Perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. government’s plunge into Cold War II would bring back the one-sided propaganda themes that dominated Cold War I, but it’s still unsettling to see how quickly the major U.S. news media has returned to the old ways, especially the New York Times, which has emerged as Official Washington’s propaganda vehicle of choice.
What has been most striking in the behavior of the Times and most other U.S. mainstream media outlets is their utter lack of self-awareness, for instance, accusing Russia of engaging in propaganda and alliance-building that are a pale shadow of what the U.S. government routinely does. Yet, the Times and the rest of the MSM act as if these actions are unique to Moscow.
A case in point is Monday’s front-page story in the Times entitled “Russia Wields Aid and Ideology Against West to Fight Sanctions,” which warns: “Moscow has brought to bear different kinds of weapons, according to American and European officials: money, ideology and disinformation.”
The article by Peter Baker and Steven Erlanger portrays the U.S. government as largely defenseless in the face of this unprincipled Russian onslaught: “Even as the Obama administration and its European allies try to counter Russia’s military intervention across its border, they have found themselves struggling at home against what they see as a concerted drive by Moscow to leverage its economic power, finance European political parties and movements, and spread alternative accounts of the conflict.”
Like many of the Times’ recent articles, this one relies on one-sided accusations from U.S. and European officials and is short on both hard evidence of actual Russian payments – and a response from the Russian government to the charges. At the end of the long story, the writers do include one comment from Brookings Institution scholar, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia, noting the shortage of proof.
“The question is how much hard evidence does anyone have?” she asked. But that’s about all a Times’ reader will get if he or she is looking for some balanced reporting.
Missing the Obvious
Still, the more remarkable aspect of the article is how it ignores the much more substantial evidence of the U.S. government and its allies themselves financing propaganda operations and supporting “non-governmental organizations” that promote the favored U.S. policies in countries around the world.
Plus, there’s the failure to recognize that many of Official Washington’s own accounts of global problems have been riddled with propaganda and outright disinformation.
For instance, much of the State Department’s account of the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack in Syria turned out to be false or misleading. United Nations inspectors discovered only one rocket carrying sarin – not the barrage that U.S. officials had originally alleged – and the rocket had a much shorter range than the U.S. government (and the New York Times ) claimed. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis.”]
Then, after the Feb. 22, 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, the U.S. government and the Times became veritable founts of propaganda and disinformation. Beyond refusing to acknowledge the key role played by neo-Nazi and other right-wing militias in the coup and subsequent violence, the State Department disseminated information to the Times that later was acknowledged to be false.
In April 2014, the Times published a lead story based on photographs of purported Russian soldiers in Ukraine but had to retract it two days later because it turned out that the State Department had misrepresented where a key photo was taken, destroying the premise of the article. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Ukraine Photo Scoop.”]
And sometimes the propaganda came directly from senior U.S. government officials. For instance, on April 29, 2014, Richard Stengel, under secretary of state for public diplomacy, issued a “Dipnote” that leveled accusations that the Russian network RT was painting “a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government,” i.e., the post-coup regime that took power after elected President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office. In this context, Stengel denounced RT as “a distortion machine, not a news organization.”
Though he offered no specific dates and times for the offending RT programs, Stengel did complain about “the unquestioning repetition of the ludicrous assertion … that the United States has invested $5 billion in regime change in Ukraine. These are not facts, and they are not opinions. They are false claims, and when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence.”
However, RT’s “ludicrous assertion” about the U.S. investing $5 billion was a clear reference to a public speech by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to U.S. and Ukrainian business leaders on Dec. 13, 2013, in which she told them that “we have invested more than $5 billion” in what was needed for Ukraine to achieve its “European aspirations.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Who’s the Propagandist: US or RT?”]
One could go on and on about the U.S. government making false or misleading claims about these and other international crises. But it should be clear that Official Washington doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to propaganda mud-slinging, though you wouldn’t know that from the Times’ article on Monday.
And, beyond the U.S. government’s direct dissemination of disinformation, the U.S. government also has spread around hundreds of millions of dollars to finance “journalism” organizations, political activists and “non-governmental organizations” that promote U.S. policy goals inside targeted countries. Before the Feb. 22, 2014 coup in Ukraine, there were scores of such operations in the country financed by the National Endowment for Democracy. NED’s budget from Congress exceeds $100 million a year.
But NED, which has been run by neocon Carl Gershman since its founding in 1983, is only part of the picture. You have many other propaganda fronts operating under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department and its U.S. Agency for International Development. Last May 1, USAID issued a fact sheet summarizing its work financing friendly journalists around the world, including “journalism education, media business development, capacity building for supportive institutions, and strengthening legal-regulatory environments for free media.”
USAID estimated its budget for “media strengthening programs in over 30 countries” at $40 million annually, including aiding “independent media organizations and bloggers in over a dozen countries,” In Ukraine before the coup, USAID offered training in “mobile phone and website security.”
USAID, working with billionaire George Soros’s Open Society, also funds the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which engages in “investigative journalism” that usually goes after governments that have fallen into disfavor with the United States and then are singled out for accusations of corruption. The USAID-funded OCCRP also collaborates with Bellingcat, an online investigative website founded by blogger Eliot Higgins.
Higgins has spread misinformation on the Internet, including discredited claims implicating the Syrian government in the sarin attack in 2013 and directing an Australian TV news crew to what appeared to be the wrong location for a video of a BUK anti-aircraft battery as it supposedly made its getaway to Russia after the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.
Despite his dubious record of accuracy, Higgins has gained mainstream acclaim, in part, because his “findings” always match up with the propaganda theme that the U.S. government and its Western allies are peddling. Though most genuinely independent bloggers are ignored by the mainstream media, Higgins has found his work touted.
In other words, whatever Russia is doing to promote its side of the story in Europe and elsewhere is more than matched by the U.S. government through its direct and indirect agents of influence. Indeed, during the original Cold War, the CIA and the old U.S. Information Agency refined the art of “information warfare,” including pioneering some of its current features like having ostensibly “independent” entities and cut-outs present the propaganda to a cynical public that rejects much of what it hears from government but may trust “citizen journalists” and “bloggers.”
To top off this modern propaganda structure, we now have the paper-of-record New York Times coming along to suggest that anyone who isn’t disseminating U.S. propaganda must be in Moscow’s pocket. The implication is that now that we have Cold War II, we can expect to have McCarthyism II as well.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
In the 1980s, CIA propaganda experts and military psy-war specialists oversaw the creation of special programs aimed at managing public perceptions in both targeted foreign countries and the United States, according to declassified documents at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library.
These documents – discovered in 2010 – buttress previously disclosed evidence that President Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey played a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing this political action initiative, which recruited well-heeled private-sector conservatives to subsidize the secretive government operations.
The documents show that Casey used a senior CIA propaganda and disinformation specialist named Walter Raymond Jr., who was placed inside the National Security Council in 1982, to oversee the project and to circumvent legal prohibitions against the CIA engaging in propaganda that might influence U.S. public opinion or politics.
Though Raymond formally quit the CIA after going to the NSC, documents from Raymond’s personal NSC files reveal that he often passed on recommendations regarding the propaganda initiative after meetings at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or after conversations with Casey himself.
In one Nov. 4, 1982, “secret” memo, Raymond described Casey reaching out to right-wing mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, who was already working with other conservative foundation executives to fund right-wing publications, think tanks and activist groups seeking to shift U.S. politics to the Right.
Raymond told then NSC advisor William P. Clark that “Bill Casey asked me to pass on the following thought concerning your [scheduled] meeting with Dick Scaife, Dave Abshire [then a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board], and Co.
“Casey had lunch with them today and discussed the need to get moving in the general area of supporting our friends around the world.”
Besides a desire to “invigorate international media programs,” Casey wanted to help U.S.-based organizations, such as Freedom House, that could influence American attitudes about foreign challenges, Raymond said.
“The DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] is also concerned about strengthening public information organizations in the United States such as Freedom House,” Raymond told Clark. “To do this we have identified three overt tracks:
“–enhanced federal funding;
“–the Democracy Project study (although publicly funded this will be independently managed);
“A critical piece of the puzzle is a serious effort to raise private funds to generate momentum. Casey’s talk with Scaife and Co. suggests they would be very willing to cooperate.”
(In the following years, Freedom House emerged as a major recipient of funding from the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy, which was founded in 1983. Freedom House became a fierce critic of Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, which Reagan and Casey were seeking to overthrow by covertly supporting Contra rebels.)
Returning from Langley
A Dec. 2 note addressed to “Bud,” apparently senior NSC official Robert “Bud” McFarlane, described a request from Raymond for a brief meeting. “When he [Raymond] returned from Langley, he had a proposed draft letter … re $100 M democ[racy] proj[ect],” the note said.
While Raymond passed on Casey’s instructions, the CIA director told White House officials to play down or conceal the CIA’s role.
“Obviously we here [at CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate,” Casey said in one undated letter to then-White House counselor Edwin Meese III, urging creation of a “National Endowment” that would support “free institutions throughout the world.”
On Jan. 21, 1983, Raymond updated Clark about the project, which also was reaching out to representatives from other conservative foundations, including Les Lenkowsky of Smith-Richardson, Michael Joyce of Olin and Dan McMichael of Mellon-Scaife.
“This is designed to develop a broader group of people who will support parallel initiatives consistent with Administration needs and desires,” Raymond wrote.
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, those and other conservative foundations poured millions of dollars into right-wing think tanks, media outlets and anti-journalism attack groups that targeted American reporters who challenged the Reagan administration’s propaganda.
The early planning papers also indicated a desire to use this relatively overt system to funnel money to pro-U.S. trade unions in Asia, Africa and Latin America in support of a variety of political operations, including setting up television stations and funding print publications.
Some examples were $150,000 to a Bolivian trade union; $50,000 to Peru as a “direct counter to Soviet funding”; $50,000 to Grenada “to the only organized opposition to the Marxist government of Maurice Bishop (The Seaman and Waterfront Workers Union). A supplemental to support free TV activity outside Grenada”; $750,000 to Nicaragua “to support an array of independent trade union activity, agricultural cooperatives”; and $500,000 for “Central America labor publishing house and distribution center for printed materials – TV materials, cooperatives, land reform, etc. – to counter Marxist literature.”
The document’s reference to money being spent to counter Bishop’s government in Grenada adds weight to long-held suspicions that the Reagan administration engaged in propaganda and destabilization campaigns against Bishop, who was ousted by internal rivals and killed in October 1983, setting the stage for the U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean island.
The invasion of Grenada, though condemned by much of the world as an act of U.S. aggression, proved popular in the United States, an important step in readying the American people for larger military adventures ahead.
Eventually, Casey’s concept of a global initiative led to the founding of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 ostensibly for the purpose of promoting foreign democratic institutions. But the NED also created a cover for the United States to funnel money to pro-U.S. groups in hostile countries. And it subsidized Washington’s growing community of neoconservatives who wrote op-ed articles in leading newspapers and went on TV news shows advocating an aggressive U.S. foreign policy.
Since 1983, NED has been involved in numerous controversies, including allegations that it helped buy the Nicaraguan election in 1990 by spending some $9 million, including $4 million poured into the campaign of U.S.-backed candidate Violeta Chamorro.
