwhile, those of us in journalism who had exposed the national security crimes of the 1980s saw our careers mostly sink or go sideways. We were regarded as “pariahs” in our profession.
As for me, shortly after the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open in fall 1986, I accepted a job at Newsweek, one of the many mainstream news outlets that had long ignored Contra-connected scandals and briefly thought it needed to bolster its coverage. But I soon discovered that senior editors remained hostile toward the Iran-Contra story and related spinoff scandals, including the Contra-cocaine mess.
After losing battle after battle with my Newsweek editors, I departed the magazine in June 1990 to write a book (called Fooling America) about the decline of the Washington press corps and the parallel rise of a new generation of government propagandists.
I was also hired by PBS Frontline to investigate whether there had been a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal — whether those arms-for-hostage deals in the mid-1980s had been preceded by contacts between Reagan’s 1980 campaign staff and Iran, which was then holding 52 Americans hostage and essentially destroying Jimmy Carter’s reelection hopes. [For more on that topic, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Finding New Ways
In 1995, frustrated by the growing triviality of American journalism — and acting on the advice of and with the assistance of my oldest son Sam — I turned to a new medium and launched the Internet’s first investigative news magazine, known as Consortiumnews.com. The Web site became a way for me to put out well-reported stories that my former mainstream colleagues ignored or mock.
So, when Gary Webb called me in 1996 to talk about the Contra-cocaine story, I explained some of this tortured history and urged him to make sure that his editors were firmly behind him. He sounded perplexed at my advice and assured me that he had the solid support of his editors.
When Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series finally appeared in late August 1996, it initially drew little attention. The major national news outlets applied their usual studied indifference to a topic that they had already judged unworthy of serious attention.
But Webb’s story proved hard to ignore. First, unlike the work that Barger and I did for AP in the mid-1980s, Webb’s series wasn’t just a story about drug traffickers in Central America and their protectors in Washington. It was about the on-the-ground consequences, inside the United States, of that drug trafficking, how the lives of Americans were blighted and destroyed as the collateral damage of a U.S. foreign policy initiative.
In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.
Secondly, the San Jose Mercury News, which was the local newspaper for Silicon Valley, had posted documents and audio on its state-of-the-art Internet site. That way, readers could examine much of the documentary support for the series.
It also meant that the traditional “gatekeeper” role of the major newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury News could finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could be a breakdown of the established order.
This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine battle: the “get-Gary-Webb” counterattack. Soon, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were lining up like some tag-team wrestlers taking turns pummeling Webb and his story.
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels. The Post’s approach fit with the Big Media’s cognitive dissonance on the topic: first, the Post called the Contra-cocaine allegations old news — “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post said — and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.”
To add to the smug hoo-hah treatment that was enveloping Webb and his story, a Post published a sidebar story dismissing African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”
Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and “Dark Alliance.” The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 — almost a decade earlier — that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the first ominous sign for the CIA’s cover-up emerged on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
But Webb had already crossed over from being treated as a serious journalist to becoming a target of ridicule. Influential Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business to its participants. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz smirked.
Yet, Webb’s suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Oliver North’s chief Contra emissary, Rob Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contra leadership. “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Emphasis in original.]
Ainsworth and other pro-Contra activists were reaching the same conclusion, that the Contra leadership was skimming money from the supply lines and padding their personal wealth with proceeds from the drug trade. According to a Jan. 21, 1987 interview report by the FBI, Ainsworth said he had “made inquiries in the local San Francisco Nicaraguan community and wondered among his acquaintances what Adolfo Calero and the other people in the FDN movement were doing and the word that he received back is that they were probably engaged in cocaine smuggling.”
In other words, Webb was right about the suspicion that the Contra movement had become less a cause than a business to many of its participants. Even Oliver North’s emissary reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as “a business.” But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media’s hazing of Gary Webb.
In another double standard, while Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz — the supposed arbiter of journalistic integrity who was a longtime fixture on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz would face no repercussions for mocking a fellow journalist who was factually correct.
