May 26, 1999
Reagan & Guatemalas Death Files
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations -- and then sought to cover up the bloody facts.
Reagan's falsification of the historical record was a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvaodor and Nicaragua as well. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at an individual human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his pet "freedom-fighters," Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985. The president called Brody "one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo."
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
In his memoirs, Clarridge recalled that "President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, 'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'" [See Clarridge's A Spy for All Seasons.]
To conceal the truth about the war crimes of Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic program of distorting information and intimidating American journalists.
Called "public diplomacy," the project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National Security Council staff. The explicit goal of the operation was to manage U.S. "perceptions" of the wars in Central America.
The project's key operatives developed propaganda "themes," selected hot buttons to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate and bullied reporters who wouldn't go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of more than 800 men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981.
But Bonner was not alone. Reagan's operatives pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize information about these human rights crimes reaching the American people. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue its anticommunist operations throughout Central America.
Despite the tens of thousands of civilian deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres and genocide, not a single senior military officer in Central America was held accountable for the bloodshed.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped any legal judgment, but remained highly respected figures in Washington. Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have.
The journalists who played along by playing down the atrocities -- the likes of Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer -- saw their careers skyrocket, while those who told the truth suffered severe consequences.
Given that history, it was not surprising that the Guatemalan truth report was treated as a one-day story.
The major American newspapers did cover the findings. The New York Times made it the lead story. The Washington Post played it inside on page A19. Both cited the troubling role of the CIA and other U.S. government agencies in the Guatemalan tragedy. But no U.S. official was held accountable by name.
On March 1, 1999, a strange Washington Post editorial addressed the findings, but did not confront them. One of its principal points seemed to be that President Carter's military aid cut-off to Guatemala was to blame.
The editorial argued that the arms embargo removed "what minimal restraint even a feeble American presence supplied." The editorial made no reference to the 1980s and added only a mild criticism of "the CIA [because it] still bars the public from the full documentation."
Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the editorial ended by stating: "We need our own truth commission."
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
"For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake," Clinton said. [WP, March 11, 1999]
But the sketchy apology appears to be all the Central Americans can expect from El Norte.
Back in Washington, Ronald Reagan remains a respected icon, not a disgraced war criminal. His name is still honored, attached to National Airport and a new federal building. A current GOP congressional initiative would chisel his face into Mount Rushmore.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans and in Africa, the United States is sponsoring international tribunals to arrest and to try human rights violators -- and their political patrons -- for war crimes.