NED’s hand also has been detected in “velvet revolutions” staged in Ukraine, Georgia and other eastern European nations. NED has been active, too, in Iran, fueling government suspicions there that its opposition, which took to the streets after the June 2009 presidential election, represented another U.S.-backed scheme to achieve regime change.
Though many of Raymond’s documents at Reagan’s Library in Simi Valley, California, remain secret, the material discovered in 2010 – and some of the previously released documents – offer a panorama of how the administration’s perception management campaigns evolved, from the early days of Casey prodding the process forward to later years when Raymond’s apparatus grew increasingly powerful and even paranoid.
According to a secret action proposal that Raymond submitted on Dec. 20, 1984, to then national security adviser McFarlane, Raymond wanted an even greater commitment of manpower.
“I have attempted to proceed forward with a whole range of political and information activities,” Raymond wrote. “There are a raft of ties to private organizations which are working in tandem with the government in a number of areas ranging from the American Security Council to the Atlantic Council, to the nascent idea of a ‘Peace Institute.’”
Among the examples of his “specific activities,” Raymond listed “significant expansion of our ability to utilize book publication and distribution as a public diplomacy tool. (This is based on an integrated public-private strategy). … The development of an active PSYOP strategy. … Meetings (ad hoc) with selected CIA operational people to coordinate and clarify lines between overt/covert political operations on key areas. Examples: Afghanistan, Central America, USSR-EE [Eastern Europe] and Grenada.”
Another part of Raymond’s domain was “the Soviet Political Action Working Group.” This group discussed what it regarded as “Soviet active measures” and worked on “themes” that soon resonated through Washington, such as the argument regarding “moral equivalents.”
Raymond reported that the “moral equivalents” theme was discussed at the working group’s Dec. 15, 1983, meeting. The idea of “moral equivalents” involved U.S. government officials upbraiding journalists and opinion leaders who tried to apply common moral standards to pro- and anti-U.S. groups.
Reagan administration officials would insist that human rights crimes by the pro-U.S. side of a conflict should not be criticized as severely as similar crimes by the anti-U.S. side because that would apply a “false moral equivalence,” suggesting that the United States was no better than its enemies. To take such a position was regarded as unpatriotic or disloyal.
Along those lines, one of Raymond’s sub-groups, “the Active Measures Working Group,” met “to develop an action plan to turn Soviet active measures back onto the Soviets, i.e. take the offensive.”
Attendees included Raymond and another CIA operations veteran, Ray Warren, a Casey favorite who was placed inside the Pentagon; Herb Romerstein, a former investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities; and Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative who was an aide to Elliott Abrams at the State Department and later led the Office of Public Diplomacy on Latin America.
The Active Measures Working Group brought in from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Special Forces, personnel who specialized in psychological operations, such as a “Col. Paddock (OSD/PSYOP),” a “Mr. Hunter (1st PSYOP Bn)”; a “Colonel Dunbar (1st PYSOP Bn),” and “Lieutenant Colonel Jacobowitz (DOD/PSYOP).”
In previously disclosed documents, Lt. Col. Daniel “Jake” Jacobowitz was listed as the executive officer inside the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy on Latin America, where the White House also placed five psychological warfare specialists from the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The main job of these psy-ops specialists was to pick out incidents in Central America that would rile the U.S. public. In a memo dated May 30, 1985, Jacobowitz explained that the military men were scouring embassy cables “looking for exploitable themes and trends, and [would] inform us of possible areas for our exploitation.”
The June 19, 1986, minutes of the working group stated that “Colonel Paddock reported that OSD/PSYOP has been working on some unclassified publications, mainly on Central American issues, in cooperation with State’s Office of Latin American Public Diplomacy.”
At the working group meeting on July 31, 1986, Col. Paddock passed out copies of a joint Pentagon/State Department publication, “The Challenge to Democracy in Central America,” which was then being disseminated to members of Congress, the Washington press corps and the American public.
The publication sought to portray Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government as a state sponsor of terrorism, a major propaganda theme that the Reagan administration was using to justify its covert support of the contra rebels, who themselves were infamous for acts of terrorism, including extra-judicial executions and attacks on civilian targets.
Chastising the Enemy
Despite the evidence that it was the Reagan administration that was knee-deep in propaganda, the psyop official, “Mr. Hunter” – whose fuller identity remained classified in the meeting’s minutes – briefed the group on what he described as anti-U.S. “disinformation campaigns,” including “charges of immoral conduct by US troops in Honduras.”
In the world of Raymond’s psyop meetings, nearly every negative piece of news about U.S. activities in the world was dismissed as “Soviet active measures,” presumably even the fact that some U.S. troops operating in Honduras engaged in what surely could be called “immoral conduct.”
Bureaucratic deception was also part of the secret operations inside the NSC. In the mid-1980s, I was told by one senior NSC official that a key early document laying the groundwork for raising money for the contra war in defiance of a congressional prohibition was marked as a “non-paper,” so it would not be regarded as an official document (even though it clearly was).
Similarly, Raymond sent one Nov. 28, 1986, memo to an unnamed CIA officer reminding him to attend what Raymond called “the next non-group meeting.” So it appears that Reagan’s NSC sought to get around requirements for safeguarding historical records by circulating “non-papers” and meeting in “non-groups.”
Raymond’s domestic propaganda activities were explored by congressional Iran-Contra investigators in 1987. However, their findings faced fierce internal opposition from House and Senate Republicans.
In a bid for bipartisanship, House Democratic committee chairman Lee Hamilton agreed to a compromise in which a chapter on Raymond’s operation was dropped while a few segments were inserted elsewhere in the final report.
That meant, however, that the American people never got to read the chapter’s stunning conclusion: that the Reagan administration had built a domestic covert propaganda apparatus managed by a CIA disinformation specialist working out of the National Security Council.
“One of the CIA’s most senior covert action operators was sent to the NSC in 1983 by CIA Director [William] Casey where he participated in the creation of an inter-agency public diplomacy mechanism that included the use of seasoned intelligence specialists,” the chapter’s conclusion stated.
“This public/private network set out to accomplish what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might attempt – to sway the media, the Congress, and American public opinion in the direction of the Reagan administration’s policies.”
Tracing the Origins
The 84-page “lost” chapter, entitled “Launching the Private Network,” traced the origins of the propaganda network to President Reagan’s “National Security Decision Directive 77” in January 1983 as his administration sought to promote its foreign policy, especially its desire to oust Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. [There appear to have been several versions of this “lost chapter.” This one I found in congressional files.]
The chapter also cited a Jan. 13, 1983, memo by then-NSC Advisor Clark regarding the need for non-governmental money to advance the cause. “We will develop a scenario for obtaining private funding,” Clark wrote.
However, what the newly discovered documents from Raymond’s files make clear is that the initiative dated back to 1982 and was pushed more by Casey and his CIA associates than by the NSC advisor.
The “lost chapter” does explain how Reagan administration officials soon began crossing lines that separated an overseas propaganda program from a domestic propaganda operation aimed at U.S. public opinion, the American press and congressional Democrats who opposed contra funding.
“An elaborate system of inter-agency committees was eventually formed and charged with the task of working closely with private groups and individuals involved in fundraising, lobbying campaigns and propagandistic activities aimed at influencing public opinion and governmental action,” the draft chapter said.
The draft chapter doesn’t initially use Raymond’s name – presumably because his work at the CIA remained classified – but its description of the CIA officer in charge of the NSC-run propaganda operation clearly refers to Raymond.
According to the draft report, the CIA officer [Raymond] had served as Director of the Covert Action Staff at the CIA from 1978 to 1982 and was a “specialist in propaganda and disinformation.”
“The CIA official discussed the transfer with [CIA Director] Casey and NSC Advisor William Clark that he be assigned to the NSC [in June 1982] and received approval for his involvement in setting up the public diplomacy program along with his intelligence responsibilities,” the chapter said.
“In the early part of 1983, documents obtained by the Select [Iran-Contra] Committees indicate that the Director of the Intelligence Staff of the NSC [Raymond] successfully recommended the establishment of an inter-governmental network to promote and manage a public diplomacy plan designed to create support for Reagan Administration policies at home and abroad.”
Raymond “helped to set up an elaborate system of inter-agency committees,” the draft chapter said, adding:
“In the Spring of 1983, the network began to turn its attention toward beefing up the Administration’s capacity to promote American support for the Democratic Resistance in Nicaragua [the contras] and the fledgling democracy in El Salvador.
“This effort resulted in the creation of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Department of State (S/LPD), headed by Otto Reich,” a right-wing Cuban exile from Miami.
Though Secretary of State George Shultz wanted the office under his control, President Reagan insisted that Reich “report directly to the NSC,” where Raymond oversaw the operations as a special assistant to the President and the NSC’s director of international communications, the chapter said.
“At least for several months after he assumed this position, Raymond also worked on intelligence matters at the NSC, including drafting a Presidential Finding for Covert Action in Nicaragua in mid-September” 1983, the chapter said.
In other words, although Raymond was shifted to the NSC staff in part to evade prohibitions on the CIA influencing U.S. public opinion, his intelligence and propaganda duties overlapped for a time as he was in the process of retiring from the spy agency.
And despite Raymond’s formal separation from the CIA, he acted toward the U.S. public much like a CIA officer would in directing a propaganda operation in a hostile foreign country. He was the go-to guy to keep this political action operation on track.
“Reich relied heavily on Raymond to secure personnel transfers from other government agencies to beef up the limited resources made available to S/LPD by the Department of State,” the chapter said.
“Personnel made available to the new office included intelligence specialists from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. On one occasion, five intelligence experts from the Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were assigned to work with Reich’s fast-growing operation. …
“White House documents also indicate that CIA Director Casey had more than a passing interest in the Central American public diplomacy campaign.”
The chapter cited an Aug. 9, 1983, memo written by Raymond describing Casey’s participation in a meeting with public relations specialists to brainstorm how “to sell a ‘new product’ – Central America – by generating interest across-the-spectrum.”
In an Aug. 29, 1983, memo, Raymond recounted a call from Casey pushing his P.R. ideas. Alarmed at a CIA director participating so brazenly in domestic propaganda, Raymond wrote that “I philosophized a bit with Bill Casey (in an effort to get him out of the loop)” but with little success.
The chapter added: “Casey’s involvement in the public diplomacy effort apparently continued throughout the period under investigation by the Committees,” including a 1985 role in pressuring Congress to renew contra aid and a 1986 hand in further shielding S/LPD from the oversight of Shultz.
Casey even monitored personnel changes. A Raymond-authored memo to Casey in August 1986 described the shift of S/LPD – then run by neoconservative theorist Kagan who had replaced Reich – to the control of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, which was headed by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, another prominent neoconservative.
Oliver North and Friends
Another important figure in the pro-contra propaganda was NSC staffer Oliver North, who spent a great deal of his time on the Nicaraguan public diplomacy operation even though he is better known for arranging secret arms shipments to the contras and to Iran’s radical Islamic government, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.
The draft chapter cited a March 10, 1985, memo from North describing his assistance to CIA Director Casey in timing the disclosures of pro-contra news “aimed at securing Congressional approval for renewed support to the Nicaraguan Resistance Forces.”
However, the discarding of the draft chapter and the ultimate failure of the Iran-Contra report to fully explain the danger of CIA-style propaganda intruding into the U.S. political process had profound future consequences. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the Casey-Raymond media operations of the 1980s helped bring the Washington press corps to its knees, where it has remained most of the time through today.