The Big Three’s assault — combined with their disparaging tone — had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury News. As it turned out, Webb’s confidence in his editors had been misplaced. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.
On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series “fell short of my standards.” He criticized the stories because they “strongly implied CIA knowledge” of Contra connections to U.S. drug dealers who were manufacturing crack cocaine. “We did not have enough proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship,” Ceppos wrote.
Ceppos was wrong about the proof, of course. At AP, before we published our first Contra-cocaine article in 1985, Barger and I had known that the CIA and Reagan’s White House were aware of the Contra-cocaine problem at senior levels.
However, Ceppos recognized that he and his newspaper were facing a credibility crisis brought on by the harsh consensus delivered by the Big Three, a judgment that had quickly solidified into conventional wisdom throughout the major news media and inside Knight-Ridder, Inc., which owned the Mercury News. The only career-saving move – career-saving for Ceppos even if career-destroying for Webb – was to jettison Webb and the Contra-cocaine investigative project.
The big newspapers and the Contras’ defenders celebrated Ceppos’s retreat as vindication of their own dismissal of the Contra-cocaine stories. In particular, Kurtz seemed proud that his demeaning of Webb now had the endorsement of Webb’s editor. Ceppos next pulled the plug on the Mercury News’ continuing Contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family. Webb resigned from the paper in disgrace.
For undercutting Webb and other Mercury News reporters working on the Contra-cocaine project – some of whom were facing personal danger in Central America – Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and received the 1997 national Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.
While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his career collapse and his marriage break up. Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal government investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how the Reagan administration had conducted the Contra war.
The CIA published the first part of Inspector General Hitz’s findings on Jan. 29, 1998. Though the CIA’s press release for the report criticized Webb and defended the CIA, Hitz’s Volume One admitted that not only were many of Webb’s allegations true but that he actually understated the seriousness of the Contra-drug crimes and the CIA’s knowledge of them.
Hitz conceded that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the Contra movement and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening 1984 federal investigation into a San Francisco–based drug ring with suspected ties to the Contras, the so-called “Frogman Case.”
After Volume One was released, I called Webb (whom I had spent some time with since his series was published). I chided him for indeed getting the story “wrong.” He had understated how serious the problem of Contra-cocaine trafficking had been.
It was a form of gallows humor for the two of us, since nothing had changed in the way the major newspapers treated the Contra-cocaine issue. They focused only on the press release that continued to attack Webb, while ignoring the incriminating information that could be found in the full report. All I could do was highlight those admissions at Consortiumnews.com, which sadly had a much, much smaller readership than the Big Three.
The major U.S. news media also looked the other way on other startling disclosures.
On May 7, 1998, for instance, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982 letter of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The letter, which had been requested by CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision that covered the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahedeen.
In other words, early in those two covert wars, the CIA leadership wanted to make sure that its geopolitical objectives would not be complicated by a legal requirement to turn in its client forces for drug trafficking.
The next break in the long-running Contra-cocaine cover-up was a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich. Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb’s series, Bromwich’s report also opened with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA’s Volume One, the contents revealed new details about serious government wrongdoing.
According to evidence cited by Bromwich, the Reagan administration knew almost from the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation. The administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop the crimes. Bromwich’s report revealed example after example of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the work of drug traffickers.
The report showed that the Contras and their supporters ran several parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the center of Webb’s series. The report also found that the CIA shared little of its information about Contra drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the Contras.
As well as depicting a more widespread Contra-drug operation than Webb had understood, the Justice Department report provided some important corroboration about Nicaraguan drug smuggler Norwin Meneses, a key figure in Gary Webb’s series and Adolfo Calero’s friend as described by Dennis Ainsworth.
Bromwich cited U.S. government informants who supplied detailed information about Meneses’s drug operation and his financial assistance to the Contras. For instance, Renato Pena, the money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said that in the early 1980s the CIA allowed the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds. Pena, the FDN’s northern California representative, said the drug trafficking was forced on the Contras by the inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.
