July 28, 1999
Bill Bradley: Pro-Contra Democrat
By Robert Parry
On March 27, 1986, Sen. Bill Bradley strode to the Senate floor and flip-flopped on one of the central foreign-policy issues of the 1980s.
Reversing his previous opposition, the New Jersey Democrat cast a crucial vote for President Reagan's plan to send $100 million in CIA aid to the Nicaraguan contras, a ragtag army already known for cocaine trafficking and terrorist attacks on civilians.
Bradley's vote -- the only pro-contra vote from a Northeastern Democrat -- helped give Reagan a narrow 53-47 victory. Reagan quickly seized on Bradley's switch as a new argument for advancing the contra cause.
In a national address on June 24, 1986, Reagan touted Bradley's name first when listing 10 Democratic senators -- mostly from the South -- who had voted for CIA aid to the contras.
Now, in 1999, as a presidential candidate, Bradley is positioning himself to the left of Vice President Al Gore on some issues as leading Democrats seem to have forgiven -- or simply forgotten about -- Bradley's siding with Reagan on the dramatic issue of contra aid.
Prominent liberals, such as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, are among those who have joined Bradley's campaign.
A review of campaign 2000 news articles in the Lexis-Nexis database found no indication that Bradley has answered any questions about his 1986 pro-contra vote. The only brief references to the vote were in stories noting the slight differences in Senate voting records between Bradley and Al Gore. In Congress, Gore voted against military aid to the contras.
Still, even Gore's supporters have stayed silent on Bradley's pro-contra stance, apparently in line with the long-standing Democratic strategy to avoid questioning the wisdom of Reagan's foreign policies. For the past decade, a common Democratic refrain has been: "We don't want to re-fight those old battles over Central America."
That political judgment also helps explain why Democrats have turned a deaf ear to the CIA's admissions last year that the contras were deeply implicated in the drug trade and that the Reagan administration obstructed criminal investigations of contra-cocaine smuggling.
Theoretically at least, Bradley's support for the drug-smuggling contras could cause him some embarrassment given his other hard-line views against drug traffickers. In 1990, Bradley voted for a Republican-drafted "Drug Kingpin Death Penalty Act," which mandated the death penalty for "drug kingpins" whose activities resulted in deaths even if they did not specifically order any killings.
In a speech to New Jersey constituents, Bradley boasted about his determination to exact the ultimate penalty against major drug traffickers. "I don't have tolerance for those who gain millions off the destruction of a generation," Bradley declared. [The Record, Bergen, N.J., Aug. 23, 1991]
But in 1986, Bradley voted to give "millions" to a contra army that was collaborating with some of the biggest "drug kingpins" in the world, from the drug cartels of Bolivia and Medellin to corrupt military officials in Panama and Honduras.
In a limited review of the problem, the CIA's inspector general identified more than 50 contra entities implicated in the drug trade, including some individuals who reported directly to Reagan's National Security Council and the CIA. [For details, see Lost History or iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998.]
While it's true that many of those details were not well known in 1986, the problem of contra-cocaine trafficking already was an issue of public concern.
On Dec. 20, 1985, an Associated Press dispatch that I co-wrote with my AP colleague Brian Barger disclosed that contra forces based in Costa Rica were helping drug traffickers smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Within weeks of that story, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., launched his initial contra-drug investigation and soon confirmed the outlines of the contra-cocaine problem. At that time, Bradley served on the Senate Intelligence Committee which presumably gave him access to more of the classified information than the press and other senators would have.
Yet, instead of investigating contra corruption, Bradley accepted the Reagan administration's propaganda about the contras as freedom fighters and the Sandinistas as totalitarians who were threatening U.S. national security interests.
"Once the Sandinistas have quashed domestic opposition," Bradley stated in explaining his pro-contra vote, "what is to stop them from subverting their neighbors or bringing in Soviet MiGs and submarines as Cuba has done for years?
The only thing that would stop that is American force. But before I have to face a vote to send American boys to fight in the jungles of Nicaragua, I need to know I did everything possible to avoid that outcome." [NYT, April 19, 1986]
Bradley suggested, too, that his vote would protect "fledgling democracies" in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America.
"We know the Sandinistas will try and destabilize fledgling democracies in Central America," stated Bradley. "We are all aware that they have sent weapons through Honduras to the insurgents in El Salvador. It is in our interest to help these democracies, politically and economically."
In an apparent gesture to his liberal backers, Bradley suggested that he was still uncomfortable with Reagan's pro-contra policies and felt boxed in by the available options.
"I vote for the aid with misgivings and reservations, but we face a genuine dilemma," Bradley said. "In the final analysis, the president has left us little choice but to back the contras."
In his memoirs, Time Present, Time Past, Bradley said he was the member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who oversaw the contra war. He stated that he took responsibility for the panels in-depth oversight.
But Bradley did not display an understanding of the Nicaraguan conflict that went much deeper than the administration's public rationales for a war that the World Court later would condemn as illegal aggression.
In his public explanation of his vote, Bradley made no mention that the Sandinistas had won a national election in 1984, balloting that European observers judged free and fair though Reagan denounced it as a sham.
Bradley also took no note of the ongoing regional "death squad" operations that had killed tens of thousands of dissidents in El Salvador and Guatemala and left the survivors little choice but to take up arms or flee.
Trained by Argentine intelligence officers who introduced the chilling euphemism disappeared to the world, the contras had their own reputation for committing atrocities. Leading human rights groups catalogued contra offenses that involved massacres of farm workers, the raping of Nicaraguan women and the torture-murder of captives.
Bradley's explanation of his March 27 vote tracked closely with dominant neo-conservative arguments of the time, such as those made by The New Republic's March 24 editorial, "The Case for the Contras."
"If in Nicaragua transition to democracy were possible without war, we too would oppose any fighting, the magazine's editors argued. But that option does not exist. Does anyone believe that the Sandinistas will ever peacefully transfer power or permit free allocation of power by election?"
The New Republic soon was promoting Bradley as presidential timber. In an article entitled "Run, Bill, Run," writer Fred Barnes argued that most Democrats are "seen as wimps because they reflexively oppose the use of force. Bradley doesn't have this image problem. He has slipped free of it by backing contra aid and Star Wars." [TNR, Aug. 11, 1986]
New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis was one of the few media voices criticizing Bradley. Lewis objected to the notion that Cold War ends justified barbarous means.
"To fight Communism, we are told, we must turn a blind eye to savagery," Lewis wrote. "Does anyone care? Not many in Ronald Reagan's Washington, evidently.
In the Senate, even a man as sensible on most issues as Bill Bradley of New Jersey has cast a crucial vote for that aid. But I think the American character will tell in the end, and turn us in revulsion from such evil." [NYT, July 31, 1986]
As Bill Bradley attracts more and more liberal Democrats to his banner, Lewis might have been mistaken in his belief that Bradleys pro-contra vote would come back to haunt him.
It seems less and less likely that "a blind eye to savagery" -- or for that matter, to contra-cocaine trafficking -- will prove costly in todays political environment.