To soften up the Washington press corps, Reich’s S/LPD targeted U.S. journalists who reported information that undermined the administration’s propaganda themes. Reich sent his teams out to lobby news executives to remove or punish out-of-step reporters – with a disturbing degree of success.
In March 1986, Reich reported that his office was taking “a very aggressive posture vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile press” and “did not give the critics of the policy any quarter in the debate.” [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
Though Casey died in 1987 and Raymond in 2003, some U.S. officials implicated in the propaganda operations remain important Washington figures, bringing the lessons of the 1980s into the new century.
For instance, Elliott Abrams – though convicted of misleading Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush – returned as deputy advisor to George W. Bush’s NSC, where Abrams oversaw U.S.-Middle East policy. Oliver North landed a show on Fox News. Otto Reich was an adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 (and was a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012).
Kagan writes influential op-eds for the Washington Post and was a senior associate at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace (before moving to the Brookings Institution. Kagan also co-founded the Project for the New American Century, which advocated for the invasion of Iraq, and he is the husband of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who oversaw the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Family Business of Perpetual War.”]
Oliver North landed a show on Fox News. Otto Reich was an adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 (and was a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012).
Beyond the individuals, the manipulative techniques that were refined in the 1980s – especially the skill of exaggerating foreign threats – have proved durable. Such scare tactics brought large segments of the American population into line behind the Iraq War in 2002-03.
It took years and many thousands of deaths before Americans realized they had been manipulated by deceptive propaganda, that their perceptions had been managed.
In his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Bush’s former White House press secretary Scott McClellan described Iraq War propaganda tactics that would have been familiar to Casey and Raymond.
From his insider vantage point, McClellan cited the White House’s “carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval” – and he called the Washington press corps “complicit enablers.”
The documents in Raymond’s files at the Reagan Library offer a glimpse at how these manipulative techniques took root.
[For more recent document discoveries at the Reagan Library, including the recruitment of publisher Rupert Murdoch, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Murdoch, Scaife and CIA Propaganda” and “How Roy Cohn Helped Rupert Murdoch.”]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
The news that Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Russian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) the Moscow-Helsinki Group, will be returning to the Presidential Council for Human Rights, has been heralded by many in the liberal establishment in Russia as a victory for their cause. Indeed, as an adversary of President Putin on numerous occasions, Alekseyeva has been held as a symbol of the pro-Western, pro-US orientation of Russian liberals who see in Russia not a power seeking independence and sovereignty from the global hegemon in Washington, but rather a repressive and reactionary country bent on aggression and imperial revanchism.
While this view is not one shared by the vast majority of Russians – Putin’s approval rating continues to hover somewhere in the mid 80s – it is most certainly in line with the political and foreign policy establishment of the US, and the West generally. And this is precisely the reason that Alekseyeva and her fellow liberal colleagues are so close to key figures in Washington whose overriding goal is the return of Western hegemony in Russia, and throughout the Eurasian space broadly. For them, the return of Alekseyeva is the return of a champion of Western interests into the halls of power in Moscow.
Washington and Moscow: Competing Agendas, Divergent Interests
Perhaps one should not overstate the significance of Alekseyeva as an individual. This Russian ‘babushka’ approaching 90 years old is certainly still relevant, though clearly not as active as she once was. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire her spirit and desire to engage in political issues at the highest levels. However, taking the pragmatic perspective, Alekseyeva is likely more a figurehead, a symbol for the pro-Western liberal class, rather than truly a militant leader of it. Instead, she represents the matriarchal public face of a cohesive, well-constructed, though relatively marginal, liberal intelligentsia in Russia that is both anti-Putin, and pro-Western.
There could be no better illustration of this point than Alekseyeva’s recent meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland while Ms. Nuland was in Moscow for talks with her Russian counterparts. Alekseyeva noted that much of the meeting was focused on anti-US perception and public relations in Russia, as well as the reining in of foreign-sponsored NGOs, explaining that, “[US officials] are also very concerned about the anti-American propaganda. I said we are very concerned about the law on foreign agents, which sharply reduced the effectiveness of the human rights community.”
There are two distinctly different, yet intimately linked issues being addressed here. On the one hand is the fact that Russia has taken a decidedly more aggressive stance to US-NATO machinations throughout its traditional sphere of influence, which has led to demonization of Russia in the West, and the entirely predictable backlash against that in Russia. According to the Levada Center, nearly 60 percent of Russians believe that Russia has reasons to fear the US, with nearly 50 percent saying that the US represents an obstacle to Russia’s development. While US officials and corporate media mouthpieces like to chalk this up to “Russian propaganda,” the reality is that these public opinion numbers reflect Washington and NATO’s actions, not their image, especially since the US-backed coup in Ukraine; Victoria Nuland herself having played the pivotal role in instigating the coup and setting the stage for the current conflict.
So while Nuland meets with Alekseyeva and talks of the anti-US perception, most Russians correctly see Nuland and her clique as anti-Russian. In this way, Alekseyeva, fairly or unfairly, represents a decidedly anti-Russian position in the eyes of her countrymen, cozying up to Russia’s enemies while acting as a bulwark against Putin and the government.
And then of course there is the question of the foreign agents law. The law, enacted in 2012, is designed to make transparent the financial backing of NGOs and other organizations operating in Russia with the financial assistance of foreign states. While critics accuse Moscow of using the law for political persecution, the undeniable fact is that Washington has for years used such organizations as part of its soft power apparatus to be able to project power and exert influence without ever having to be directly involved in the internal affairs of the targeted country.
From the perspective of Alekseyeva, the law is unjust and unfairly targets her organization, the Moscow-Helsinki Group, and many others. Alekseyeva noted that, “We are very concerned about the law on foreign agents, which sharply reduced the effectiveness of the human rights community… [and] the fact the authorities in some localities are trying more than enough on some human rights organizations and declare as foreign agents those who have not received any foreign money or engaged in politics.”
While any abuse of the law should rightly be investigated, there is a critical point that Alekseyeva conveniently leaves out of the narrative: the Moscow-Helsinki Group (MHG) and myriad other so-called “human rights” organizations are directly supported by the US State Department through its National Endowment for Democracy, among other sources. As the NED’s own website noted, the NED provided significant financial grants “To support [MHG’s] networking and public outreach programs. Endowment funds will be used primarily to pay for MHG staff salaries and rental of a building in downtown Moscow. Part of the office space rented will be made available at a reduced rate to NGOs that are closely affiliated with MHG, including other Endowment grantees.” The salient point here is that the salary of MHG staff, the rent for their office space, and other critical operating expenses are directly funded by the US Government. For this reason, one cannot doubt that the term “foreign agent” directly and unequivocally applies to Alekseyeva’s organization.
But of course, the Moscow-Helsinki Group is not alone as more than fifty organizations have now registered as foreign agents, each of which having received significant amounts from the US or other foreign sources. So, an objective analysis would indicate that while there may be abuses of the law, as there are of all laws everywhere, by and large it has been applied across the board to all organizations in receipt of foreign financial backing.
It is clear that the US agenda, under the cover of “democracy promotion” and “NGO strengthening” is to weaken the political establishment in Russia through various soft power means, with Alekseyeva as the symbolic matriarch of the human rights complex in Russia. But what of Putin’s government? Why should they acquiesce to the demands of Russian liberals and allow Alekseyeva onto the Presidential Council for Human Rights?
The Russian Strategy
Moscow is clearly playing politics and the public perception game. The government is very conscious of the fact that part of the Western propaganda campaign is to demonize Putin and his government as “authoritarian” and “violators of human rights.” So by allowing the figurehead of the movement onto the most influential human rights-oriented body, Moscow intends to alleviate some of that pressure, and take away one of the principal pieces of ammunition for the anti-Russia propagandists.
But there is yet another, and far more significant and politically savvy reason for doing this: accountability. Putin is confident in his position and popularity with Russians so he is not at all concerned about what Alekseyeva or her colleagues might say or do on the Council. On the other hand, Putin can now hold Russian liberals accountable for turning a blind eye to the systematic violations of human rights by the Kiev regime, particularly in Donbass.
One of the primary issues taken up by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in 2014 was the situation in Ukraine. In October 2014, President Putin, addressing the Council stated:
[The developments in Ukraine] have revealed a large-scale crisis in terms of international law, the basic norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. We see numerous violations of Articles 3, 4, 5, 7 and 11 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of Article 3 of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948. We are witnessing the application of double standards in the assessment of crimes against the civilian population of southeastern Ukraine, violations of the fundamental human rights to life and personal integrity. People are subjected to torture, to cruel and humiliating punishment, discrimination and illegal rulings. Unfortunately, many international human rights organisations close their eyes to what is going on there, hypocritically turning away.
With these and other statements, Putin placed the issue of Ukraine and human rights abuses squarely in the lap of the council and any NGOs and ostensible “human rights” representatives on it. With broader NGO representation, it only makes it all the more apparent. It will now be up to Alekseyeva and Co. to either pursue the issues, or discredit themselves as hypocrites only interested in subjects deemed politically damaging to Moscow, and thus advantageous to Washington. This is a critical point because for years Russians have argued that these Western-funded NGOs only exist to demonize Russia and to serve the Western agenda; the issue of Ukraine could hammer that point home beyond dispute.
And so, the return of Alekseyeva, far from being a victory for the NGO/human rights complex in Russia, might finally force them to take the issue of human rights and justice seriously, rather than using it as a convenient political club to bash Russians over the head with. Perhaps Russian speakers in Donetsk and Lugansk might actually get some of the humanitarian attention they so rightfully deserve from the liberals who, despite their rhetoric, have shown nothing but contempt for the bleeding of Donbass, seeing it as not a humanitarian catastrophe, but a political opportunity. Needless to say, with Putin and the Russian government in control, the millions invested in these organizations by Washington have turned out to be a bad investment.
The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch – the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the idea that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country’s government, but rather with those supported by Washington.
In an editorial titled “Cuban Expectations in a New Era” (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba’s integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution.
The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a “historically tight grip on Cuban society.” They may be alluding to a Cuban version of the U.S.’s political police, the FBI, who for decades spied on nonviolent activists representing African Americans, Puerto Rican nationalists, the anti-war movement, animal rights and environmental groups to prevent social change through political activities. Many of the activists illegally targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program still remain incarcerated as political prisoners. But the Times doesn’t mention any such Cuban equivalent.
The fault of Cuba’s financial situation is placed squarely on the country’s government. The Times editorial only mentions the 51-year-old embargo by stating that “untangling the web of sanctions the United States imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law.” Yet they then claim “the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”
They might have mentioned the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion since the policy was implemented. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with 3rd countries remain firmly in place.
But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population. They don’t mention that in October 187 other nations voted in the UN for the 23rd straight year to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba as illegal and demand that it end.
In her study “Unexpected Cuba,” economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba’s leaders have damaged their country’s economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.
“The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions,” Morris writes. “Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions – it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment – its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data.”
The New York Times then claims that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders “amplify their voices.” They claim that such dissidents “have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.”
There is no evidence that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed rather than that most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them. In a presumptuous attempt to delegitimize the Cuban government, the Times claims it is actually the dissident contra-revolution that represents the majority of the Cuban people. “The government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents’ aspirations are shared by most Cubans,” the Times editorial states.
Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case anywhere other than in Washington’s fantasies. The dissidents’ aspirations are not even stated. One assumes this refers to the objective of repealing socialism and instituting capitalism, which is also the official policy of the U.S. government. Mere changes to Cuba’s economy within the socialist structure is not a dissident position. Such changes and improvements are proposed and debated at all levels of Cuban politics, and have been openly embraced by Raúl Castro since he assumed the Presidency.
That the majority of the Cuban people share dissidents’ desire for capitalism is a bold claim. It infers that the Cuban government is not representative of its people, but rather forcibly imposes a socioeconomic system they oppose.
People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.
“I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life,” he said. “Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable.” Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries.
But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system – either willingly or under pressure from the United States – these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact.
It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the “dissidents” are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba’s revolutionary movement until a sudden change, notes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.
“It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past,” Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a colleague and an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has paid handsomely.
“Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity,” Lamrani writes.
Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.
Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family or education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system.
Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the “Cuban bin Laden,” who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airline and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.
The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde noted that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government.
Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: “For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character.”
The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests from the time of the Platt amendment until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that the Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. Anyone who agrees with the government’s official line, regardless of their questionable motives or failure to resonate inside the country, is seen as Cuba’s true political representative class. It may take another 55 years to realize this is simply not the case.
Caracas – On the eve of the much-anticipated Summit of the Americas, Senior White House Advisor Benjamin J.Rhodes downplayed his government’s designation of Venezuela as a threat to U.S. national security on Tuesday.
On March 9, President Obama issued an Executive Order branding Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” and imposing new sanctions, a move which has been roundly condemned by a multitude of nations and multilateral blocs, including UNASUR, the Non-Aligned Movement, CELAC, and the G77+China.
In response to the global outcry, the White House has appeared to soften its tone, with Rhodes dismissing the aggressive language of the Executive Order as “completely pro forma”.
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Rhodes stated in a press conference. The Presidential advisor did not, however, indicate that the U.S. administration had any intention of rescinding the executive decree.
The White House statement comes just days prior to the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which may mark a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations as the former continues to rebuild diplomatic ties with Cuba.
However, this supposed watershed moment has been vastly overshadowed by the Obama administration’s aggressive measures against Venezuela which have united the region behind Caracas and are likely to be a key point of contention at the summit.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has launched a petition campaign to gather 10 million signatures demanding the repeal of Obama’s Executive Order, of which 9 million have been collected so far. The Venezuelan head of state intends to personally deliver the signatures to the U.S. president during the summit this weekend.
Opposition Leaders Seek to Discredit Venezuela
While the U.S. attempts to downplay its aggressive posture against Venezuela, Venezuelan opposition leaders head to Panama where they plan to denounce the Bolivarian nation before the gathering of regional leaders.
The Panama summit will feature various parallel fora that will give “civil society” leaders the opportunity to present on the political and social situation in their respective countries.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed far right opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, will be given four minutes to present on Venezuela, which she claims is “on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe“. Lopez, awaits trial for his role in leading last year’s violent opposition protests known as “the Exit” which sought the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, taking the lives of at least 43 people.
Also attending is Rocio San Miguel of Citizen Control, who is a journalist specializing in military affairs closely linked to the U.S. embassy and various programs of USAID. She has actively worked to discredit President Nicolas Maduro’s relationship with the Venezuelan military as well as coordinates the provision of U.S. funds to anti-government groups.
Representing the Civil Consortium for Development and Justice, attendee Carlos Ponce Silen is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RELIAL), which funnels the millions it receives in National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funding to Venezuelan opposition groups.
According to U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks, Ponce Silen organized a meeting between the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) acting country representative and right wing student leaders in 2008.
Participating on behalf of the Venezuelan Institute of Social and Political Studies (INVESP) is Carlos Correa, director of the NGO Public Space, which has been revealed by a Freedom of Information Act request to be one of the principal fronts for over $4 million in NED funds channelled to Venezuelan opposition journalists between 2008 and 2010.
The Venezuelan opposition has received hundreds of millions in U.S. funding over the past decade, including $14 million between 2013 and 2014 alone, provided via USAID and the NED.
The foreign policy quandary facing President Barack Obama is that America’s traditional allies in the Middle East – Israel and Saudi Arabia – along with Official Washington’s powerful neocons have effectively sided with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State out of a belief that Iran represents a greater threat to Israeli and Saudi interests.
But what that means for U.S. interests is potentially catastrophic. If the Islamic State continues its penetration toward Damascus in league with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and topples the Syrian government, the resulting slaughter of Christians, Shiites and other religious minorities – as well as the risk of a major new terrorist base in the heart of the Middle East – could force the United States into a hopeless new war that could drain the U.S. Treasury and drive the nation into a chaotic and dangerous decline.
To avoid this calamity, Obama would have to throw U.S. support fully behind the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, precipitate a break with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and withstand a chorus of condemnations from influential neocon pundits, Republican politicians and hawkish Democrats. Influenced by Israeli propaganda, all have pushed for ousting Assad in a “regime change.”
But the world has already had a grim peek at what an Islamic State/Al-Qaeda victory would look like. The Islamic State has reveled in its ability to provoke Western outrage through acts of shocking brutality, such as beheadings, incinerations, stonings, burning of ancient books and destruction of religious sites that the group deems offensive to its fundamentalist version of Islam.
Over the Easter holiday, there were reports of the Islamic State destroying a Christian Church in northeastern Syria and taking scores of Christians as prisoners. An Islamic State victory in Syria would likely mean atrocities on a massive scale. And, there are signs that Al-Qaeda might bring the Islamic State back into the fold if it achieves this success, which would let Al-Qaeda resume its plotting for its own outrages through terrorist attacks on European and U.S. targets.
Though Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State have been estranged in recent months, the groups were reported to be collaborating in an assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus. United Nations spokesman Chris Gunness told the Associated Press, “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”
The AP also reported that “Palestinian officials and Syrian activists say the Islamic State militants fighting in Yarmouk were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.”
Syria has become a frontline in the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam, with Saudi Arabia a longtime funder of the Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabism, which gave rise to Al-Qaeda under the direction of Saudi Osama bin Laden. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, and elements of the Saudi royal family and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been identified as Al-Qaeda’s financiers. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]
The Israeli-Saudi Alliance
In seeking “regime change” in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been joined by Israel whose leaders have cited Syria as the “keystone” in the pro-Iranian Shiite “strategic arc” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. In making that point in September 2013, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad and the Shiites.
“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
In June 2014, Oren expanded on this Israeli position. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.
On March 3, in the speech to a cheering U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also argued that the danger from Iran was much greater than from the Islamic State (or ISIS). Netanyahu dismissed ISIS as a relatively minor annoyance with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” when compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.
He claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. … We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”
Netanyahu’s rhetoric was clearly hyperbole – Iran’s troops have not invaded any country for centuries; Iran did come to the aid of the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq in its fight with the Islamic State, but the “regime change” in Baghdad was implemented not by Iran but by President George W. Bush and the U.S. military; and it’s preposterous to say that Iran “dominates” Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa – though Iran is allied with elements in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
But hyperbole or not, Netanyahu’s claims became marching orders for the American neocons, the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party. Republicans and some Democrats denounced President Obama’s support for international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program while some prominent neocons were granted space on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and New York Times to advocate bombing Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – with U.S. logistical and intelligence help – began bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been fighting a long civil war and had captured several major cities. The Houthis, who practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam called Zaydism, deny that they are proxies of Iran although some analysts say the Iranians have given some money and possibly some weapons to the Houthis.
However, by attacking the Houthis, the Saudis have helped Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regain its footing, including creating an opportunity to free scores of Al-Qaeda militants in a prison break and expanding Al-Qaeda’s territory in the east.
Increasingly, the choice facing Obama is whether to protect the old alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia – and risk victories by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – or expand on the diplomatic opening from the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program to side with Shiite forces as the primary bulwark against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
For such a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy, President Obama could use the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assisted in brokering agreements in 2013 in which Syria’s Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons and in which Iranian leaders signed an interim agreement on their nuclear program that laid the groundwork for the April 2 framework deal.
In 2013, those moves by Putin infuriated Official Washington’s neoconservatives who were quick to identify Ukraine as a possible flashpoint between the United States and Russia. With Putin and Obama both distracted by other responsibilities, neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland teamed up with neocon National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and neocon Sen. John McCain to help fund and coordinate the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The resulting civil war and Russian intervention in Crimea drove a deep wedge between Obama and Putin.
The mainstream U.S. news media got fully behind the demonization of Putin, making a rapprochement over Ukraine nearly impossible. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to broker a settlement of the conflict in February – known as Minsk-2 – the right-wing government in charge in Kiev, reflecting Nuland’s hard-line position, sabotaged the deal by inserting a poison pill that effectively required the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to surrender before Kiev would conduct elections under its control. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Poison Pill for Peace Talks.”]
The Kiev regime is also incorporating some of its neo-Nazi militias into the regular army while putting neo-Nazi extremists into key military advisory positions. Though the U.S. media has put on blinders so as not to notice the Swastikas and SS symbols festooning the Azov and other battalions, the reality has been that the neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have been the fiercest fighters in killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Wretched US Journalism on Ukraine.”]
On Saturday, German Economic News reported that the Ukrainian army appointed right-wing extremist Dimitri Jarosch as an official adviser to the army leadership as the Kiev regime – now bolstered by U.S. military equipment and training and receiving billions of dollars in Western aid – prepares for renewed fighting with eastern Ukraine.
The problem with Obama has been that – although he himself may be a “closet realist” willing to work with adversarial countries like Iran and Russia – he has not consistently challenged the neocons and their junior partners, the liberal interventionists. The liberals are particularly susceptible to propaganda campaigns involving non-governmental organizations that claim to promote “human rights” or “democracy” but have their salaries paid by the congressionally financed and neocon-run National Endowment for Democracy or by self-interested billionaires like financier George Soros.
The effectiveness of these NGOs in using social media and other forums to demonize targeted governments, as happened in Ukraine during the winter of 2013-14, makes it hard for honest journalists and serious analysts to put these crises in perspective without endangering their careers and reputations. Over the past year, anyone who questioned the demonization of Putin was denounced as a “Putin apologist” or a “Putin bootlicker.” Thus, many people not wanting to face such slurs either went along with the propagandistic “group think” or kept quiet.
Obama is one person who knows better but hasn’t been willing to contest Official Washington’s narratives portraying Putin or Assad or the Iranians or the Houthis as the devils incarnate. Obama has generally gone with the flow, joining the condemnations, but then resisting at key moments and refusing to implement some of the most extreme neocon ideas – such as bombing the Syrian army or shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine’s right-wing regime or forsaking negotiations and bombing Iran.
Pandering to Israel and Saudi Arabia
In other words, Obama has invested huge amounts of time and energy in trying to maintain positive relations with Netanyahu and the Saudi royals while not fully joining in their regional war against Iran and other Shiite-related governments and movements. Obama understands the enormous risk of allowing Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to gain firm control of a major Middle Eastern country.
Of course, if that happens in, say, Syria, Obama would be blamed for not overthrowing the Assad regime earlier, as if there actually was a “moderate opposition” that could have withstood the pressure of the Sunni extremists. Though the neocons and liberal interventionists have pretended that this “moderate” force existed, it was always marginal when it came to applying real power.