The Justice Department report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging DEA investigations, including one into Contra-cocaine shipments moving through the international airport in El Salvador. Bromwich said secrecy trumped all. “We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport,” he wrote.
Bromwich also described the curious case of how a DEA pilot helped a CIA asset escape from Costa Rican authorities in 1989 after the man, American farmer John Hull, had been charged in connection with Contra-cocaine trafficking. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John Hull’s Great Escape.”]
Hull’s ranch in northern Costa Rica had been the site of Contra camps for attacking Nicaragua from the south. For years, Contra-connected witnesses also said Hull’s property was used for the transshipment of cocaine en route to the United States, but those accounts were brushed aside by the Reagan administration and disparaged in major U.S. newspapers.
Yet, according to Bromwich’s report, the DEA took the accounts seriously enough to prepare a research report on the evidence in November 1986. One informant described Colombian cocaine off-loaded at an airstrip on Hull’s ranch.
The drugs were then concealed in a shipment of frozen shrimp and transported to the United States. The alleged Costa Rican shipper was Frigorificos de Puntarenas, a firm controlled by Cuban-American Luis Rodriguez. Like Hull, however, Frigorificos had friends in high places. In 1985-86, the State Department had selected the shrimp company to handle $261,937 in non-lethal assistance earmarked for the Contras.
Hull also remained a man with powerful protectors. Even after Costa Rican authorities brought drug charges against him, influential Americans, including Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, demanded that Hull be let out of jail pending trial. Then, in July 1989 with the help of a DEA pilot – and possibly a DEA agent – Hull managed to fly out of Costa Rica to Haiti and then to the United States.
Despite these startling new disclosures, the big newspapers still showed no inclination to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press release.
By fall 1998, Washington was obsessed with President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even more stunning Contra-cocaine disclosures in the CIA’s Volume Two, published on Oct. 8, 1998.
In the report, CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.
According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen “to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,” according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.
According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADREN’s leaders included Enrique Bermúdez and other early Contras who would later direct the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN which was based in Honduras, along Nicaragua’s northern border.
Throughout the war, Bermúdez remained the top Contra military commander. The CIA later corroborated the allegations about ADREN’s cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermúdez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States that went ahead nonetheless.
The truth about Bermúdez’s supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear. According to Hitz’s Volume One, Bermúdez enlisted Norwin Meneses – the Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler, the friend of Adolfo Calero, and a key figure in Webb’s series – to raise money and buy supplies for the Contras.
Volume One had quoted another Nicaraguan trafficker, Danilo Blandón, a Meneses associate (and another lead character in Webb’s series), as telling Hitz’s investigators that he (Blandón) and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermúdez in 1982. At the time, Meneses’s criminal activities were well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community, but Bermúdez told the cocaine smugglers that “the ends justify the means” in raising money for the Contras.
After the Bermúdez meeting, Meneses and Blandón were briefly arrested by Honduran police who confiscated $100,000 that the police suspected was to be a payment for a drug transaction. The Contras intervened, gained freedom for the two traffickers and got them their money back by saying the cash, which indeed was for a cocaine purchase in Bolivia, belonged to the Contras.
There were other indications of Bermúdez’s drug-smuggling complicity. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermúdez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz’s report. After the Contra war ended, Bermúdez returned to Managua, Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved.
The Southern Front
Along the Southern Front, the Contras’ military operations in Costa Rica on Nicaragua’s southern border, the CIA’s drug evidence centered on the forces of Edén Pastora, another top Contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the U.S. government may have made the drug situation worse, not better.
Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted drug operative — known by his CIA pseudonym “Ivan Gomez” — in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz reported that the CIA discovered Gomez’s drug history in 1987 when Gomez failed a security review on drug-trafficking questions.