Whether one likes it or not, the only real force that can stop an Al-Qaeda or Islamic State victory is the Syrian army and the Assad regime. But Obama chose to play the game of demanding that “Assad must go” – to appease the neocons and liberal interventionists – while recognizing that the notion of a “moderate” alternative was never realistic.
As Obama told the New York Times Thomas L. Friedman in August 2014, the idea that the U.S. arming the “moderate” rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Behind Obama’s Chaotic Foreign Policy.”]
But Obama may be running out of time in his halfway strategy of half-heartedly addressing the real danger that lies ahead if the Islamic State and/or Al-Qaeda ride the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel to a victory in Syria or Iraq or Yemen.
If the United States has to recommit a major military force in the Middle East, the war would have little hope of succeeding but it would drain American resources – and eviscerate what’s left of the constitutional principles that founded the American Republic.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
“A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
NED founding father, Allen Weinstein
The U.S. government and military have a long history of interfering in the affairs of numerous countries in Latin American and the Caribbean.
By the end of the 19th century, there had been at least 10 U.S. military interventions across the hemisphere including Argentina (1890), Chile (1891), Haiti (1891), Panama (1895), Cuba (1898), Puerto Rico (1898) and Nicaragua (1894, 1896, 1898 and 1899).
From this time onward, successive U.S. administrations applied different strategies and tactics for involvement in the region as a means to secure and protect its geopolitical and economic interests. However, only recently has there been wider acknowledgement about the role that U.S. funding to nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, particularly from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), plays in furthering U.S. foreign policy. For example, in 2012 governments of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) collectively signed a resolution to expel USAID from each of the signing countries. Those countries included Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
Created by the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the NED operates as a foundation that provides grants for “democracy promotion.” The foundation is structured as an umbrella with an almost corporatist flavor, housing four other organizations reflecting U.S. sectoral and party interest: the U.S. labor affiliated American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) and Chamber of Commerce linked Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), along with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both of which reflect Democrat and Republican affiliations, respectively.
In many ways the NED resembles previous CIA efforts in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to provide mostly public money for secret operations aimed to bolster pro-U.S. governments and movements abroad. In South America for example, between 1975 and 1978 the U.S. helped with the creation and implementation of Operation Condor. The U.S. provided right-wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador with technical and military support for the goal of hunting down and killing political opponents. Some estimate that Operation Condor killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people.
In 1986, then president of the NED Carl Gershman explained to the New York Times, “We should not have to do this kind of work covertly … It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the C.I.A. We saw that in the 60s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.”
U.S. citizens unknowingly fund the NED with public money. The U.S. government allocates part the budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the U.S. State Department to the NED – which is most of the NED’s funding source. Although it receives practically all of its funding from the U.S. government, the NED is itself an NGO headed by a Board of Directors. The current board includes:
- Political economist, author and free market universalist Francis Fukuyama,
- Elliott Abrams, former deputy assistant and deputy national security adviser on Middle East policy in the administration of President George W. Bush,
- Moises Naim, Venezuelan Minister of Trade and Industry during the turbulent early 1990s and former Executive Director of the World Bank, and
- Former Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush (2005 – 2006) and Vice Chairmanship at Goldman Sachs Group, Robert B. Zoellick.
The scope of activity of the NED is truly impressive. According to the NED website, it supports more than 1,000 NGO projects in more than 90 countries.
At its inception in the early 1980s, its funding allocation was set at US$18 million and reached its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Allocations for 2014 and 2015 have been approved for US$103.5 million, while over US$7 million was directed primarily to opposition organizations in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in 2013.
Within the U.S. State Department Justification of Request documents which outline the reasons for funding requests, it is clear that funding priorities in Latin America and the Caribbean reflect the NED’s modern strategy of overtly carrying out old covert objectives.
Michel Chossudovsky, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Ottawa in Canada, sees this funding as an element in “manufacturing dissent” against governments that the U.S. government dislikes. However, these funders do not work alone. “The NED (and USAID) are entities linked with the U.S. state department, but they operate in tandem with a whole of other organizations,” said Chossudovsky.
In May 2010 the Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue released their report Assessing Democracy Assistance in Venezuela which revealed that in addition to NED and USAID funding, a broad range of private and European based foundations funded opposition-aligned NGOs in the country with between US$40-50 million annually.
According to Dan Beeton, International Communications Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., NED funds in Latin American have been directed at “a lot of what are kind of the old guard political entities that are now kind of discredited,” such as the Trade Union Confederation of Venezuela (CTV), which was instrumental in the 2002 coup in Venezuela, as well as older political parties that are now marginal forces in their country’s political landscapes in spite of their considerable outside funding.
The United States Agency for International Development
Created in 1961 as a foreign assistance program under President John F. Kennedy, USAID commands a much larger budget and broader scope than NED. While U.S. diplomats continue to stress that USAID funding does not have a political basis, USAID documents nonetheless acknowledge its role in “furthering America’s interests” while carrying out “U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States.” But critics are skeptical of USAID’s missionary work, noting how their strategy has changed over time.
“(USAID’s) mandate is to provide development aid and historically it has provided development aid, tied into debt negotiations and so on. Subsequently with the evolution of the development aid program it has redirected its endeavours on funding NGOs,” said Chossudovsky.
While the range of activities undertaken by NGOs can be broad and some of these programs may not have political intentions, Beeton nonetheless argues that this funding “ultimately can and often does serve a political end when the U.S. wants these grantees to help it fulfill its goals in these countries.”
The extent of U.S. political ambitions recently came into the international spotlight with the revelation that USAID had secretly spent US$1.6 million to fund a social messaging network in Cuba called ZunZuneo, with the stated purpose of “renegotiat(ing) the balance of power between the state and society.” The project was headed up by Joe McSpedon of the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).
Other USAID officials accused of active political meddling in the affairs of sovereign countries include regional head Mark Feierstein. According to Venezuelan investigative journalist Eva Golinger, in 2013 Feierstein met Venezuelan opposition figures including right-wing politicians Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges and Ramon Guillermo Avelado as well as political strategist Juan Jose Rendon to devise a plan to undermine the Venezuelan government.
At the State Department budgetary hearing, Feierstein also confirmed “a long-standing program in place to support those who are advocating and fighting on behalf of democracy and human rights in Venezuela … and we are prepared to continue those under any scenario.”
State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks also brought to light previous activities by USAID/OTI in Venezuela, including the development of a five point, anti-government strategy for U.S. embassy activities, as well as the confirmation that grantees had been active in promoting street demonstrations in 2009.
Machado, a former anti-Chavista National Assembly member, was among the signatories of the Carmona decree following the Venezuelan coup in 2002, which abolished the legislative and judiciary powers, as well as the constitution. She was also among the most prominent promoters of last year’s opposition violence that claimed the lives of 43 people.
In Bolivia, local rural workers’ groups and the government expelled the U.S.-based Chemonics International Inc. after their US$2.7 million USAID-funded “Strengthening Democracy” program was accused of financing destabilization attempts against the government. Chemonics operates in approximately 150 countries, offering various technical services and “consulting.”
The Bolivian government publicly outlined what they argued was proof of USAID-funded programs to mobilize the indigenous population against the government, in particular an indigenous march protesting the construction of a highway. USAID funded programs were active in these areas, and had funded some of the leading organizations such as the Eastern Bolivia Indigenous Peoples and Communities Confederation (CIDOB).
“USAID refused to reveal who it was funding and the Bolivian government had strong reasons to believe that it had ties and coordination with opposition groups in the country which at the time was involved in violence and destructive activities aimed at toppling the Morales government,” said Beeton. “Now we know through WikiLeaks that that’s what really was going on.”
President Evo Morales also revealed transcripts of phone calls between the anti-highway march organizers and U.S. embassy officials. The U.S. embassy confirmed the calls, but explained that they were merely trying to familiarize themselves with the country’s political and social situation.
Officials also denounced the lack of accountability to the Bolivian government or to the recipient constituencies of USAID funds.
The head of the Eastern Bolivia Indigenous Peoples and Communities Confederation (CIDOB), Lazaro Taco, confirmed that they had received “external support for our workshops,” but would not identify the source.
These and other USAID activities led Bolivian President Evo Morales to claim that the agency was conspiring against his government. The government expelled USAID from the country in May 2013, while USAID denied any wrongdoing.
In June of 2012, an Ecuadorian daily revealed that 4 NGOs based in Ecuador were recipients of over US$1.8 million for a project called Active Citizens, whose political bend was critical of the Correa government.
Shortly afterwards, the Technical Secretariat for International Cooperation (Seteci) of Ecuador announced it would also investigate the “Costas y Bosques” (Coasts and Forests) conservation project, which received US$13.3 million in funding from USAID. The project, based in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Guayas and Manabí, was also being undertaken by the Chemonics International Inc, the same organization expelled from Bolivia.
Mireya Cardenas, National Secretary of Peoples, Social Movements and Citizen Participation, said that “there is every reason to consider USAID a factor of disturbance that threatens the sovereignty and political stability (of Ecuador)”. While the U.S. Ambassador in Ecuador Adam Namm tried to reassert that USAID did not fund political parties, he did confirm that certain opposition groups such as Fundamedios was funded “indirectly.”
In November 2013 the Ecuadorean government sent a letter to the U.S. embassy in the country’s capital Quito, ordering that “USAID must not execute any new activity” in Ecuador. USAID canceled its aid shortly after.
For Beeton, “lack of transparency is probably the biggest problem (with USAID) in that it really prevents the governments in the host countries from finding something objectionable, or even coordinating better”. This was in large part the principle concern from the Ecuadorian Seteci, who questioned the extent of expenditures on certain project and the lack of coordination.
In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, CEPR conducted an extensive evaluation of USAID funding to Haiti, including the history of funding, and found transparency and coordination with local government to be a significant problem, especially when the local government experienced tensions with U.S. foreign policy.
“The U.S. government has been perfectly happy to not coordinate with governments, and that has a lot to do with politics… it was under [former Haitian President] Aristide really saw a lot of assistance bypass the Haitian government and go to NGO, including violent opposition groups and so called democratic opposition groups much like what you are seeing recently in Venezuela and Bolivia,” said Beeton.
For 2013, the combined NED and USAID allocations for Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia alone totaled over US$60 million, with the bulk of these funds destined to Cuba and Ecuador. For the government and progressive social movements of these countries, there is a growing concern that these funds could be used to undertake what Chossudovsky qualified as a “consistent process of destabilizing government as part of non-conventional warfare, meaning you don’t send in the troops but you destabilize the government through so called colored revolutions or infiltrations.”
Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy stress their commitment to freedom of thought and democracy, but both cooperated with a CIA-organized propaganda operation in the 1980s, according to documents released by Ronald Reagan’s presidential library.
One document showed senior Freedom House official Leo Cherne clearing a draft manuscript on political conditions in El Salvador with CIA Director William Casey and promising that Freedom House would make requested editorial “corrections and changes” – and even send over the editor for consultation with whomever Casey assigned to review the paper.
In a “Dear Bill” letter dated June 24, 1981, Cherne wrote: “I am enclosing a copy of the draft manuscript by Bruce McColm, Freedom House’s resident specialist on Central America and the Caribbean. This manuscript on El Salvador was the one I had urged be prepared and in the haste to do so as rapidly as possible, it is quite rough. You had mentioned that the facts could be checked for meticulous accuracy within the government and this would be very helpful. …
“If there are any questions about the McColm manuscript, I suggest that whomever is working on it contact Richard Salzmann at the Research Institute [an organization where Cherne was executive director]. He is Editor-in-Chief at the Institute and the Chairman of the Freedom House’s Salvador Committee. He will make sure that the corrections and changes get to Rita Freedman who will also be working with him. If there is any benefit to be gained from Salzmann’s coming down at any point to talk to that person, he is available to do so.”
Cherne, who was chairman of Freedom House’s executive committee, also joined in angling for financial support from a propaganda program that Casey initiated in 1982 under one of the CIA’s top covert action specialists, Walter Raymond Jr., who was moved to President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff.
In an Aug. 9, 1982 letter to Raymond, Freedom House executive director Leonard R. Sussman wrote that “Leo Cherne has asked me to send these copies of Freedom Appeals. He has probably told you we have had to cut back this project to meet financial realities. … We would, of course, want to expand the project once again when, as and if the funds become available. Offshoots of that project appear in newspapers, magazines, books and on broadcast services here and abroad. It’s a significant, unique channel of communication” – precisely the focus of Raymond’s work.
According to the documents, Freedom House remained near the top of Casey’s thinking when it came to the most effective way to deliver his hardline policy message to the American people in ways they would be inclined to accept, i.e., coming from ostensibly independent sources with no apparent ties to the government.
On Nov. 4, 1982, Raymond wrote to NSC Advisor William Clark about the “Democracy Initiative and Information Programs,” stating that “Bill Casey asked me to pass on the following thought concerning your meeting with [right-wing billionaire] Dick Scaife, Dave Abshire [then a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board], and Co.
“Casey had lunch with them today and discussed the need to get moving in the general area of supporting our friends around the world. By this definition he is including both ‘building democracy’ … and helping invigorate international media programs. The DCI [Casey] is also concerned about strengthening public information organizations in the United States such as Freedom House. …
“A critical piece of the puzzle is a serious effort to raise private funds to generate momentum. Casey’s talk with Scaife and Co. suggests they would be very willing to cooperate. … Suggest that you note White House interest in private support for the Democracy initiative.”
The importance of the CIA and White House secretly arranging private funds was that these supposedly independent voices would then reinforce and validate the administration’s foreign policy arguments with a public that would assume the endorsements were based on the merits of the White House positions, not influenced by money changing hands.
In effect, like snake-oil salesmen who plant a few cohorts in the audience to whip up excitement for the cure-all elixir, Reagan administration propagandists salted some well-paid “private” individuals around Washington to echo White House propaganda “themes.”
In a Jan. 25, 1983 memo, Raymond wrote, “We will move out immediately in our parallel effort to generate private support” for “public diplomacy” operations. Then, on May 20, 1983, Raymond recounted in another memo that $400,000 had been raised from private donors brought to the White House Situation Room by U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick. According to that memo, the money was divided among several organizations, including Freedom House and Accuracy in Media, a right-wing media attack organization.
When I wrote about that memo in my 1992 book, Fooling America, Freedom House denied receiving any White House money or collaborating with any CIA/NSC propaganda campaign. In a letter, Freedom House’s Sussman called Raymond “a second-hand source” and insisted that “this organization did not need any special funding to take positions … on any foreign-policy issues.”
But it made little sense that Raymond would have lied to a superior in an internal memo. And clearly, Freedom House remained central to the Reagan administration’s schemes for aiding groups supportive of its Central American policies, particularly the CIA-organized Contra war against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
In an Aug. 9, 1983 memo, Raymond outlined plans to arrange private backing for that effort. He said USIA Director Wick “via [Australian publishing magnate Rupert] Murdock [sic], may be able to draw down added funds” to support pro-Reagan initiatives. Raymond recommended “funding via Freedom House or some other structure that has credibility in the political center.” [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Murdoch, Scaife and CIA Propaganda.”]
Questions of Legality
Raymond remained a CIA officer until April 1983 when he resigned so – in his words – “there would be no question whatsoever of any contamination of this” propaganda operation to woo the American people into supporting Reagan’s policies.
But Raymond, who had been one of the CIA’s top propaganda and disinformation specialists, continued to act toward the U.S. public much like a CIA officer would in directing a propaganda operation in a hostile foreign country.
Raymond fretted, too, about the legality of Casey’s role in the effort to influence U.S. public opinion because of the legal prohibition against the CIA influencing U.S. policies and politics. Raymond confided in one memo that it was important “to get [Casey] out of the loop,” but Casey never backed off and Raymond continued to send progress reports to his old boss well into 1986.
It was “the kind of thing which [Casey] had a broad catholic interest in,” Raymond said during his Iran-Contra deposition in 1987. He then offered the excuse that Casey undertook this apparently illegal interference in domestic affairs “not so much in his CIA hat, but in his adviser to the president hat.”
As the Casey-Raymond propaganda operation expanded during the last half of Reagan’s first term, Freedom House continued to keep Raymond abreast of its work on Central America, with its attitudes dovetailing with Reagan administration’s policies particularly in condemning Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Freedom House also kept its hand out for funding. On Sept. 15, 1984, Bruce McColm – writing from Freedom House’s Center for Caribbean and Central American Studies – sent Raymond “a short proposal for the Center’s Nicaragua project 1984-85. The project combines elements of the oral history proposal with the publication of The Nicaraguan Papers,” a book that would disparage Sandinista ideology and practices.
“Maintaining the oral history part of the project adds to the overall costs; but preliminary discussions with film makers have given me the idea that an Improper Conduct-type of documentary could be made based on these materials,” McColm wrote, referring to a 1984 film that offered a scathing critique of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
“Such a film would have to be the work of a respected Latin American filmmaker or a European. American-made films on Central America are simply too abrasive ideologically and artistically poor.”
McColm’s three-page letter reads much like a book or movie pitch, trying to interest Raymond in financing the project: “The Nicaraguan Papers will also be readily accessible to the general reader, the journalist, opinion-maker, the academic and the like. The book would be distributed fairly broadly to these sectors and I am sure will be extremely useful.
“They already constitute a form of Freedom House samizdat, since I’ve been distributing them to journalists for the past two years as I’ve received them from disaffected Nicaraguans.”
McColm proposed a face-to-face meeting with Raymond in Washington and attached a six-page grant proposal seeking $134,100.
According to the grant proposal, the project would include “free distribution to members of Congress and key public officials; distribution of galleys in advance of publication for maximum publicity and timely reviews in newspapers and current affairs magazines; press conferences at Freedom House in New York and at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.; op-ed circulation to more than 100 newspapers …; distribution of a Spanish-language edition through Hispanic organizations in the United States and in Latin America; arrangement of European distribution through Freedom House contacts.”
The documents that I found at the Reagan library do not indicate what subsequently happened to this proposal. McColm did not respond to an email request for comment about the Nicaraguan Papers plan or Cherne’s earlier letter to Casey about editing McComb’s manuscript. Raymond died in 2003; Cherne died in 1999; and Casey died in 1987.
But it is clear that Freedom House became a major recipient of funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, which Casey and Raymond helped create in 1983.
In 1983, Casey and Raymond focused on creating a funding mechanism to support Freedom House and other outside groups that would engage in propaganda and political action that the CIA had historically organized and paid for covertly. The idea emerged for a congressionally funded entity that would serve as a conduit for this money.
But Casey recognized the need to hide the strings being pulled by the CIA. “Obviously we here [at CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate,” Casey said in one undated letter to then-White House counselor Edwin Meese III – as Casey urged creation of a “National Endowment.”
A document in Raymond’s files offered examples of what would be funded, including “Grenada — 50 K — To the only organized opposition to the Marxist government of Maurice Bishop (The Seaman and Waterfront Workers Union). A supplemental 50 K to support free TV activity outside Grenada” and “Nicaragua — $750 K to support an array of independent trade union activity, agricultural cooperatives.”
The National Endowment for Democracy took shape in late 1983 as Congress decided to also set aside pots of money — within NED — for the Republican and Democratic parties and for organized labor, creating enough bipartisan largesse that passage was assured.
But some in Congress thought it was important to wall the NED off from any association with the CIA, so a provision was included to bar the participation of any current or former CIA official, according to one congressional aide who helped write the legislation.
This aide told me that one night late in the 1983 session, as the bill was about to go to the House floor, the CIA’s congressional liaison came pounding at the door to the office of Rep. Dante Fascell, a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a chief sponsor of the bill.
The frantic CIA official conveyed a single message from CIA Director Casey: the language barring the participation of CIA personnel must be struck from the bill, the aide recalled, noting that Fascell consented to the demand, not fully recognizing its significance.
What the documents at the Reagan library now make clear is that lifting the ban enabled Raymond and Casey to stay active shaping the decisions of the new funding mechanism.
The aide said Fascell also consented to the Reagan administration’s choice of Carl Gershman to head the National Endowment for Democracy, again not recognizing how this decision would affect the future of the new entity and American foreign policy.
Gershman, who had followed the classic neoconservative path from youthful socialism to fierce anticommunism, became NED’s first (and, to this day, only) president. Though NED is technically independent of U.S. foreign policy, Gershman in the early years coordinated decisions on grants with Raymond at the NSC.
For instance, on Jan. 2, 1985, Raymond wrote to two NSC Asian experts that “Carl Gershman has called concerning a possible grant to the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (CAD). I am concerned about the political dimension to this request. We should not find ourselves in a position where we have to respond to pressure, but this request poses a real problem to Carl.
“Senator [Orrin] Hatch, as you know, is a member of the board. Secondly, NED has already given a major grant for a related Chinese program.”
Besides clearing aside political obstacles for Gershman, Raymond also urged NED to give money to Freedom House in a June 21, 1985 letter obtained by Professor John Nichols of Pennsylvania State University.
A Tag Team
From the start, NED became a major benefactor for Freedom House, beginning with a $200,000 grant in 1984 to build “a network of democratic opinion-makers.” In NED’s first four years, from 1984 and 1988, it lavished $2.6 million on Freedom House, accounting for more than one-third of its total income, according to a study by the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs that was entitled “Freedom House: Portrait of a Pass-Through.”
Over the ensuing three decades, Freedom House has become almost an NED subsidiary, often joining NED in holding policy conferences and issuing position papers, both organizations pushing primarily a neoconservative agenda, challenging countries deemed insufficiently “free,” including Syria, Ukraine (in 2014) and Russia.
Indeed, NED and Freedom House often work as a kind of tag-team with NED financing “non-governmental organizations” inside targeted countries and Freedom House berating those governments if they crack down on U.S.-funded NGOs.
For instance, on Nov. 16, 2012, NED and Freedom House joined together to denounce legislation passed by the Russian parliament that required recipients of foreign political money to register with the government.
Or, as NED and Freedom House framed the issue: the Russian Duma sought to “restrict human rights and the activities of civil society organizations and their ability to receive support from abroad. … Changes to Russia’s NGO legislation will soon require civil society organizations receiving foreign funds to choose between registering as ‘foreign agents’ or facing significant financial penalties and potential criminal charges.”
Of course, the United States has a nearly identical Foreign Agent Registration Act that likewise requires entities that receive foreign funding and seek to influence U.S. government policy to register with the Justice Department or face possible fines or imprisonment.