In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted that in March or April 1982, he helped family members who were engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. In one case, Gomez said he assisted his brother and brother-in-law transporting cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted he “knew this act was illegal.”
Later, Gomez expanded on his admission, describing how his family members had fallen $2 million into debt and had gone to Miami to run a money-laundering center for drug traffickers. Gomez said “his brother had many visitors whom [Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business.” Gomez’s brother was arrested on drug charges in June 1982. Three months later, in September 1982, Gomez started his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.
Years later, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing drug-money donations to the Contras. Gomez “was to make sure the money was given to the right people [the Contras] and nobody was taking . . . profit they weren’t supposed to,” Cabezas stated publicly.
But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas at the time because he had trouble identifying Gomez’s picture and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982 before Gomez started his CIA assignment. While the CIA was able to fend off Cabezas’s allegations by pointing to these discrepancies, Hitz’s report revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomez’s direct role in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen. Kerry in his investigation during the late 1980s.
There was also more to know about Gomez. In November 1985, the FBI learned from an informant that Gomez’s two brothers had been large-scale cocaine importers, with one brother arranging shipments from Bolivia’s infamous drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.
Suarez already was known as a financier of right-wing causes. In 1980, with the support of Argentina’s hard-line anticommunist military regime, Suarez bankrolled a coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center government. The violent putsch became known as the Cocaine Coup because it made Bolivia the region’s first narco-state.
By protecting cocaine shipments headed north, Bolivia’s government helped transform Colombia’s Medellín cartel from a struggling local operation into a giant corporate-style business for delivering vast quantities of cocaine to the U.S. market.
Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including the Contra forces in Central America, according to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.
In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, other Argentine intelligence officers — veterans of the Bolivian coup — trained the Contras in the early 1980s, even before the CIA arrived to first assist with the training and later take over the Contra operation from the Argentines.
Inspector General Hitz added another piece to the mystery of the Bolivian-Contra connection. One Contra fund-raiser, Jose Orlando Bolanos, boasted that the Argentine government was supporting his Contra activities, according to a May 1982 cable to CIA headquarters. Bolanos made the statement during a meeting with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even offered to introduce them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.
Despite all this suspicious drug activity centered around Ivan Gomez and the Contras, the CIA insisted that it did not unmask Gomez until 1987, when he failed a security check and confessed his role in his family’s drug business. The CIA official who interviewed Gomez concluded that “Gomez directly participated in illegal drug transactions, concealed participation in illegal drug transactions, and concealed information about involvement in illegal drug activity,” Hitz wrote.
But senior CIA officials still protected Gomez. They refused to refer the Gomez case to the Justice Department, citing the 1982 agreement that spared the CIA from a legal obligation to report narcotics crimes by people collaborating with the CIA who were not formal agency employees. Gomez was an independent contractor who worked for the CIA but was not officially on staff. The CIA eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without alerting law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.
When questioned about the case nearly a decade later, one senior CIA official who had supported the gentle treatment of Gomez had second thoughts. “It is a striking commentary on me and everyone that this guy’s involvement in narcotics didn’t weigh more heavily on me or the system,” the official told Hitz’s investigators.
Drug Path to the White House
A Medellín drug connection arose in another section of Hitz’s report, when he revealed evidence suggesting that some Contra trafficking may have been sanctioned by Reagan’s National Security Council. The protagonist for this part of the Contra-cocaine mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who worked for Oliver North’s NSC Contra-support operation and for two drug-connected seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos De Puntarenas in Costa Rica.
Frigorificos De Puntarenas was created in the early 1980s as a cover for drug-money laundering, according to sworn testimony by two of the firm’s principals — Carlos Soto and Medellín cartel accountant Ramon Milian Rodriguez. (It was also the company implicated by a DEA informant in moving cocaine from John Hull’s ranch to the United States.)
Drug allegations were swirling around Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s. Indeed, his operation was one of the targets of my and Barger’s AP investigation in 1985. Finally reacting to the suspicions, the CIA questioned Nunez about his alleged cocaine trafficking on March 25, 1987. He responded by pointing the finger at his NSC superiors.
“Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” Hitz reported, adding: “Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom he had been involved.”
After this first round of questioning, CIA headquarters authorized an additional session, but then senior CIA officials reversed the decision. There would be no further efforts at “debriefing Nunez.”
Hitz noted that “the cable [from headquarters] offered no explanation for the decision” to stop the Nunez interrogation. But the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers Jr. said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued “because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the Contra money handled by the NSC’s Oliver North] a decision was made not to pursue this matter.”
Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIA’s station chief in Costa Rica, confirmed to congressional Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez “was involved in a very sensitive operation” for North’s “Enterprise.” The exact nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been divulged.
At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions and his truncated interrogation, the CIA’s acting director was Robert Gates, who nearly two decades later became President George W. Bush’s second secretary of defense, a position he retained under President Barack Obama.
The CIA also worked directly with other drug-connected Cuban-Americans on the Contra project, Hitz found. One of Nunez’s Cuban-American associates, Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics coordinator for the Contras, Hitz reported.
The CIA also learned that Vidal’s drug connections were not only in the past. A December 1984 cable to CIA headquarters revealed Vidal’s ties to Rene Corvo, another Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was working with Cuban anticommunist Frank Castro, who was viewed as a Medellín cartel representative within the Contra movement.
There were other narcotics links to Vidal. In January 1986, the DEA in Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of yucca that was going from a Contra operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the company where Vidal (and Moises Nunez) worked. Despite the evidence, Vidal remained a CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castro’s assistant, Rene Corvo, in raising money for the Contras, according to a CIA memo in June 1986.
By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough rumors about Vidal to demand information about him as part of his congressional inquiry into Contra drugs. But the CIA withheld the derogatory information in its files. On Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing from the CIA’s Alan Fiers, who didn’t mention Vidal’s drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.
But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In 1987, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and other Contra-connected entities. This prosecutorial attention worried the CIA. The CIA’s Latin American division felt it was time for a security review of Vidal. But on Aug. 5, 1987, the CIA’s security office blocked the review for fear that the Vidal drug information “could be exposed during any future litigation.”
As expected, the U.S. Attorney’s Office did request documents about “Contra-related activities” by Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and 16 other entities. The CIA advised the prosecutor that “no information had been found regarding Ocean Hunter,” a statement that was clearly false. The CIA continued Vidal’s employment as an adviser to the Contra movement until 1990, virtually the end of the Contra war.
Hitz also revealed that drugs tainted the highest levels of the Honduran-based FDN, the largest Contra army. Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a Contra commander who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a cocaine trafficker in Colombia before the war.
The CIA asked Rivas, known as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA began suspecting that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian prison. In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas acknowledged that he had been arrested and convicted of packaging and transporting cocaine for the drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia. After several months in prison, Rivas said, he escaped and moved to Central America, where he joined the Contras.
Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted that there was no evidence that Rivas engaged in trafficking while with the Contras. But one CIA cable noted that he lived an expensive lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000 Thoroughbred horse at the Contra camp. Contra military commander Bermúdez later attributed Rivas’s wealth to his ex-girlfriend’s rich family. But a CIA cable in March 1989 added that “some in the FDN may have suspected at the time that the father-in-law was engaged in drug trafficking.”
Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect Rivas from exposure and possible extradition to Colombia. In February 1989, CIA headquarters asked that the DEA take no action “in view of the serious political damage to the U.S. Government that could occur should the information about Rivas become public.” Rivas was eased out of the Contra leadership with an explanation of poor health. With U.S. government help, he was allowed to resettle in Miami. Colombia was not informed about his fugitive status.
Another senior FDN official implicated in the drug trade was its chief spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo Jose “Frank” Arana. The drug allegations against Arana dated back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put him under criminal investigation because of plans “to smuggle 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States from South America.” On Jan. 23, 1986, the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were involved in a drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not charged.
Arana sought to clear up another set of drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting the DEA in Honduras with a business associate, Jose Perez. Arana’s association with Perez, however, only raised new alarms. If “Arana is mixed up with the Perez brothers, he is probably dirty,” the DEA said.
Through their ownership of an air services company called SETCO, the Perez brothers were associated with Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a major cocaine kingpin connected to the 1985 torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. Customs. Hitz reported that someone at the CIA scribbled a note on a DEA cable about Arana stating: “Arnold Arana . . . still active and working, we [CIA] may have a problem.”
Despite its drug ties to Matta-Ballesteros, SETCO emerged as the principal company for ferrying supplies to the Contras in Honduras. During congressional Iran-Contra hearings, FDN political leader Adolfo Calero testified that SETCO was paid from bank accounts controlled by Oliver North. SETCO also received $185,924 from the State Department for ferrying supplies to the Contras in 1986. Furthermore, Hitz found that other air transport companies used by the Contras were implicated in the cocaine trade as well.
Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies to Central America aboard planes that might be returning with drugs. Mario Calero, Adolfo Calero’s brother and the chief of Contra logistics, grew so uneasy about one air freight company that he notified U.S. law enforcement that the FDN only chartered the planes for the flights south, not the return flights north.
Hitz found that some drug pilots simply rotated from one sector of the Contra operation to another. Donaldo Frixone, who had a drug record in the Dominican Republic, was hired by the CIA to fly Contra missions from 1983 to 1985. In September 1986, however, Frixone was implicated in smuggling 19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. In late 1986 or early 1987, he went to work for Vortex, another U.S.-paid Contra supply company linked to the drug trade.
By the time that Hitz’s Volume Two was published in fall 1998, the CIA’s defense against Webb’s series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress, and even the CIA’s own analytical division.
Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem but didn’t want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
According to Hitz, the CIA had “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. . . . [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program.” One CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analysts.
Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that “only a handful of Contras might have been involved in drug trafficking.” That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to major news organizations — serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series in 1996.
Although Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by the big American newspapers.
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz’s Volume Two was posted on the CIA’s Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times never published a story on the release of Hitz’s Volume Two.
In 2000, the House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the stories about Reagan’s CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true. The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitz’s successor) admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.
“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” Snider said, adding that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”
The House committee — then controlled by Republicans — still downplayed the significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.”
Like the release of Hitz’s report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000 — except for a few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.
Because of this journalistic misconduct by the Big Three newspapers — choosing to conceal their own neglect of the Contra-cocaine scandal and to protect the Reagan administration’s image — Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated.
After his original “Dark Alliance” series was published in 1996, Webb had been inundated with attractive book offers from major publishing houses, but once the vilification began, the interest evaporated. Webb’s agent contacted an independent publishing house, Seven Stories Press, which had a reputation for publishing books that had been censored, and it took on the project.
After Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion was published in 1998, I joined Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California. For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that gradually faded.
In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA Inspector General Hitz’s reports came out.
But Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession — the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento, California.
On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers — who were coming the next morning — to instead call 911. Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy. After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work.
I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of Hitz’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb’s suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier — one of the few people who understood the ugly story of the Reagan administration’s cover-up of the Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. media’s complicity was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism — taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes — and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.
On the contrary, many were rewarded with professional advancement and lucrative careers. For instance, for years, Howard Kurtz got to host the CNN program, “Reliable Sources,” which lectured journalists on professional standards. He was described in the program’s bio as “the nation’s premier media critic.” (His show has since moved to Fox News, renamed “MediaBuzz.”)
The rehabilitation of Webb’s reputation and possibly even the correction of this dark chapter of American history now rests on how accurately – and how bravely – Hollywood presents Webb’s story in the film, “Kill the Messenger,” starring Jeremy Renner and scheduled for release next year. [For more on the Contra-cocaine story, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).