But the Russian law would impede NED’s efforts to destabilize the Russian government through funding of political activists, journalists and civic organizations, so it was denounced as an infringement of human rights and helped justify Freedom House’s rating of Russia as “not free.”
The Russian government’s concerns were not entirely paranoid. On Sept. 26, 2013, Gershman, in effect, charted the course for the crisis in Ukraine and the greater neocon goal of regime change in Russia. In a Washington Post op-ed, Gershman called Ukraine “the biggest prize” and explained how pulling it into the Western camp could contribute to the ultimate defeat of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents,” Gershman wrote. “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
With NED’s budget now exceeding $100 million a year — and with many NGOs headquartered in Washington — Gershman has attained the status of a major paymaster for the neocon movement with his words carrying extra clout because he can fund or de-fund many a project.
Thus, three decades after CIA Director William Casey and his propaganda specialist Walter Raymond Jr. struggled to arrange funding for Freedom House and other organizations that would promote an interventionist agenda, their brainchild – the National Endowment for Democracy – was still around picking up those tabs.
Anti-government protests in Venezuela that seek regime change have been led by several individuals and organizations with close ties to the US government. Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado- two of the public leaders behind the violent protests that started in February – have long histories as collaborators, grantees and agents of Washington. The National Endowment for Democracy “NED” and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have channeled multi-million dollar funding to Lopez’s political parties Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, and Machado’s NGO Sumate and her electoral campaigns.
These Washington agencies have also filtered more than $14 million to opposition groups in Venezuela between 2013 and 2014, including funding for their political campaigns in 2013 and for the current anti-government protests in 2014. This continues the pattern of financing from the US government to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela since 2001, when millions of dollars were given to organizations from so-called “civil society” to execute a coup d’etat against President Chavez in April 2002. After their failure days later, USAID opened an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas to, together with the NED, inject more than $100 million in efforts to undermine the Chavez government and reinforce the opposition during the following 8 years.
At the beginning of 2011, after being publically exposed for its grave violations of Venezuelan law and sovereignty, the OTI closed its doors in Venezuela and USAID operations were transferred to its offices in the US. The flow of money to anti-government groups didn’t stop, despite the enactment by Venezuela’s National Assembly of the Law of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination at the end of 2010, which outright prohibits foreign funding of political groups in the country. US agencies and the Venezuelan groups that receive their money continue to violate the law with impunity. In the Obama Administration’s Foreign Operations Budgets, between $5-6 million have been included to fund opposition groups in Venezuela through USAID since 2012.
The NED, a “foundation” created by Congress in 1983 to essentially do the CIA’s work overtly, has been one of the principal financiers of destabilization in Venezuela throughout the Chavez administration and now against President Maduro. According to NED’s 2013 annual report, the agency channeled more than $2.3 million to Venezuelan opposition groups and projects. Within that figure, $1,787,300 went directly to anti-government groups within Venezuela, while another $590,000 was distributed to regional organizations that work with and fund the Venezuelan opposition. More than $300,000 was directed towards efforts to develop a new generation of youth leaders to oppose Maduro’s government politically.
One of the groups funded by NED to specifically work with youth is FORMA (http://www.forma.org.ve), an organization led by Cesar Briceño and tied to Venezuelan banker Oscar Garcia Mendoza. Garcia Mendoza runs the Banco Venezolano de Credito, a Venezuelan bank that has served as the filter for the flow of dollars from NED and USAID to opposition groups in Venezuela, including Sumate, CEDICE, Sin Mordaza, Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones and FORMA, amongst others.
Another significant part of NED funds in Venezuela from 2013-2014 was given to groups and initiatives that work in media and run the campaign to discredit the government of President Maduro. Some of the more active media organizations outwardly opposed to Maduro and receiving NED funds include Espacio Publico, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), Sin Mordaza and GALI. Throughout the past year, an unprecedented media war has been waged against the Venezuelan government and President Maduro directly, which has intensified during the past few months of protests.
In direct violation of Venezuelan law, NED also funded the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), via the US International Republican Institute (IRI), with $100,000 to “share lessons learned with [anti-government groups] in Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia… and allow for the adaption of the Venezuelan experience in these countries”. Regarding this initiative, the NED 2013 annual report specifically states its aim: “To develop the ability of political and civil society actors from Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia to work on national, issue-based agendas for their respective countries using lessons learned and best practices from successful Venezuelan counterparts. The Institute will facilitate an exchange of experiences between the Venezuelan Democratic Unity Roundtable and counterparts in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina. IRI will bring these actors together through a series of tailored activities that will allow for the adaptation of the Venezuelan experience in these countries.”
IRI has helped to build right-wing opposition parties Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, and has worked with the anti-government coalition in Venezuela since before the 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez. In fact, IRI’s president at that time, George Folsom, outwardly applauded the coup and celebrated IRI’s role in a press release claiming, “The Institute has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups to help Venezuelans forge a new democratic future…”
Detailed in a report published by the Spanish institute FRIDE in 2010, international agencies that fund the Venezuelan opposition violate currency control laws in order to get their dollars to the recipients. Also confirmed in the FRIDE report was the fact that the majority of international agencies, with the exception of the European Commission, are bringing in foreign money and changing it on the black market, in clear violation of Venezuelan law. In some cases, as the FRIDE analysis reports, the agencies open bank accounts abroad for the Venezuelan groups or they bring them the money in hard cash. The US Embassy in Caracas could also use the diplomatic pouch to bring large quantities of unaccounted dollars and euros into the country that are later handed over illegally to anti-government groups in Venezuela.
What is clear is that the US government continues to feed efforts to destabilize Venezuela in clear violation of law. Stronger legal measures and enforcement may be necessary to ensure the sovereignty and defense of Venezuela’s democracy.
It was almost ten years ago when, before the House International Relations Committee, I objected to the US Government funding NGOs to meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine. At the time the “Orange Revolution” had forced a regime change in Ukraine with the help of millions of dollars from Washington.
At that time I told the Committee:
We do not know exactly how many millions—or tens of millions—of dollars the United States government spent on the presidential election in Ukraine. We do know that much of that money was targeted to assist one particular candidate, and that through a series of cut-out non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—both American and Ukrainian—millions of dollars ended up in support of the presidential candidate…
I was worried about millions of dollars that the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its various related organizations spent to meddle in Ukraine’s internal affairs. But it turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Last December, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland gave a speech in which she admitted that since 1991 the US government has:
[I]nvested more than 5 billion dollars to help Ukraine…in the development of democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society and a good form of government.
This is the same State Department official who was caught on tape just recently planning in detail the overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
That five billion dollars appears to have bought a revolution in Ukraine. But what do the US taxpayers get, who were forced to pay for this interventionism? Nothing good. Ukraine is a bankrupt country that will need tens of billions of dollars to survive the year. Already the US-selected prime minister has made a trip to Washington to ask for more money.
And what will the Ukrainians get? Their democracy has been undermined by the US-backed coup in Kiev. In democracies, power is transferred peacefully through elections, not seized by rebels in the streets. At least it used to be.
The IMF will descend on Ukraine to implement yet another of its failed rescue plans, which enrich the well-connected and international bankers at the expense of the local population. The IMF adds debt, organizes sweetheart deals for foreign corporations, and demands that the local population accept “austerity” in exchange for “reform” that never seems to produce the promised results.
The groundwork for this disaster has been laid by NED, USAID, and the army of NGOs they have funded over the years in Ukraine.
Supporters of NED and its related organizations will argue that nothing is wrong with sending US dollars to “promote democracy” overseas. The fact is, however, that NED, USAID, and the others have nothing to do with promoting democracy and everything to do with destroying democracy.
It is not democracy to send in billions of dollars to push regime change overseas. It isn’t democracy to send in the NGOs to re-write laws and the constitution in places like Ukraine. It is none of our business.
How should we promote democracy overseas? First, we should stop the real isolationists — those who seek to impose sanctions and blockades and restrictions that impede our engagement overseas. We can promote democracy with a US private sector that engages overseas. A society that prospers through increased trade ties with the US will be far more likely to adopt practices and policies that continue that prosperity and encourage peace.
In 2005, arguing against funding NED in the US foreign assistance authorization bill, I said:
The National Endowment for Democracy…has very little to do with democracy. It is an organization that uses US tax money to actually subvert democracy, by showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas. It underwrites color-coded ‘people’s revolutions’ overseas that look more like pages out of Lenin’s writings on stealing power than genuine indigenous democratic movements.
Sadly, matters are even worse now. To promote democracy overseas, NED and all other meddling US government funded NGOs should be disbanded immediately.
As protests have been taking place in Venezuela the last couple of weeks, it is always good to check on the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Empire’s “stealth” destabilizer. What has the NED been up to in Venezuela?
Before going into details, it is important to note what NED is and is not. First of all, it has NOTHING to do with the democracy we are taught in civics classes, concerning one person-one vote, with everyone affected having a say in the decision, etc. (This is commonly known as “popular” or grassroots democracy.) The NED opposes this kind of democracy.
The NED promotes top-down, elite, constrained (or “polyarchal”) democracy. This is the democracy where the elites get to decide the candidates or questions suitable to go before the people—and always limiting the choices to what the elites are comfortable with. Then, once the elites have made their decision, THEN the people are presented with the “choice” that the elites approve. And then NED prattles on with its nonsense about how it is “promoting democracy around the world.”
This is one of the most cynical uses of democracy there is. It’s notable even in what my friend Dave Lippmann calls “Washington Deceit.”
The other thing to note about NED is that it is NOT independent as it claims, ad nauseum. It was created by the US Congress, signed into US law by President Ronald Reagan (that staunch defender of democracy), and it operates from funds provided annually by the US Government.
However, its Board of Directors is drawn from among the elites in the US Government’s foreign policy making realm. Past Board members have included Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, General Wesley K. Clark, and Paul Wolfowitz. Today’s board can be found at http://www.ned.org/about/board; most notable is Elliot Abrams of Reagan Administration fame.
In reality, NED is part of the US Empire’s tools, and “independent” only in the sense that no elected presidential administration can directly alter its composition or activities, even if it wanted to. It’s initial project director, Professor Allen Weinstein of Georgetown University, admitted in the Washington Post of September 22, 1991, that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
In other words, according to Professor William Robinson in his 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy, NED is a product of US Government foreign policy shift from “earlier strategies to contain social and political mobilization through a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus” to a process of “democracy promotion,” whereby “the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein, assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements.” What this means, as I note in my 2010 book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, “is that instead of waiting for a client government to be threatened by its people and then responding, US foreign policy shifted to intervening in the civil society of a country ‘of interest’ (as defined by US foreign policy goals) before popular mobilization could become significant, and by supporting certain groups and certain politicians, then channel any potential mobilization in the direction desired by the US Government.”
Obviously, this also means that these “civil society” organizations can be used offensively as well, against any government the US opposes. NED funding, for example, was used in all of the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and, I expect, currently in the Ukraine as well as elsewhere.
How do they operate? They have four “institutes” through which they work: the International Republican Institute (currently headed by US Senator John McCain), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (currently headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), the Center for International Private Enterprise (the international wing of the US Chamber of Commerce), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the foreign policy operation of the AFL-CIO, with Richard Trumka the head of its Board of Directors.
As I documented in my book, ACILS had been indirectly involved in the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela by participating in meetings with leaders later involved in the coup beforehand, and then denying afterwards the involvement of the leaders of the right-wing labor organization (CTV) in the coup, leaders of an organization long affiliated with the AFL-CIO. We also know NED overall had been active in Venezuela since 1997.
The NED and its institutes continue to actively fund projects in Venezuela today. From the 2012 NED Annual Report (the latest available), we see they have provided $1,338,331 to organizations and projects in Venezuela that year alone: $120,125 for projects for “accountability”; $470,870 for “civic education”; $96,400 for “democratic ideas and values”; $105,000 for “freedom of information”; $92,265 for “human rights”; $216,063 for “political processes”; $34,962 for “rule of law”; $45,000 for “strengthening political institutions”; and $153,646 for Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).
Additionally, however, as found on the NED “Latin American and Caribbean” regional page, NED has granted $465,000 to ACILS to advance NED objectives of “freedom of association” in the region, with another $380,000 to take place in Venezuela and Colombia. This is in addition to another $645,000 to the International Republican Institute, and $750,000 to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
The irony of these pious claims for “freedom of association,” etc., is that Venezuela has developed public participation to one of the highest levels in the world, and has one of the most free media in the world. Even with massive private TV media involvement in the 2002 coup, the government did not take away their right to broadcast afterward.
In other words, NED and its institutes are not active in Venezuela to help promote democracy, as they claim, but in fact, to act against popular democracy in an effort to restore the rule of the elite, top-down democracy. They want to take popular democracy away from those nasty Chavistas, and show who is boss in the US Empire. This author bets they fail.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, and is author of AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, and KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994. He can be reached through his web site at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.
Analysis from National Endowment for Democracy Used in The Atlantic, with Significant Errors and Omissions
This month, readers of The Atlantic were treated to a lengthy article documenting alarming threats to democracy in certain Latin American countries with progressive and leftist heads of government. The piece, written by Kurt Weyland and titled “Why Latin America is Becoming Less Democratic,” is riddled with significant errors and mischaracterizations. Perhaps even worse, editors at The Atlantic didn’t make clear that the article was first published in a “journal” that is funded by the U.S. government.
The original article was published in the Journal of Democracy, which has long focused on providing analysis to justify U.S. government intervention abroad. The Journal of Democracy is an official publication of the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) International Forum for Democratic Studies. Although nominally a “nongovernmental” organization, the NED receives most of its funding from the U.S. Congress. In 1991, Allen Weinstein, who helped found and then became the NED’s acting president, told the Washington Post, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA” .
Some examples of the NED’s work include using U.S. government resources to fund groups and individuals involved in the short-lived 2002 coup d’état in Venezuela, and two years later funding organizers of the recall effort against then-president Hugo Chávez. One of the NED’s core grantees is the International Republican Institute, which played a major role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Haiti in 2004.
These are just a few examples that highlight the NED’s disreputable history in Latin America, which would take far more space than a blog post to tell. While it clearly would have been worth noting the source of the article, the article itself is full of both factual errors and egregious mischaracterizations. To keep this post brief, I’ll only review a few of the most egregious errors here.
- Weyland writes: “Since the third wave reached Latin America in 1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations.”
This statement is only reasonable if one completely ignores the U.S. government’s role in the region, which constituted a threat to democracy that was neither “temporary” nor limited to “individual nations.” Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. conducted a massive and well-organized campaign, especially in Central America, using Cold War pretexts to install and support leaders who would foster favorable conditions for U.S. business interests.
In Nicaragua, the campaign involved massive illegal military aid to the contra paramilitary forces who used those weapons to kill health care workers, teachers and elected officials in their fight against the democratically-elected Sandinista government, bringing condemnation from the World Court, as well as Amnesty International, Americas Watch and other human rights groups and international bodies.
At the same time, the U.S.-backed Guatemalan General José Efraín Ríos Montt, massacred and tortured the people of Guatemala — with U.N. estimates indicating over 200,000 were killed or disappeared in acts of genocide. The same Cold War premise of fighting “communists” was used to justify large-scale atrocities in El Salvador and Honduras. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the U.S. supported brutal dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Brazil, and other countries, and militarily invaded Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). More recently, of course, the U.S. supported coups in Venezuela, Honduras and Haiti.
It could not be more clear that democracy in Latin America is threatened and actually has been compromised on many occasions by the U.S.’s foreign policy, especially in the post-1978 period that Weyland names. Rewriting history to minimize and erase these events serves the interests of the U.S. government, so it is perhaps no surprise that publications like the Journal of Democracy carry out this work diligently, but when government propaganda makes its way into independent publications like The Atlantic without comment, it is cause for alarm, especially when there are numerous factual errors.
- Weyland writes that “Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (2007-), whose fervent supporters take inspiration from Chávez, is eyeing constitutional changes and renewed reelection.”
Fact check: President Cristina Fernández has not said anything to this effect. She has proposed constitutional amendments focused on reforms to the judiciary, and she has already addressed the Argentine congress specifically, saying that she is not planning to pursue reforms that would allow her to run for a third consecutive term. Weyland would be right in noting that some of her supporters floated the idea of a third term, but Weyland’s claim as written is simply not true. If this seems like a minor point, consider that Honduran ex-president Manuel Zelaya’s support for a non-binding referendum on a constituent assembly was misreported in the media as a bid to extend his presidency and was used as a justification for his removal both within Honduras and internationally. Weyland perpetuates this myth, saying that Zelaya “was stopped” before he could “boost the presidency’s powers and pave the way toward indefinite reelection to that office.” By presenting the coup that removed Zelaya as an event that forestalled a nondemocratic turn, in particular saying nothing about events following the coup, much of Weyland’s argument supposedly in favor of democracy in Latin America is rendered moot.
- “That Venezuela had already fallen under nondemocratic rule was confirmed in October 2012 by Chávez’s unfair reelection, achieved with the help of intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus.”
The 2012 elections in Venezuela were declared free and fair by election accompanying groups and by monitors such as the Carter Center, which noted that “the whole opposition leadership, including, most importantly, Capriles himself, unequivocally reject those claims [of election fraud favoring Chávez], stating that the results reflected the will of the electorate.” Journalists and human rights watchers monitoring the electoral process praised the system while giving detailed reports about what they saw.
- “With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has an attractive face.”
In sweeping statements such as this one, Weyland casts doubt on both the electoral victories and the policies of progressive and left governments in Latin America. He suggests that the people’s will is not represented in the official outcomes of national elections, and even if left-wing politicians seem popular that is because they trick and/or intimidate citizens and do not deliver on promises to the poor and other disenfranchised sectors of society.
Actually, these are not elections whose legitimacy is seriously questioned by any but those on the extreme right. And the implication that progressive and left governments are limiting their policies to “progressive rhetoric,” is absurd. The overall trend in the countries that have elected progressive and left leaders has been the enactment of policy alternatives to neoliberalism, and their effect has been large reductions in income inequality, a reduction in poverty, and provision of health care, education and important services to many people who previously could not access them. These policies have included reforming and regulating the financial sector in Ecuador, investing oil profits into social missions in Venezuela, and successfully managing a large financial crisis and debt default in Argentina — resulting in only one quarter of negative economic growth followed by nine years of some of the highest growth in the region.
Weyland’s reference to an “electoral façade” betrays the central goal of the NED: what sociologist William Robinson refers to as “promoting polyarchy.” As opposed to experiments in direct democracy occurring on various levels in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, the NED ultimately promotes only representative forms of democracy, or polyarchy. In Robinson’s definition, this is “a system in which a small group actually rules, and mass participation in decision-making is confined to choosing leaders in elections that are carefully managed by competing elites.” In Venezuela, Chávez’s Bolivarian project did away with a polyarchic system, and across much of the continent NED-backed parties and candidates have failed in election after election. When Washington’s candidates don’t win, often the elections are depicted as illegitimate and sometimes the electoral process is attacked – as seen with the most recent Venezuelan election, or with the U.S.’ interference, via the OAS, in Haiti’s last presidential election.
- “As soon as [Chávez] was elected president of Venezuela, he set about revamping the country’s institutional framework. First, he called a constituent assembly.”
Weyland’s claims here come after stating that “graver and more sustained danger is coming from the leftist variant” of populism than the rightist version, but is the Venezuelan constituent assembly really evidence of anti-democratic tendencies? No again. Calling for a constituent assembly was exactly what Venezuelans elected Chávez to do. Ending the ossified political arrangement known as “Punto Fijo” – in which political parties routinely alternated in and out of power – and calling a constituent assembly were key campaign promises he made ahead of the 1998 elections. Chávez was fulfilling his campaign promises– a much more infrequent phenomenon in the U.S.
- “[Ecuadorean president Rafael] Correa also seized on a 2010 police rebellion—painted by him as a coup attempt—as a pretext for cracking down on independent social and political forces.”
Many observers both in and outside of Ecuador characterize the events of September 30, 2010 as an attempted coup d’état: after assaulting him with tear gas, rebelling police officers later held the president hostage in the hospital where he was being treated. The coup attempt was condemned as such by presidents and representatives of UNASUR, foreign dignitaries such as the president of Spain, and the OAS. Weyland and The Journal of Democracy may be taking the U.S. government’s line, one of the few countries that declined to recognize the events as a coup attempt, even though then-Secretary of State Clinton did issue a statement in expressing “our full support for President Rafael Correa.”
- “Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly organized parties, the leader—often a charismatic figure—establishes face-to-face contact with large number of citizens. In earlier decades, mass rallies were crucial; now-a-days, television allows populists to reach their followers ‘in person.’ Chávez hosted a regular Sunday talk show.”
Calling for respect of “firmly organized parties” in Venezuela in the context of Chávez’s rise in politics obscures that one of the central political problems in Venezuela during the 90s was deep distrust in the main political parties and their “Punto Fijo” arrangement, which Robinson describes as a polyarchic system.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that President Obama has a weekly address on YouTube, and yet he is not derided as an illegitimate president because of his use of social media. Presidents and major politicians all over the world have Twitter and Facebook accounts that they use to communicate with constituents, and many even make appearances on talk shows. Is such “face-to-face contact” somehow nefarious?
- “In Bolivia, the Morales government shut the opposition out of decisive stages of the constitution drafting process.”
Weyland is again telling only half the story, which in this case is worse than none. The truth is that opposition legislators boycotted stages of the constitution drafting process because they disagreed with the direction in which things were going. Bolivia had elected its first indigenous president, with massive support from the country’s social movements, and he was facilitating a transformation of society to one in which a racial minority and tiny elite did not wield power over the majority of Bolivians. Evo Morales’s election drew comparisons to the symbolic end of apartheid in South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela, and the new constitution was compared to the Freedom Charter.
It is not surprising that extreme elements in the opposition boycotted the process of installing a new constitution that cemented the rights of the indigenous majority, and it is misleading to describe these events as a “populist” power-grab.
This has been a brief review of some major claims that Weyland uses in arguing his point, namely that “democracy in the region is facing a sustained, coordinated authoritarian threat” from the progressive and left governments in Latin America. I have detailed not only mischaracterizations and significant omissions, but also argued for more independence in the practice of journalism. One of the responsibilities of a well-functioning press is to clearly indicate when articles are reused from sources funded mostly by the U.S. government.
 Ignatius, David. “Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups.” The Washington Post. Sep 22, 1991: C1. Print.
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